Seventy years after being lost at sea, Eugene Batson lived again this week — at least in the memories of those who loved him.
The Kansas City, Kan., resident was one of almost 900 sailors who died in the July 1945 torpedo sinking of the USS Indianapolis, four days after it delivered key parts of two atomic bombs that would be dropped on Japan.
On Wednesday, an organization devoted to the memory of the ship’s final crew raised a United States flag in Batson’s honor at the ship’s memorial in Indiana as part of an honor program begun this spring. When officials lowered the flag Thursday morning, they presented it to Brad Newland, a great-nephew of Batson’s who had driven from Kansas City to accept it.
On Friday, Newland presented it to the sailor’s widow, Harriett Watson, now 93.
“It makes me feel they haven’t forgotten him,” Watson said.
Newland, who drove the flag back to Kansas City on Thursday, said the trip was worth “every mile” for him and his son, Brady, 19, who accompanied him.
For the family, the flag ceremony represented a unique way to honor their relative’s sacrifice near the 70th anniversary of the Pacific War’s conclusion in August 1945. Back then, it was the family’s fate to learn the news of Batson’s death during a national outburst of joy at the war’s end.
If that wasn’t sufficiently heartbreaking, they also had to endure the lack of details regarding just how he died as part of one of the U.S. Navy’s most terrible tragedies.
In late July 1945, the Indianapolis was returning from Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean after delivering internal components for the atomic bombs later dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On July 30, shortly after midnight, two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine struck and sunk the ship in about 12 minutes. Of the approximately 1,200-member crew, an estimated 900 initially survived.
They floated for days, waiting for rescue, only to die from exposure, dehydration and shark attack.
Ultimately, rescuers saved only 316 sailors.
In the 1975 film “Jaws,” grizzled shark-hunter Quint vividly recalled surviving the ordeal.
“Today I have no idea whether he (Batson) was in the water; I don’t know anything about the sharks,” Watson said Friday regarding her husband. “It’s probably better that I don’t know.”
Watson met Batson when her family moved into his Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood.
“I used to walk past his house so I could see him, and he would watch for me,” Watson said.
Although both attended Wyandotte High School, Batson didn’t graduate, choosing to work instead at Western Electric. The two married on New Year’s Day of 1941.
In June 1942, their son, Robert, was born.
The draft called Batson in January 1943, and he joined the Navy. “He told me he didn’t want to crawl through the mud,” Watson said.
Batson attended radar school in California before being assigned to the USS Indianapolis. He sent several letters to his wife describing his role on the ship’s radar team.
He returned to Kansas City in June 1945 as the USS Indianapolis was being reconditioned. He stayed for their son’s third birthday on June 20.
The country learned of the ship’s July 30 sinking about the same time it learned of the Japanese surrender. Officials announced the war’s end on Aug. 14, the day before Watson’s birthday.
The first telegram Watson received reported her husband as missing.
“Later I got another telegram saying that there was no hope of finding him,” she said.
For months afterward, Watson followed stories about the sinking and the Navy’s inquiry into it. She also wrote letters to Missouri and Kansas families who’d had a member serving on the ship’s final crew.
“I was trying to find out what happened to him,” Watson said.
“I never did.”
Today, Batson’s name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines. In addition, the U.S. government provided a headstone that Watson had placed at White Chapel Cemetery in Gladstone.
“I had to have someplace to go,” she said. “I kept flowers on it all the time.”
Watson continued what became a 37-year administrative career with Trans World Airlines. In 1992, she married Jack Watson, a TWA purchasing supervisor. He died four years later.
For Newland, the tragedy of his great-uncle’s death represented an emotional family narrative that he wanted to research and honor. Recently, as the 70th anniversary of the ship’s sinking approached, Newland began searching online for articles detailing the tragedy.
That’s how he learned of the Second Watch Organization, the group devoted to the memory of the ship’s final crew.
Newland sent an email to the organization’s head, Maria Bullard, the daughter of a USS Indianapolis survivor.
The two soon arranged for the July 29 flag to be flown in Batson’s honor. He became one of the first of about 60 crew members to be honored through the new flag initiative.
“Growing up with the story, we never really knew the individual stories or got to know the men and families behind the label ‘lost at sea,’” said Bullard of Little Rock, Ark., who founded the organization in 1985.
“We knew the stories, but not the names or faces. So I began this project to fly flags for the sailors lost at sea so that we could learn more about the individual stories, and see the faces and get to know the families left behind.”
On Friday afternoon, friends and family members gathered at Watson’s Kansas City, North, residence to watch her receive the flag and to toast Batson’s memory.
“Harriett still has never confirmed just what happened to Gene, so to have the Second Watch organization recognize those sailors lost at sea is very meaningful,” Newland said.
“Our family, like hundreds of other families, has known all the unknowns about the Indianapolis.”
To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to email@example.com.
The Second Watch Organization, through its Lost At Sea program, hopes to fly a United States flag in honor of each USS Indianapolis crew member lost in the ship’s July 1945 sinking. Anyone seeking information about the program can contact Maria Bullard at firstname.lastname@example.org.