A duel for the glory of captain's exoneration
By Janet Frankston
By Janet Frankston
NORTH BERGEN, N.J. — The story of the USS Indianapolis is dramatic in itself.
A World War II Navy ship secretly sails to the Pacific island of Tinian, unloads important parts of the atomic bomb that would later destroy Hiroshima, and while heading toward the Philippines, is sunk by a Japanese submarine.
Only 316 of the 1,196 men aboard survive; some are eaten by sharks, as recounted in the movie, "Jaws." The ship's captain, Charles Butler McVay III, was court-martialed for not protecting the ship and eventually kills himself.
The next chapter, which occurs five decades later, is the tale of the captain's exoneration. The sticking point is who deserves credit for clearing the skipper.
An 84-year-old author says research in his 1990 book led to McVay's exoneration in 2000, but a college student is gaining glory for his role in pushing the cause to Washington years ago when he was a middle-school student in Pensacola, Fla.
That part of the story is allegedly the subject of a movie in the works, about a 12-year-old boy who claims to have researched the case and lobbied Congress for McVay's successful exoneration.
It sounds like a made-for-Hollywood ending.
But it's not true, according to Dan Kurzman, a journalist and author who lives in North Bergen, N.J., and who wrote a book, "Fatal Voyage," about the sinking.
Kurzman, a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, said student Hunter Scott — now 21 — obtained "virtually all pertinent research material" from his book.
"He (Scott) is falsely claiming he did the research," Kurzman said. "He found peripheral stuff, nothing that was really relevant to whether or not the guy was guilty."
SELLING MOVIE RIGHTS
Kurzman said he traveled to Japan to interview the captain of the submarine that sank the ship and dug up memos in the national archives and pages of documents listed in the bibliography of his 397-page book.
But Scott, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he did uncover new information, including details about SOS messages that helped make the case that McVay wasn't responsible for the sinking. Kurzman's research inspired him to "dig deeper," he said.
"The first book that I ever read was Dan Kurzman's book," he said. "I've given him lots of credit. I don't understand where his comments are coming from."
Kurzman discounts Scott's findings.
"I did the same research and found out new information since 1990 when his book was released," said Scott, who keeps a box of Indianapolis artifacts, including McVay's dog tags, in his parents' garage.
Scott says he has sold the rights to his story for a movie, and Universal Studios has been working on a movie for five years. He declined to say how much money he has received.
As Scott understands it, the film will tell the ship's story, intertwined with his pursuit of McVay's exoneration, but he's not clear if the account would be fictional. Scott said his last discussion with producers was about three months ago, and he read a script six months ago.
Scott's Web site says J.J. Abrams, the creator of "Lost" who recently directed "Mission Impossible III," is attached to the project.
Abrams' attorney, Alan Wertheimer, declined to comment on the film. In a January 2006 letter to Kurzman, Wertheimer acknowledged that Abrams is "engaged by Universal Studios to develop a screenplay" about the ship and McVay's exoneration.
'ALL I WANT IS CREDIT'
The captain's exoneration has been the goal for decades of many of the survivors, who say Scott played a key role in advancing the cause. But the attention to him has soured some survivors, according to Paul J. Murphy, 81, chairman of the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization.
"I give him (Scott) credit for the publicity and the attention he got for our circumstance," he said. "I don't think anyone can deny that. But he also has capitalized on it."
Kurzman said he has no financial interest in the movie, and only wants credit for his work. He said he was paid $400,000 for the rights to Fatal Voyage, but no movie based on it is in the works.
"All I want is credit for doing what I did," he said. "How can you be jealous of a 12-year-old kid?"
Scott said he became interested in the Indianapolis after seeing "Jaws," when Robert Shaw's character Quint shares the ship's tale with his fellow shark hunters, played by Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss.
Scott said he pursued the ship's story for a school history fair in Pensacola, and took out an ad in a local Navy newspaper to find survivors. He said he interviewed all of them.
The last thing he wanted was to create a controversy, Scott said.
"In no way was I ever in this for financial gain," he said. "As a matter of fact, it was a huge financial burden to my parents to fund these trips to D.C. I sent hundreds and hundreds of letters to the survivors, and mass mailings, and the phone bill was outrageous."
Scott said he flew at least 10 times to Washington, D.C., to meet with survivors and lobby congressmen, including U.S. Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire.
Smith, who is now retired, said the contrast between Scott's youth paired with the grandfatherly survivors attracted his attention.
Scott "taking up their cause and being their spokesman was a dramatic attention-getter," he said. "You cannot discount the effects of that. It was a generational bridge."
Smith said he brought the matter to U.S. Sen. John Warner of Virginia. Scott and Kurzman eventually testified together in 1999 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the captain's record was cleared in 2000.
"He was a very impressive witness," Smith said of Scott. Smith also credited Kurzman's research, and cited his book during the hearing.
Harlan M. Twible, a surviving officer, gives credit to both Scott and Kurzman.
"I don't want to depreciate this kid," said Twible, who wrote a foreword to "Fatal Voyage." "He did something for us that we couldn't do ourselves. He got our name in the paper."
McVay's son, Kimo Wilder McVay, a Hawai'i entertainment promoter who introduced the world to Don Ho, died in June 2001, still waiting for the Navy to follow the congressional legislation absolving his father of any wrongdoing. On July 11, 2001, two weeks after the younger McVay's death, a directive from the Pentagon ordered a document exonerating the elder McVay of the sinking to be placed in his file.