As with any good mystery in the modern age, this one started on social media:
Cherished images, medals, letters, all kinds of items are left at the bases of military memorials, but the Navy Memorial rarely sees such tributes, according to Navy Memorial Foundation curator Mark Weber. It’s not as secluded as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where hundreds of thousands of items have been left by family, friends, brothers-in-arms and four-star generals to honor fallen heroes.
Sometimes a veterans group will leave a wreath, unannounced, at the base of the Lone Sailor, Weber said in an email, but that’s about it. This photo was one of several “mounted to cardboard boxes so they’d stand up,” he said. They were attached to a wreath. The wreath bore a ribbon with a hull number: “CA-35”
The memorial has nearly 2,800 Twitter followers — if you’re not one, become one — and before any of them had the chance to reply on Monday, Navy Memorial intern Brendan Carr solved at least part of the mystery, finding this 2008 Associated Press story in the Denver Post.
The man in the photo, taken in 2008, is Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Jason Witty. He is spreading the ashes of his grandfather, Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Eugene Morgan, near the site of the sinking of the cruiser Indianapolis — CA-35, the last major U.S. ship sunk by the Japanese during World War II. A sinking that took place 68 years ago today.
A crew of 1,199 was aboard Indianapolis when the ship went down. Between the Japanese torpedo and the wait for rescue — survivors weren’t spotted for days, and the recovery took more than a week — fewer than 320 men survived, including Morgan.
Morgan died shortly before Witty’s deployment aboard the guided-missile submarine Ohio, according to the AP report. As a final wish, he wanted to rejoin his shipmates. Witty asked for permission to perform the ceremony and got it almost immediately.
Here’s a crystal-clear version of the photo — the photographer, Lt. Gabriel Hernandez, captures Witty as he stares into the sea, emptying the ashes in a final tribute to a member of a generation slowly fading away.
“We know of 38 survivors living today,” said Peggy McCall Campo, reunion coordinator for the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization. “I understand that a lot of [World War II survivors] groups have met for ‘the last time.’ I think it’s really hard for them to call it quits.”
Fifteen survivors are expected to attend the group’s reunion in Indianapolis, a four-day event that begins Thursday, Campo said. The oldest is 92, coming from Arizona. The youngest, 86, is the group’s chairman, Harold Bray. Campo’s father, Seaman 2nd Class Don McCall, falls somewhere in the middle.
“My dad is 88. He doesn’t get around very well. Even just walking around a hotel for four days, he’s just going to get exhausted,” Campo said. “It just shows that they really want to be together. They’re not prepared for it to end, either.”
Don McCall attended the group’s first reunion in 1960. Its mailing list includes survivors, families of survivors and those who were lost at sea, members of the rescue teams and their families, and others with an interest in the ship and its crew. It’s helping to keep a piece of Navy history alive through the generations.
Learn more about it here. And if you left a photo at the feet of the Lone Sailor, send us a note.