Lost at sea
A World War II survival story highlights God’s sovereignty amid the “impossible”
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A Navy aircraft commander at age 24, Lt. Chuck Gwinn was on the lookout for enemy submarines. Cruising at 3,000 feet, neither Gwinn nor his PV-1 Ventura crew expected to spot the Japanese, though. It was Aug. 2, 1945. This late in the war, all the action was farther north, around the home islands of Japan. And the ho-hum sector Gwinn was patrolling now, about midway between Guam and the Philippines and 350 miles north of Palau, was considered the unofficial backwater of the war.
Sure enough, the sea below the Ventura was as smooth and reflective as a foil sheet. This clashed with Gwinn’s thirst for adventure. And if that weren’t annoying enough, at about 11 a.m. his chief radioman, Bill Hartman, popped up on the intercom: Their new trailing antenna weight had broken off—again.
Gwinn sighed. Turning over control to his co-pilot, he headed aft and kneeled to inspect the antenna through a window in the plane’s deck. Then, quickly, he leaped up again and dashed back to the cockpit. “What’s the matter?” a crewman shouted over the propeller noise. Gwinn shouted back, “Look down and you’ll see!”
Though he didn’t know it yet, Gwinn had spotted the dwindling band of survivors of the sinking of USS Indianapolis. By then, the men had spent five nights and four days floating in the ocean, a few in life rafts, but hundreds with only life vests or nothing at all. Until that day, the Navy hadn’t even realized Indy was missing.
July 30 marks the 78th anniversary of Indy’s sinking, the U.S. Navy’s worst-ever sea disaster. I recently traveled to Benicia, Calif., where 250 people gathered at the old Clock Tower Fortress to honor the ship and her crew. When reunions began in 1960, hundreds of Indy’s 316 survivors attended, and somewhere along the way, a tradition developed: On the last day, the surviving crew and their families held a memorial service. Each survivor in attendance would walk forward and place a rose at a memorial display in honor of his fallen shipmates.
But at this reunion, Harold Bray, 96, walked forward alone. Of the 1,195 men aboard Indianapolis, Harold, a retired and beloved Benicia police officer who more than one errant boy credits with putting him on the straight-and-narrow, is the last man standing. It was poignant to watch Harold shuffle gamely forward, assisted by a walker and his caregiver, to lay the last rose.
Afterward, I found myself reflecting on how God uses those who attend to their ordinary duties, even when they’d rather be doing something else. All the military men I know want to be where the action is. Gwinn and his crew were stuck in what by all accounts was “the rear.” But they hunted enemy subs anyway, even though they were pretty sure none were there. It was amid Gwinn’s faithfulness that God called him to the adventure he longed for—and into the history books—using his diligence to answer the castaways’ literal prayers.
Another rescue pilot, Adrian Marks, would later say the odds of Gwinn’s spotting the survivors were “a billion to one.” In a word, impossible. But God answers believers’ calls even from “the uttermost parts of the sea,” as King David knew (Psalm 139:9).
From that watery mass grave, some men were calling on Him for the first time, again assisted by a man serving God in the course of his ordinary duties. Square-jawed and handsome, survivor Cleatus Lebow was a fiery Christian who played shipboard poker in his spare time and also encouraged his shipmates to trust in Jesus. As he clung to life after Indy sank, Cleatus taught the men around him the Lord’s Prayer.
The second-to-last living survivor, Cleatus died last fall. His ministry in the water reminds me of the man lame from birth who begged Peter and John for alms. “I have no silver and gold,” Peter said, “but what I do have I give to you” (Acts 3:6). Cleatus had no food or water, which would’ve been like gold to the desperate castaways. But like Peter, he gave what he did have—what every believer has—an invitation to lay hold of something infinitely more precious than all men can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).