WWII Shark Attacks: What Survivors' Tears Teach Us

What makes men cry? That's hard to say, even harder when it comes to World War II veterans who grew up at a time when men tried not to talk much about their war experiences. 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 while being attacked by sharks.

USS Indianapolis, Wikipedia, Navy Photo 80-G-425615
The majority of these sailors died of shark attacks, dehydration, salt-water ingestion, and drowning. 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 at age 89, Dr. Haynes admitted that he still cries whenever he hears the Lord's Prayer because it reminds him of those final moments in the water:

"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 swollena 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).
This arresting description reminds me of that famous scene in Jaws where Quint describes the Indianapolis disaster and uses the exact same analogy with a doll's eyes when describing sharks ("lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye").

I hasten to add that it feels crude to compare these veterans' horrifying, real-life experiences with a Hollywood movie. I certainly don't take the comparison lightly. But for better or worse, that Jaws scene is how most Americans have learned about the Indianapolis, and it continues to provide an emotional understanding of war, death, and loss.

So why are the dying sailors and the living sharks described with the same analogy to a doll?

I would say it's because all three reside on a surreal border zone, where it isn't clear if the living are dead or the dead are living. That haunting state of being, caught halfway between this world and the next, causes people to question life and death and reality itself.

Flickr, Mattk1979

Not that Dr. Haynes said all this. He didn't have to. In fact, you sense that he was still holding back, not saying things that he could have said about those gruesome days and nights. That's why I'm glad that the Jaws director (Spielberg) didn't have actor Robert Shaw choke up when he delivered Quint's Indianapolis speech. Quint's delivery honors the sense of restraint that many real WWII veterans show.

But the tears are still there. 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 it 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:
Does the Jaws shark have the eyes of God?

What do Jaws and WWII have in common?

The Longevity Project (Chapter 14), a book that reports on the effects of WWII combat on the mortality rates of survivors. The authors found that survivors who fought in the Pacific were more likely to die earlier than men who fought in Europe. Although they don't specifically discuss the USS Indianapolis survivors, they say, "The more alien and disturbing the [war] situation, the worse the later health" (p. 189).

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