Book review: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

Mary Roach has made a career out of exploring subjects that are inherently interesting, gaining access to people, places, and records, and asking questions as a naïve outsider. She explores the topics and asks the questions that we would if we could.

In her latest book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, she applies her typical approach to looking at the bits of military science focused on keeping people alive. We see along the way the seriousness that the military devotes to finding solutions for specific problems—problems that you might not have considered—from clothing to medical issues to disasters. The common thread is the way that the military seems to push the envelope to seek solutions, either by encouraging the development of new technologies or by re-examining old one (such as the use of maggots).

As usual, her book is a fascinating look into tidbits. Along the way, you hear stories from different researchers and military personnel. She weaves the strange topics with facts and the personal. Grunt is far from being a dry list of facts or technologies. The information comes to life with stories of her investigation and involvement with the military, such as her time spent aboard a submarine or her attempt to gather first-hand stories about how diarrhea might have compromised military expeditions.

Most of the topics she investigates concern the here and now: making clothing soil-proof, bomb-proofing vehicles. Others are historical in nature: attempts during WWII to create smells that could be released in the midst of the enemy to demoralize or to make shark repellent. (She mentions the sinking of the USS Indianapolis but doesn’t seem to acknowledge that sharks ate the survivors in the water—men troubled decades were haunted by the screams of other men in the water being attacked and killed by sharks.)

In true fashion, she does not shy away from squeamish topics—in fact, I would argue that confronting these topics and wading into areas that no one else goes is what Roach does best. She looks into diarrhea as a national security threat, maggots as a renewed way to clean wounds, genital reconstruction and penile transplants. She is not afraid to ask the questions that you and I might wonder about—and that experts might roll their eyes at.

From this book, I gained a sense of how big the military industry is and how big it has to be to prepare its troops, keep them safe, and then provide care when they come home. I can also surmise how much of what the military does, investigates, researches, and provides solutions to bleeds into the public realm; the public often benefits from technologies, tools, and processes that were developed in the military. (Though I will admit, it would probably give me pause if/when my doctor tells me that he recommends using maggots on a wound that I had.)

Some bits piqued my interest more than others. The use of marrow infusions to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs—is this being used in the public realm yet? The ethical issues of transplanting testes along with the penis—any offspring are not part of the deal when the body is donated to science. Problems with submarines—I recently saw a water disaster simulator (sub room) in the Heslar Naval Armory in Indianapolis.

Grunt is an entertaining read. You’ll likely learn good trivia along the way—do not hold your breath when coming up from deep under water, do not rest your feet on the floor of an armored vehicle in a war-torn area, and whatever you do, kill flies—they are Satan incarnate as disease carriers, though ironically their young (maggots) could help save you from an amputation by cleaning out the wound.

As a teaser for MASH fans, Roach finds a Major Frank Burns mentioned in records she looked at. And there is also a Jim Nabors of sorts. Enjoy!

Heslar Naval Armory

Land-locked Indiana boasts a historical naval armory. I was intrigued and signed up for the Indiana Landmarks tour of the site.

Indiana Landmarks offered multiple, staggered tours of the Armory one Saturday before renovations started to turn the building into a high school. While the high school plans to retain some of the characteristics of the original building, this was the last chance to see the building as the Navy and Marines left it when they moved out in 2015.

The white building sits on a branch of the White River on Indianapolis’ near west side. The Armory was built by the WPA from 1936 to 1938 for $500,000. It was bomb proof at the time, and during World War II became a training center. In 1964, the armory was renamed for Captain Ola Fred Heslar, the Commanding Officer of the Naval Reserve in the Indiana from 1921 to 1940. In the late 1970s, the Marines also used the Armory for recruiting and training. In the 2015, the Navy and Marines moved out and into Fort Benjamin Harrison on the northeast side of Indianapolis. Since then, the Armory has stood empty.

Indiana Landmarks is involved in the adaptive reuse of the Armory, subleasing the building to Herron High School, a charter school. Herron High School is renovating the building for use as a second high school, Riverside High School. The renovations will cost $7.5 million and judging from the looks of things, will continue after the incoming class of 200 freshmen occupy the building in the fall.

The building is in need of some serious repairs, inside and out. The hope of opening the school with the 2017 freshman class seems optimistically aggressive. The school is hoping to keep a lot of architectural touches but many will likely be lost. The Armory has sadly been left to decay over the years, even though it only stood empty for a year.

