The Belcher family’s legacy is beyond compelling. Their story incorporates sacrifice, struggle, reconciliation, fidelity … at truly unimaginable levels. Their journey defines the ability of the human spirit to endure and triumph in the face of unspeakable odds. They graced the Log Book with a beautiful family entry in November 2019. The enormity of all it represents continually amazes me.
The following is written by Jim Belcher Jr. son of USS Indianapolis (CA-35) survivor James Belcher Sr. I am going to pester Jim until he fulfills the closing statement of his post below…….
“Today…75 years ago. God bless the crew of the USS Indianapolis CA-35. You might think that the lucky ones were the 316 Survivors. I understand why. But I can share with you that my father suffered every day of his life after the rescue. A living hell. The guilt of surviving, the trauma of those 5 days and all he saw and did took it’s toll.There was no PTSD treatment. There was no counseling, hotlines, Veterans Administration programs. Heck, the US Navy turned their backs on these men. The Survivors were told not to talk about it.
To stay sane, they tried to bury it…most never spoke of the horrors they witnessed. Many turned to alcohol to dull the painful memories. The night terrors made sleep a thing to avoid. For those who were married, or later married, their spouse and even children dealt with screaming, thrashing, and many terrible moments in the night. You cannot imagine. You had to be there. Helpless to make it better. Time was hoped to heal. Lives were forever changed.For some, with time (years) it was buried so deep they appeared ok. With no reminders, they went on with life. To the uninformed, they appeared fine.
For others, like my dad, they medicated…alcohol. It helped kill the pain. It helped bury the terrors. It ruined other parts of their lives…their health, their marriages, their jobs, their families. None of us children could understand. Why was he so angry? Why was he so distant? Why did he drink so much? If not for strong wives, our mothers, the marriage crumbled. I was so fortunate. My mother was our rock. She kept us hopeful. She taught us to tolerate, adjust, avoid…not aggravate. We “endured” our childhoods. It wasn’t all bad…their were moments of fond memories…but honestly, my brothers and I envied our friends and their families. But also honestly, we were raised among so many military families, our situation was more normal than abnormal.
Eventually dad reunited with his shipmates. Trust me, he avoided it for much longer than most. Some never rejoined their Indy families. If you watch Sara Vladic and Melanie Johnson’s documentary video, you’ll realize it was an average of about 25 years after the sinking (1970) before survivors even started to talk about it. Most of us children learned of our dad’s tragic story as teens or older. Seriously, even then, there were no discussions. Just told to help explain. We read “Abandon Ship” to learn the story. Surprise, shock, numbness. That’s what we felt. This went on for years.For some of us, our dads lived long enough to open up, gather strength to attend a reunion and begin a healing journey. For too many, they didn’t make it. Alone, damaged, eaten by guilt, they succumbed too early, too young, still carrying their pain. For my dad, 1977 and 1982 were healing events.
In 1977 my father, a retired US Navy Chief Petty Officer, was reunited with his one good friend on the ship from 1945, John Cassidy, and reluctantly chose to attend his first “reunion”, a special gathering of his Indy shipmates to witness the launching of a new USS Indianapolis, the fast attack submarine SSN-697. Painful. Healing. It began. Mom said following the launching his night terrors were further apart.
In early 1982 with his first grandson on the way, I had a very painful inebriated (him, not me) encounter with my father during a visit home. Yelling, screaming, threatening. I told him then, in his house, that if he was drinking he wouldn’t see his coming grandson, but if he was not he would be welcome. I think my words included, “I had to put up with this s**t growing up, but my son does not!”. We left that night only hours after arriving for a weekend visit. It was abrupt.
Two weeks later dad called and shared that he was no longer drinking. Mom got on the phone and confirmed he had not had a drink since we left that night. His demeanor started to soften. His grandchildren to come never saw him drink. That night two weeks earlier everything in our lives started to change…to improve. It was not an easy road, but each day things got a little better. Then came 1995…dad’s first formal USS Indianapolis reunion.
Dad lived 6 years after that 1995 reunion. He seemed to find great peace from attending. He became my best friend. We fished, we wood worked together. I was blessed to attend all three times he went…1977, 1995, 1999. He unfortunately passed in May 2001 before the July 2001 reunion he looked much forward to. This one mom, my Japanese mother and his wife of 46 years, had agreed to attend…her first reunion. She cared for him all those years. She was with him during all those long torturous years. She kept him alive, she brought him back to his shipmates.
I miss my dad…every day. Nineteen years now. I love my Indy family. After dad passed, I continued to attend reunions. I did it for dad…and also for me. I learned that I carried some of his pain. Our whole family. We dealt with the aftermath of that sinking every day of our young lives. It touched…it tainted…every facet of our lives. My mom, my brothers, my own.
Attending reunions helped me heal. I got involved. As the remaining Survivors got older I jumped in with a core group of others to help. Informal at first, we were given more and more duties and responsibilities by the Survivors Organization each reunion. Trust. In the beginning there were five us us…Elko Perchyshyn, Peggy Campo, Andrew Fritzinger, Michael Hussey and me. We called ourselves “The Stewards”. Elko called us “the filthy five”…lol. We helped, and we healed.
I hope one day to share the story of the Stewards with you. It needs to be told. Our mantra was “It’s not about us…it’s all about the crew”. If you knew we were responsible for parts of the reunion, we felt we failed. We were to be in the background. We succeeded. Our group grew. Our crew took on the challenge as the Survivors Org evolved…and survived their biggest challenge since forming in 1960. In 2007 their organization was dissolved by the then chairman Giles McCoy. The Stewards stood strong with the Survivors who reconstituted their Organization just months later. With our help a new, more inclusive, less controversial Organization was formed with Survivor Harold Bray as chairman. So many Survivors were key to this effort and that is another story that needs to be told. I was there. It was beautiful to be a part of.And then we, the Stewards, launched the Legacy Organization. Again, a story that needs to be told. It will be. Another time. Our healing continues.
So, for those who approach me and say, “You are so lucky your dad survived”, please know I appreciate what you mean by that, but I’d like you to know it was not the picture you think. I speak for me…my family. Other Survivor families have shared their similar stories, but I cannot speak for others. Each survivor coped their own way. This was our unique story. I hope it helps some of you who care to understand.
I need to write a book…”Jim Belcher Jr
Last Updated on 14 October 2020 by Lars McKie
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