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by Kevin Coupe

We talk often here about the importance of storytelling and there was a news item over the last couple of days that illustrated this in compelling fashion.

It was announced on Sunday that a team led by Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, had discovered the final resting place of the USS Indianapolis. It was, the stories said, 18,000 feet deep in the Philippine Sea.

The USS Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine during World War II, but it is hardly a unique case; in fact, a quick internet check shows that more than 1,500 ships were sunk during that particular war.

And yet, when I first heard the story on my car radio, I immediately knew the basic facts of the Indianapolis - that it was sunk on July 30, 1945, after having delivered parts of the first Atomic bomb to US forces that eventually would drop it on Hiroshima. But because of its top-secret mission, the fact that it was missing was not immediately noted, and it was four days before the survivors were spotted entirely by accident by a bomber pilot.

During those four days, however, many of the men who went into the water died - a number of them attacked by sharks. If I recall correctly, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men came out.

I’m not entirely sure about the accuracy of those last two numbers. The only reason I remember them is that the story of the Indianapolis comprises one of the most compelling scenes in Jaws, when Robert Shaw’s Quint tells the story about how he was on the doomed ship.

Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’… ’til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then… ah, then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red, and despite all your poundin’ and your hollerin’ those sharks come in and… they rip you to pieces.

Now, to be sure, the speech gets some of the specifics of the event wrong. (Like the date of the sinking - Quint puts it on June 29, not July 30.) But the storytelling is memorable. (Legend has it that Shaw - a talented novelist and playwright, rewrote it and turned mere prose into bone-chilling poetry.)

I know a number of people who, as soon as they heard that the final resting place of the Indianapolis had been found, immediately flashed on that scene from Jaws. Which speaks, I think, to the power of a story. (Not to in any diminish the stories of all the other ships that were sunk and men who were killed during World War II…) The scene from Jaws is so powerful and memorable that the New York Times even mentioned it in the lede when it reported on the discovery.

The Times also notes that “Mr. Allen, whose father fought in World War II, has made a passion of finding and preserving artifacts from the war. His expedition said that the precise location of the Indianapolis would be kept secret from the public, and that the site would be respected as a grave, as American law requires.”

But the Eye-Opening story will live on.

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