The Boy And The Battleship

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Hunter Scott, now 16, is in many ways a typical American teen-ager, reports CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg. This month, he's been worrying about and taking his final exams at his high school in Pensacola, Fla.

He plays in a rock band, and his classmates think enough of him that they elected him president of the sophomore class.

All pretty typical.

But when it comes time to write up a resume, Hunter will be able to put down something few teen-agers can talk about. He has changed American history in a very real way.

It all started with a movie that Hunter saw five years ago, when he was 11. Apart from its haunting theme song, "Jaws" was something of a animal-horror flick about a man-eating shark. Hunter's attention was especially taken by the scene in which the shark hunter Quint (played by the late Robert Shaw) tells of being on a ship named the Indianapolis, sunk in World War II, its crew attacked by sharks.

Was all that true?

Hunter put the question to his father, Allan, an assistant school principal. Was that movie the truth? Had there been a disaster on the Indianapolis?

He gave the typical answer of an administrator or teacher: If you want to find out more about something, go to the library and check out a book.

Hunter did that. But he took his research a step further. He placed an advertisement in the newspaper at the Pensacola Naval Base, near his home, seeking out Indianapolis crew members.

The first to respond was Maurice Bell, who confirmed for Hunter that the real Indianapolis had been sunk in 1945 by a Japanese submarine and that he, like the fictional Quint in the movie, had witnessed terrifying shark attacks on crew members.

Hunter pursued other Indianapolis survivors, eventually contacting 80 of them. He says, "A lot of them, it was the first time they had ever written stuff down about the sinking, and the first time they had actually told anybody, because it terrified them for years and they had nightmares about it."

At first, Hunter thought his research might get him an award in a school history contest. But what he heard from the survivors gave him something else: a passionate cause. In the aftermath of the sinking, the U.S. Navy had court-martialed the captain, Charles McVay, and convicted him of negligence. McVay carried the guilt for years, then shot himself to death one day in 1968.

Tragedy struck the Indianapolis days after she completed one of the most important missions of World War II: delivering components for the first atomic bomb to the Pacific island where the mission would be launched. She then was ordered to Guam, where Captain McVay requested destroyer escorts to protect him from Japanese submarines.

Says Harlan Twyble, one of the junior officers on board, "We weren't even aware of the fact there were submarines in our path. We, in fact, were told that there were no submarines in our path. And when we asked for destroyer escorts, they said, 'You don't need themThere are no enemies out there.'"

Naval Intelligence had broken the Japanese codes and was aware of submarines in the direct path of the Indianapolis -- information never passed to McVay. As she headed for the Philippines, one of the subs scored two torpedo hits on the Indianapolis, which sank in minutes, sending almost 900 crewmen into the sea.

Over four days, more than 500 of them would die from drowning, lack of water, and the sharks.

The ones that stayed with the group survived," Twyble recalls. "The ones that went off by themselves, well, of course, the sharks took them, too. We lost a lot of those to sharks."

Says Bell, "You'd never know from one second to the next whether they was gonna come right up and grab you by the leg or something, which they did to quite a few of the guys."

From a crew of 1,200, there were just over 300 survivors. One of them, Art Leenerman, says that by the time they were spotted by a patrol plane, they were too weak and delirious to cheer.

He recalls, "We were out there for four days. And if it had been another day, I don't think they would have found a third of what they did find."

With 880 dead and plenty to hide, the Navy brass ordered a quickie court martial, blaming McVay for the entire disaster.

Says Bell, "I think he was railroaded. He got a very bad deal."

And Twyble says, "This man was not guilty of any crime. He was a scapegoat. The Navy selected him and the Navy prosecuted him. Because he was a scapegoat, the Navy doesn't want to go back and clear his records."

The Navy, which could slough off arguments from the Indianapolis survivors, had not figured on an 11-year old getting on its case. Hunter Scott launched a PR/lobbying offensive to clear Captain McVay and win a medal for the crew.

He appeared on TV shows. He lobbied Congressmen and made points at news conferences.

Says his father, "Hunter saw early on that there was an injustice here. And when you're 11 years old, all of the obstacles that face you and I as adults are not there…"

Obstacles, there were. It took Congress two years to pass legislation declaring McVay's negligence conviction was "not morally sustainable."

Only last April did the Navy agree to "modify" the captain's record and give the crew a citation. But the Navy still says it can't totally erase a court martial. So Hunter and his Indianapolis buddies are still pushing. And Hunter plans to take the battle here to the White House. He'll try to meet with the president, seeking an executive order that would totally clear the captain. That will happen sometime later this summer…after Hunter has gotten his driver's license.

And however that works out, Hunter can chalk up two pretty memorable achievements. There are a group of World War 2 heroes who thinks he's a hero, and he feels a bond just as strong with the crew of the Indianapolis.

Says Hunter, "It's like I have 50 grandfathers following me around everywhere, patting me othe back… It's just a great warm feeling. I feel so at home when I'm around the men of the Indianapolis."


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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