Although the Armory has been renovated over the years, it certainly didn’t seem like any of those renovations were in the last several decades. The building had a time-capsule feel to it. Nautical themes were everywhere: doors with porthole windows and rope wound around stairway railings. We wandered through the floors, crisscrossing other tour groups as we stopped in different rooms to hear our tour guide give mini lectures.

We started on the second floor in the Drill Room, which was a gym with “temporary” classrooms on either side. Four murals of naval scenes created by WPA artist Charles Bauerle in 1938 still stood crisp after all these years: John Paul John’s ship in the Revolutionary War, Lake Erie in the War of 1812, the Battle of Manila Bay, and the arrival of the American fleet at Queen’s Town in Ireland during WWI.

The second floor of the Drill Room/gym also sported a mock bridge and crow’s nest with semaphore flags and lights for practicing Morse code. The Armory was the location of radio school training and yeoman training. (Some of the lights still worked.)

This mock bridge is accessible via the Officer’s Mess on the third floor. The Officer’s Mess, while small, has a lovely view of the White River. A carving of the USS Constitution graces the fireplace with ship lanterns and anchors on either side. Globed light fixtures are images of the world with metal waves and ships around their mid-section. The Officer’s Mess was also the site of social events such as weddings and dances. Down the hall was the officer’s bar. (The high school has not yet decided what it will do with this tiny bar room.)

We quickly buzzed through the fourth floor, a collection of classrooms and storage, basically what it will continue to be in the building’s next incarnation as a high school. On our way down the stairs to the first floor, we passed the kitchen, a time capsule in its own right and likely the object of some serious renovation.

On the first floor, we visited the patio room, an enclosed glass room with a balcony that overlooks the White River. Incidentally, the White River was dredged for five miles around the Armory and used for small boat training.

The last room we visited was the most unique and will not be changed but left as is: the sub room. The sub room replicates multiples compartments on a submarine that can be flooded to simulate disaster and practice recovery.

At the end of the tour, we were led to a room that contained blueprints for the building. And then the search was on to find the places we saw and places that no longer exist. The Armory used to have a swimming pool (for water rescue and training), a rifle range (!), a machine shop, and a simulator for a ship boiler…all inside the building.

In addition to blueprints of the building, there were early maps of the area. And suddenly light bulbs went on. The Armory was located in a historic neighborhood. Literally right next door was the Riverside Amusement Park. And Riverside Park includes the Thomas Taggert Memorial, named for a man important in local politics and in the history of the French Lick resort.

No historical site would be complete without a ghost. The Armory is no exception. Oddly this ghost is rather recent. After retiring, Navy Senior Chief Norman “Red” Bolduc took up residence at the Armory. (He is known for his contributions to the construction of the USS Indianapolis memorial on the canal and for helping organize annual reunions of the USS Indianapolis survivors.) He was found dead in his Armory apartment in 1993. Some people who have spent the night at the Armory claim to have seen his ghost in dress uniform or heard door alarms when no doors were being opened.

Touring the Armory gave me insight into a piece of Indiana history, but I am no closer to understanding why a Naval Armory was built in land-locked Indiana in 1936. My hope is that once the renovations are complete, the Herron High School (parent of Riverside High which will occupy the building) will invite us all back to see the splendor of the building’s adaptive reuse.

Movie review: USS Indianapolis: The Legacy (2016)

A stroll down the canal in downtown Indianapolis takes you by the memorial to the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser that sank a few weeks before the end of World War II. I usually stop to reread its story and let my eyes fall over the names of the crew. It is a sobering tale that I always have to brace myself for.

The 25th annual Heartland Film Festival included a documentary that relates the legacy of the USS Indianapolis. As the decades have past, the story risked dying with the surviving crew and rescuers. USS Indianapolis: The Legacy—ten years in the making —gathers together interviews of remaining witnesses to the USS Indianapolis tragedy. At the time of its making, 117 survivors remained. Today that number is down to 22.

The documentary focuses much more than on the sinking of the heavy cruiser, but contextualizes it within a larger story about the crew. In its earlier years, the heavy cruiser often had the privilege of transporting President Franklin Roosevelt.

The USS Indianapolis was heavily involved in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. While helping in a bombardment of Okinawa in 1945, the USS Indianapolis was hit by a kamikaze plane, which damaged the ship and killed some crew.

