Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lindsey Z. Wilcox – Still at Sea

This week I sat down with World War II Veteran and Sailor, Lindsey “Zeb” Wilcox and I must say he is bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm. He’s a striking-looking man with wide shoulders and I reckon he was no one to truck with, back in the day. As a survivor of the USS Indianapolis tragedy, he’s certainly earned his place in history and the many books written about the sad event. In short, he’s a true war hero of the best kind and one of the folks legends are made of. He’s made of the fiber Baytonians love to brag about and he represents all that is good about our city, state and country.

Today’s article will be part one of three or more parts chronicling his life and the four hellish days he and his fellow Sailors and Marines endured, floating in the Philippine Sea after Japanese Submarine I-58 hit their Heavy Cruiser with 2 “fish” or torpedoes. The sinking of his ship is noted as “the worst single at-sea loss of life in the history of the U.S. Navy” and he lived through it all to tell us his story.

The truth of the USS Indianapolis account was relatively unknown and kept mum until 1974 when the movie “Jaws” brought it to the public eye and this event, according to Mr. Wilcox allowed the survivors a chance to reunite and bring a sort of healing to their ranks. His memory is crystal clear and he is a walking encyclopedia of events, not to mention he is a thoroughly delightful man.

The USS Indianapolis, after many engagements, was dispatched “at high speed to Tinian, Northern Mariana Islands, carrying the component parts and uranium projectile of the atomic bomb "Little Boy" which was soon to be dropped on Hiroshima”, and delivered successfully, setting US Navy speed records.

On July 30, 1945, while cruising at 17 knots towards Leyte, Philippines, the USS Indianapolis Heavy Cruiser, designated CA-35 and the flagship of Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance commanding the U.S. 5th Fleet, was sunk by two Japanese torpedoes, in less than 12 minutes. Two SOS signals were sent out, but through a tragic series of miscommunication, no one was aware of the sinking, or came immediately to their rescue.

So, that is the background of the ship and the war which made him a hero and now onto his story. “I was born in Dequincy, Louisiana. I was 16 when I graduated from Dequincy high school, which had only 11 grades at the time. The draft was in full effect as this was 1941 and some of my classmates, who were 19 and 20, were drafted even though they were in school. We knew about trouble in Europe and the Philippines, but we really didn’t think it would involve our country”.

“I got a job in Baytown, Texas, while visiting my aunt, working for the Missouri Pacific railroad off of Harbor Street at the old depot. My job was a porter/trucker, which was sort of like a handyman/janitor and a freight man. I did a lot of cleaning work and I remember one particular day, we iced-down fish in a barrel for transport to a far away place”.

“At times, we would see as many as 50 Interurban electric cars a day on their circuit runs and I would ride a car to work and back to my aunt’s house, next to the Trophy barbershop. I remember from her house to SH-146, Texas Avenue was a gravel road. I was 16 and since all young people were working jobs, I was as secure as anyone. My folks didn’t worry; I was on my own”.

“About this time, I was bumped out of my union job by someone with more seniority and I bid on a job down close to Baton Rouge, a place on the Mississippi River called Anchorage. My job there was a Yard Clerk and since I didn’t know anyone, I stayed at a place called “the Beanery”, which offered room and board for $1.50 per day. My job was to check every RR car to make sure it had a seal on the door and since a giant RR switch yard is a scary place at night with hobos and all, sometimes it was a bit of a challenge. All I was given was a flashlight. If we caught a hobo, we would turn them over to the RR “Dicks” or detectives and we did catch a few”.

“The Beanery was a lively place and when we slept, the RR tracks were almost within arms length and when a train came through, it shook you almost senseless. The food was good though and later that place became a factory of sorts. They also processed sugar cane in the area. It was very loud there”.

“In Anchorage, there was a giant switch yard and RR cars would be ferried across the Mississippi River on a giant paddle wheel boat with two train-tracks laid on the deck. It would hold about 16 cars and since the river rose and fell with the tides, there was a pontoon bridge set up to hoist or lower train cars onto the paddle wheel. It was a sight to see. There were 4 or 5 old WWI Russian Steam engines set up with teams of men to operate them and they would move cars onto the boat for crossing. They were expert”.

Next: Transferring to Dequincy and entering the US Navy.


Deborah Brown said...

Thanks for the article of one of our American Heroes. This is and informative and and interesting read. It must have been very exciting for you to talk with this Hero.
Bob Brown
Canton Ga.

Anonymous said...

Bert, I am enjoying Mr. Wilcox's story. Please be sure to post the other parts as I really want to hear his story of survival.

I can't even imagine the nightmare he lived. Kudos to you for bringing his story back into the spotlight. Sunny

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, Bert. Can't wait to read the rest of it.
Even Stephen

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