WWII Shark Attacks: What Survivors' Tears Teach Us


What makes men cry? 

It's especially hard to say when it comes to World War II veterans, since they grew up at a time when men tried not to talk much about their pain. We can get hints, though, by paying attention to the words and tears of the survivors of the USS Indianapolis, the navy ship torpedoed by a Japanese submarine toward the end of WWII, a disaster that left about 900 U.S. sailors drifting for days in the Phillipine Sea, suffering from shark attacks, dehydration, and salt-water ingestion.
USS Indianapolis, Wikipedia, Navy Photo 80-G-425615
Whenever Dr. Haynes, the ship's doctor, discovered another sailor had died floating in the water, he'd take off the dead sailor's life jacket and give it to another young man struggling to stay alive. In a Discovery Channel interview given at age 89, Dr. Haynes admitted that he still cries whenever he hears the Lord's Prayer because it reminds him of the Indianapolis:

"And that was hard work, getting an oil-soaked life-jacket off. And then we'd say the Lord's Prayer and then let him go. I, I got to stop going into detail, okay? Because I'll start crying. I don't go to church any more. Not that I'm not a Christian. I'm a Christian and I believe there is a God. But they always say the Lord's Prayer. I'm crying, and I can't do that. And I must have known 100 men on that ship very well. And many of my friends died in my arms. Gave me messages to their wives and all that."

In those final moments at sea, Dr. Haynes paid particular attention to the young men's eyes, as author Doug Stanton notes: "Then he [Dr. Haynes] moved quickly to the next boy. He tapped again; this eye was bloodshot and swollen—a sign, Haynes knew, of edema caused by ingestion of salt water. There was no reflex. It was like touching the blank and glassy eye of a stuffed animal. Haynes had to declare the boy dead" (Doug Stanton, In Harm's Way, p. 200).

I can't help noticing the overlap between this arresting description of the "blank and glassy eye of a stuffed animal" and that famous scene in Jaws where the fisherman Quint describes sharks with a similar analogy with a doll's eyes ("he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye").


Of course, a Hollywood movie and a nonfiction book about actual war events are not the same, so why would both compare dying sailors and living sharks with a toy's eyes? 

I would say it's because all of these beings
dying sailors, sharks, dolls, and stuffed animalsreside on a surreal, unsteady border zone, where it isn't clear if the living are dead or the dead are living. If you'll allow the comparison, it's like when Quint got confused over whether a USS Indianapolis mate floating in the water was still alive. Quint says, "I thought he was asleep. Reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water like a kinda' top. Well, he'd been bitten in half below the waist." Surrounded by death, the buddy seems alive, but only half-way, since sleeping is a mini-death that we all experience at night—except this soldier turns out to be truly dead. Similarly, in the actual Indianapolis disaster, Dr. Haynes can't be sure if the men floating in the water around him are dead or alive, and has to check their eyes to find out. This is also like the eyes of dolls and stuffed animals that seem so uncannily human, yet so artificial at the same time. Researchers call this the uncanny valley, the zone where something artificial is so human-looking that it causes feelings of eeriness and revulsion, a common human reaction to certain robot faces and creepy dolls.

At the deepest, most existential level, this uncanny zone may cause Dr. Haynes and Quint to question the solidity of life and death and reality itself. 



Flickr, Matt Keifer, Flckr

Not that Dr. Haynes said all this. He didn't have to. In fact, he lets us know that, even when he gave that interview at age 89, he was still holding back ("I got to stop going into detail, okay?"). He was not saying everything he could have about those gruesome days and nights floating with the sharks and dead bodies in the water after delivering the atomic bomb.

That's why I'm glad that actor Robert Shaw didn't choke up when he delivered Quint's Indianapolis speech. Quint's delivery honors the sense of restraint that many real WWII veterans show.

Yet that restraint makes their tears even more meaningful. At reunions, the Indianapolis survivors often pour affection all over Chuck Gwinn, the PV-1 pilot who first spotted them floating in the water and called for help. The Indianapolis survivors call him their "angel"—and that makes him cry (Stanton, p. 218).

These WWII veterans remind us that tears connect us with each other. Most animals on earth have eyes, but only humans cry.


Further Reading:


For research on younger generations' reactions to uncannily human-looking robot faces, with more acceptance of these hybrid mixtures, see this short article.

Further evidence for the extreme emotional and physical toll of the Indianapolis's surreal carnage comes from The Longevity Project (Chapter 14), a book on the effects of WWII combat on the mortality rates of surviving U.S. soldiers. The authors found that veterans who fought in the Pacific died at earlier ages than those who fought in Europe. Their explanation for these mortality differences certainly seems relevant to the USS Indianapolis survivors: "The more alien and disturbing the [war] situation, the worse the later health" (p. 189).


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