Mixing History and Imagination
Only a few days ago, on August 20, 2017, the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis, a cruiser sunk at the end of World War Two, was located on the floor of the North Pacific Ocean, 18,000 feet down.
That piece of history brings new attention to the story I wrote in my novel Too Much Left Unsaid.
History has always fascinated me, but not the dates and wars and memorization. I’m someone who wants to know about the real people whose lives were changed by events of history. Often, they have no control over their circumstances. Sometimes they do not even realize that events which will affect them are taking place in the world. But I am a fiction writer, so as I research the history, I make up the characters living the events.
I based the character of Mattie Connors in my first novel, Too Much Left Unsaid, on my husband’s mother, Madge. Madge’s father really did die when she was six in the Spanish influenza sweeping the world in 1918. Her widowed mother did take the younger of two daughters to Texas and left Madge to be raised by an aunt and uncle. Madge later eloped with her high school sweetheart, keeping the marriage secret until graduation. Anything else you read about the characters in this novel I imagined—fiction.
My other main character in Too Much Left Unsaid, Kathy Connors, is completely invented. But the circumstances I used for her life story were historically based. Women like Kathy’s mother did die in childbirth in 1918, and often left large families to be cared for by the oldest sibling.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 precipitated numerous marriages, and often brides were taken to unfamiliar hometowns to live with their husband’s family to wait out the war. This was the circumstance I used in my novel to explain Kathy’s marriage to Josh and her subsequent life.
In the interest of my story, I chose to portray Kathy as widowed at the end of WWII. I asked a retired Navy man how Josh might have died and he told me about the USS Indianapolis, the last ship to be sunk by the Japanese at the close of the war. I did research on the USS Indianapolis, reading several books, web pages, and articles. As part of my research, I found the front page of the New York Times for August 15, 1945 declaring the end of the war. In the lower left corner of that front page, the Times reported the sinking of the Indianapolis with 1196 service men aboard and the rescue of only 316 crewmen.
As I researched, I learned that the USS Indianapolis was being repaired at Mare Island, California, in early 1945, after an earlier Japanese attack. I wrote that Kathy made a cross-country trip by train from Ohio to spend a few days with Josh. The visit was shortened when Josh’s leave was cancelled and the Indianapolis was dispatched on its secret mission, the transfer of atomic bomb components to Guam. Kathy and Josh suspended an argument about what Kathy’s role in postwar America would be.
Soon after the Indianapolis delivered its precious cargo, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, August 6, 1945. A second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. WWII ended within six days of two atomic bombs being dropped.
But the fate of the USS Indianapolis after it dropped off its cargo was tragic. The ship continued across the Pacific and was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, the last Navel casualty of the war. There was so much going on at that moment that the U.S. Navy lost track of the ship and did not even know it was missing. Consequently, the Navy was not looking for the ship and the wreckage was only discovered by accident five days later. Some of the crew died in the immediate impact of the torpedoes, but it has been estimated that 800 sailors escaped into the ocean. 500 of them died during those five days at sea, of dehydration, drowning or attack by sharks. Only 316 men survived.
I used the information I had found to imagine Josh Connors’ death, and his wife’s grief as she learned about it on the same day that victory over Japan was declared. In this part of the story, Mattie Connors is narrating. She was caring for Kathy’s son, Eddie, when she heard the news that the war is over and hurried to find her sister-in-law.
August 14, 1945
In Parkersville, the police and fire sirens pierced the air. Church bells rang from every steeple. The war was over. Everyone was screaming, squealing, shouting, whooping. Cheering crowds filled the downtown, waving flags, hollering, blowing horns and whistles. Factory steam whistles blew louder, then softer, then louder, for attention. Aaron and Mark [Mattie’s two boys} and their grade school friends grabbed pots, pans, lids, and wooden spoons and marched up and down the streets. They loaded Eddie, soon to turn three, into their Red Flyer wagon and handed him a flag to wave. Firecrackers and shotguns added to the din. I couldn’t wait to celebrate with Kathy, so I grabbed Eddie and hurried down the street. No use trying to drive over. The streets were crowded with tractors, cars, and revelers.
When we arrived, Kathy was collapsed on her sofa, clutching a yellow envelope. Her eyes were red with tears. Her always neat blonde hair was a complete mess. Her breath came in gasps. I took one look and swallowed hard. ‘What does it say, Kathy?’ I asked, not wanting to know. Kathy thrust the telegram in my hands without a word. She sobbed and hugged her sides.
The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your husband, Joshua Herman Connors is missing in action in the South Pacific.
The next day Kathy and Mattie see the front page of the New York Times, the one I had read and copied. The main headlines are screaming that the war is over, but in the lower right corner is the news of the Indianapolis:
Cruiser Sunk, 1196 Causalities
Took Atom Bomb Cargo to Guam
In a later chapter of my novel, I imagine that a buddy of Josh’s who survived the disaster comes to visit Kathy in Ohio. As they talk, more of the grim story of the torpedo strike and the stranded sailors is revealed.
You can read the story of Kathy and Mattie in Too Much Left Unsaid available from B & N, Amazon, and other bookstores, in paperback or online editions.