A charmed life
Local World War II veteran narrowly avoided two of the most tragic events in US naval history
In the annals of World War II history, two names not generally associated with good fortune are Pearl Harbor and the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Pearl Harbor was the target of a 1941 Japanese surprise attack that killed more than 2,000 American sailors and triggered the country’s entrance into the war, and the 1945 sinking of the Indianapolis remains the greatest loss of life at sea in U.S. naval history.
However, the title of Chico veteran Robert Laney’s book, One Lucky Sailor and His Ships, refers in part to his connection to both tragic events. Laney was stationed aboard the Indianapolis—which was then operating out of Pearl Harbor—when America joined the war.
Unlike many he served alongside, 96-year-old Laney lives on to tell his tales, which he collected into the book published in 2014. He will share them at a Veterans Day celebration in Paradise on Nov. 11.
Most weekday mornings, Laney can be found signing and selling copies at the Starbucks inside of Safeway on East Avenue and, given the opportunity, he’s glad to share more details. His memory is remarkably intact, and over the course of a nearly two-hour conversation, he recalled details as sharp as names and origins of his shipmates, the exact routes he traveled during his years of service and ranges of various calibers of artillery.
“My first stroke of good luck was getting assigned to the Indianapolis,” Laney said, describing the 610-foot-long cruiser as a gem of a warship that served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s “ship of state” on diplomatic missions and was used as Adm. Raymond Spruance’s flagship throughout WWII.
Laney was 21 when he joined the Navy in November 1940, and the Indianapolis primarily operated out of Pearl Harbor. Most of his time aboard was spent running the Lexington’s store, selling candy bars and 50-cent cartons of Lucky Strikes to the rest of the crew. His battle station was manning one of the ship’s eight 5-inch guns.
“I was on the Indy a year before the war started, and during peacetime it was a piece of cake,” he said. “We’d go on liberty and head over to Waikiki beach, have a few beers … it was a good life for a young man like me.”
On Dec. 5, 1941, the ship was dispatched on a “milk run” (easy mission) to Johnston Atoll, about 700 miles from Pearl Harbor, and was there when the crew got word of the Japanese attack. The ship joined the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington to hunt the ships responsible, but had to pull into Pearl Harbor Dec. 9 to resupply. Laney describes the scene in detail in his book, including watching diving crews unsuccessfully try to extract sailors trapped alive inside the U.S.S. Oklahoma, and the torpedoed Helena and capsized Ogala docked where the Indianapolis would have been.
Laney said his next lucky break was getting transferred from the ship in March 1944. As his new vessel—the spanking-new U.S.S. Guam—was readied for battle, he was able to spend six months stateside with his new wife, Bernice. He was aboard the Guam when he heard of the Indianapolis’ fate.
On July 30, 1945, after delivering pieces of the first atomic bomb to an air base on the island of Tinian in the Northern Marianas, the Indy was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sank in 12 minutes. Approximately 300 sailors went down with the ship, and the remaining 900 ended up floating with life jackets. For reasons not fully explained today, nobody missed the ship for five days, during which time several more men died of exposure, dehydration, starvation, saltwater poisoning and—as famously and chillingly retold by Robert Shaw in the film Jaws—shark attacks.
“So many good men, and so many of my friends were lost,” said Laney, who shares theories of what went wrong in the book.
During our conversation at the coffee shop, two men—one a college student and the other a younger veteran—stopped to buy a copy of Laney’s book and shake his hand. His response to both men as they thanked him for his service was the same.
“I’d do it all again in a minute,” he said, before adding with a chuckle, “I wouldn’t want to, but I would.”