The ship made it back San Francisco for repairs. Once repaired, the USS Indianapolis set out to Tinian Island on a secret mission. Unbeknownst to the crew, the USS Indianapolis was carrying parts and uranium for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

After successful delivery of its cargo, the USS Indianapolis travelled solo to other destinations. Rules mandated that a heavy cruiser be accompanied by a destroyer, but the USS Indianapolis was not given an escort.

On July 30, 1945 the USS Indianapolis was struck by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine under the command of Mochitsura Hashimoto. (Hashimoto’s daughter and granddaughter are interviewed in the documentary. Hashimoto himself will be important again later in our story.)

Within 10 to 12 minutes, the USS Indianapolis sank—vs. the two hours and forty minutes it took the Titanic to sink. Of the 1,196 crewmen, only roughly 880 made it into the water. Some had life jackets. Some were able to get into rafts. Others lay in nets. The rest were in the water.

Hope was high. Surely when the USS Indianapolis did not arrive at its destination, people would start looking for the ship. Unfortunately, because the command on the USS Indianapolis had the power to change the ship’s destination at will, when the USS Indianapolis didn’t arrive, no eyebrows were raised. The name of the USS Indianapolis was removed from the board that tracked ships.

The surviving 880 crewmen waited for days, suffering from injuries, flash burns, dehydration—and shark attacks. The men banded together, away from the dead and the wounded who would attract the sharks. That strategy did not always work, and survivors are still haunted by the screams of men being eaten by sharks.

As horrible as that was, it may not have been the worst of it. Dehydration and ingestion led both to madness and hallucinations. Survivors suffering from the madness and hallucinations attacked, killed, or pulled others to their deaths. Survivors in the film and a survivor’s nephew (Michael Emery) at the screening mentioned that worst things happened but they would never speak about them.

The men lived through this nightmare for days, until three and a half days into the ordeal, a pilot (Lieutenant Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn) noticed sunlight reflecting off of the oil that smeared the men and the ocean near the crash site and radioed for help.

Another plane appeared at the scene, piloted by Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks. Seeing the sharks attacking, Marks disobeyed orders and landed on the water to pick up as many men as he could. When his plane was full, he tied men to the wings. And then they waited for ships to arrive to rescue them all. (The landing made his plane inoperable.)

The captain of the Doyle received Marks message and also disobeyed orders to head toward the crash site to rescue as many men as possible.

The men were ultimately pulled to safety onto the decks of the Doyle, the Bassett, and the Ringness. Out of the approximately 880 men who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, only 321 were pulled out of the water and only 317 survived.

The documentary weaves together this tale through interviews from the survivors and rescuers. The memories are fresh and raw, as though they happened yesterday. The survivors relate the tender care and nursing they received from the men of the Doyle, the Bassett, and Ringness. The rescuers recount the horror that they saw: the men completely covered in oil, skin after being in saltwater so long being torn from bone when they tried to pull the men to safety.

But this is not the end of the ordeal. In the years that followed, the men watched as their beloved captain of the USS Indianapolis was court-martialed. Nothing they did could prevent it. The Navy was intent on the court-martial. The relatives of those killed wanted blood for the death of their loved ones.

Mochitsura Hashimoto, the commander of the Japanese submarine that sunk the USS Indianapolis, actually testified in the proceedings. He argued that there was nothing the captain could have done to prevent the attack. Captain McVay was reprimanded for not zigzagging the ship, but Hashimoto explained that the submarine would have expected that behavior and would have hit the USS Indianapolis regardless of the actions of the captain. In 1968, after decades of living with the tragedy, McVay committed suicide.

But this is still not the end of the story. The documentary relates the rehabilitation of the captain’s reputation. In 1996, schoolchild Hunter Scott researched the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, which led to a US Congressional investigation. The captain of the third USS Indianapolis joined in the fight to clear Captain McVay’s name. In 2000, Congress exonerated McVay of any wrongdoing. In July 2001, the Navy cleared McVay’s record.

The survivors and rescuers—and the descendents of Hashimoto (!)—have been meeting annually for reunions, one of the few places where they receive support and healing.

In addition to the story, the breadth and approach of the documentary is what makes it so powerful. The documentary contextualizes the sinking of the USS Indianapolis between its mission to deliver cargo for the bomb and the exoneration of Captain McVay. The documentary uses the words and descriptions from the men who endured the sinking, their rescuers, and their spouses to make the story come to life.

Unfortunately, the documentary is not generally available to the public, though it is being shown throughout the country and at different film festivals. Check out the film’s Facebook site.

If you are in the area, take a walk down the canal in Indianapolis and stop by the memorial. Brace yourself before you read the memorial.