The Greatest Generation

Published 10:57 am Wednesday, September 26, 2012

GATESVILLE – It’s a story embedded with sadness, but yet one full of America’s greatest heroes, one of which still calls Gates County as home today as he did back in 1945.

And now, several Gates County citizens want to honor their hero – F.J. (Felton) Outland Sr. who was among the survivors of America’s greatest naval disaster, which came on the heels of perhaps one of our nation’s most significant military victories.

At the Sept. 17 meeting of the Gates County Board of Commissioners, Sunbury resident Earl Rountree broke the news of a plan hatched by several local citizens to pay honor to Outland.

Rountree regressed back in time to a period in World War II history where the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser, was part of the famed Manhattan Project – the development of America’s first atomic bomb. It was that ship, with Outland, then a Gunner’s Mate at the age of 19, and 1,195 others onboard which was tasked with the responsibility of transporting the components of the bomb to Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean where it would be assembled. Later, that bomb was dropped on Japan, thus hastening the end of the war.

After completing its task, the Indianapolis became forever etched in the annals of naval history as it was sunk by a barrage of Japanese torpedoes shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945.

“The first torpedo hit the bow, taking off 65 feet of the ship,” Rountree recalled. “The second one hit dead center, causing a fireball of fuel and ammo. The ship sank in only 12 minutes.”

For five days, those surviving the blast found themselves at the mercy of the sea, to include sharks along with no water or rations and some suffering from severe desquamation (shedding of the outer layers of the skin). Three hundred and seventeen survived that ordeal, including Outland.

“They survived where medical history said they couldn’t,” Rountree said.

Rountree added that Outland has been recognized in newspaper articles and has taken part in several programs about his place in American military history.

“He still has a hard time reflecting back on that ordeal,” Rountree noted. “I realize that we have a lot of (military) veterans in this county. Some never made it back; some came back home minus a limb. The two I remember the most are Willis Hinton, who lost a leg on a landmine (while fighting) with my hero, General (George) Patton while in Sicily, and F.J. Outland Sr. I don’t want to slight (the actions) of any other of our county’s veterans, but the USS Indianapolis is infamous in what happened.

“He (Outland) has never been recognized in this county,” Rountree continued. “What I envision is a 2-3 foot photo of the Indianapolis, which I know we can obtain for a price from a photographer in Indiana, with a nice bronze plaque, along with a nice photo of Felton in his white, summer Navy uniform.  I can get the picture and I can get the plaque and the community will pay for it through donations. It will probably cost (a total of) $500 to $600.”

What Rountree was requesting from the commissioners was a resolution honoring the men that served on the USS Indianapolis, to include Outland.

“Secondly, I think it would be appropriate to have you to approve and have included in your (meeting) minutes that you allow the (Outland) family to put that picture and plaque in a county building of their choice,” Rountree said.

As far as a particular location is concerned, Rountree said the new library has been mentioned.

“I think that is wonderful place to display it, but I’ll leave that up to the family,” Rountree said.

“The reason we need this is that politics change, commissions change; some future leader may come along down the road and asked if there was a vote on that; let’s take it down because I don’t like the Navy. If we have it on record it will show unity on this,” Rountree stressed. “Let’s do this and do it quickly. Felton is 86 years old.”

Outland volunteered to serve his country by the time he graduated from Sunbury High School. He was sent to Great Lakes, Michigan for training and boarded the Indianapolis, stationed in San Diego, California, in October of 1943. He spent his Navy career aboard the Indianapolis.

“I remember everyone scrambling after we were hit,” Outland recalled during an interview conducted in November of 2008. “A shipmate gave me a life jacket and I don’t remember seeing him again.”

Shortly thereafter came the call from the Captain to abandon ship.

“I went down (in the water); when I came up, it (the ship) was gone,” Outland said. “I came up beside some life rafts that were tied together. I called out, ‘rafts over here, rafts over here’.”

Sixteen others heard Outland. All totaled, 17 men squeeze into four tiny life rafts, but they were exactly that…life savers.

“We got in the rafts, but they bumped so bad that we cut ‘em loose,” Outland remembered. “Each raft went their own way. We didn’t see each other again.”

For five grueling days, Outland and the others waited for a rescue.

“We were spotted by an airplane on the fifth day. They threw out a marker. A ship came and picked us up,” he recalled.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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