Happy Birthday, Mr. Outland!

Published 7:20 am Wednesday, March 27, 2013

ELIZABETH CITY – As a 19-year-old farm boy from Gates County, Felton J. Outland Sr. surely felt deep down inside that he would never see his 20th birthday.

Floating in the shark invested waters of the Pacific Ocean over a stretch of four scorching hot summer days in 1945, Outland found himself fighting just to stay alive, as did several hundred of his shipmates that once called the USS Indianapolis as home before a pair of torpedoes from a Japanese submarine tore through the ship’s hull. The ship sank in less than 20 minutes in the early morning hours of July 30, 1945.

Fast forward to March 17, 2013. FJ Outland is far removed from harm’s way, surrounded by family and a hundred or so friends in celebration of his 87th birthday.

The birthday party was thrown inside Gaither Auditorium at the Museum of the Albemarle. While cake and punch were treats to those in attendance, the real birthday gift on this special day was to sit in the presence of a hero, a man that risk his life to win World War II and preserve the American way of life.

Earl Rountree of Sunbury, who helped to stage Sunday’s event, noted the age of the men who were sent from the safe environment of their homes that took the fight to the war machines of Germany and Japan….and America’s young men, assisted by the Allied Forces, fought those battles on two different fronts at the same time.

“You were the greatest generation,” said Rountree. “These brave Americans lived through the Great Depression, they knew the meaning of survival.”

Rountree mentioned men in the audience that took part in the D-Day invasion and other WWII battles. He said Cecil Taylor of Gates County was stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 – the “Day that will live in infamy.”

But this day was named in Outland’s honor and the brave men of the USS Indianapolis. That ship, which was responsible for transporting the elements of the world’s first atomic bomb that was later dropped on Japan to hasten the end of World War II, was in numerous battles. Among its missions was the Aleutian Islands campaign, escorting American convoys and providing shore bombardments supporting amphibious assaults; bombarded the islands of Kwajalein Atoll; took part in the Battle of Tarawa; the raids on Saipan; and the Battle of the Philippine Sea, just to name a few.

In February 1945, the Indianapolis was part of the famous Battle of Iwo Jima. One month later, the Indianapolis was part of the Battle of Okinawa. Rountree said the Indy’s crew spent the better part of a week pouring eight-inch shells onto the beach defenses.

“It was during that time that Kamikaze pilots took aim at American ships,” Rountree said. “One of the suicide bombers took aim at the Indianapolis, and Felton knows what I’m talking about because he was there, he saw it all.

The Japanese pilot managed to drop his bomb, but an amazing thing happened, it didn’t explode within the ship.”

The bomb, according to Rountree, did travel through the deck, into the crew’s mess hall, down through the number four shaft before crashing through the keel and exploding in the water underneath. The concussion blew two gaping holes in the keel which flooded nearby compartments, killing nine crewmen.

“Had that bomb worked properly we would not be here today talking the USS Indianapolis in the light that we’re doing because it would have sunk at that time,” Rountree said.

Instead, it set up an entirely different chain of events.

The Indy limped back to Mare Island near San Francisco.

“Truman had become president and he had decided to drop the A-bomb,” Rountree recalled. “The question was, how do we get the bomb there. As chance would have it the Indianapolis was just about to depart from Mare Island and return to battle. That’s how F.J. Outland and his shipmates carried the bomb to Tinian Island (the site of an American air base). There, the atomic bomb was assembled and later dropped on Hiroshima.”

After delivering its cargo, the Indianapolis was targeted by the Japanese sub. The Indy’s mission was so top secret that it took two days before the ship was reported as overdue at it next port-of-call.

Of the 1,196 men onboard when two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine tore into the steel hull of the Indy shortly past midnight on July 30, 1945, only 317 survived, including Outland. And that came after nearly five grueling days, without basic supplies, spent floating in the shark invested waters of the Pacific before rescue craft arrived.

Also on hand at Sunday’s celebration was Bob Welsh, a poet who penned the now famous, “Sleep Well You Men of Indy’s Crew.”

Welsh, who hails from a small town in Ohio, said he was inspired to write the poem after visiting with another Indianapolis survivor, Paul McGinnis.

“Nearly 68 years ago, the men of the USS Indianapolis were engaged in the biggest battle of their lives, the battle to stay alive,” Welsh said.

A trio of US Navy sailors, representing the Naval Ship Support Activity, presented the colors. Gates County Troop 200 of the Boy Scouts of America led the Pledge of Allegiance.

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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