July 30, 2021


This photo shows my brother-in-law Joe Rowden holding his two little sons—Joe (left) and Jerry (right).  I think this was taken outside their home in Maryville not long before he enlisted in the US Navy.  Joe was just 11 months younger than Jerry.  Bill was born later during the war years.

This photo of Tootsie with the boys was obviously taken in the same place on the same day! Somehow the separate photos of the parents with the sons seem to project their future.  Joe went overseas and died in America’s worst naval disaster—the sinking of the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945, by Japanese torpedoes. Only 316 of the 995 men on board survived—and Joe was not one of them. From that time forward, Tootsie was the lone parent of their three sons.

Today’s Tennessean had several articles about the USS Indianapolis and the 47 Tennesseans who were among those who died when it sank.  Because of the ship’s secret mission, news of the disaster was withheld until the Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945. For so many families like ours, the news of the victory rang hollow.  Joe and hundreds of others died just weeks before the war ended.  

There were so many circumstances that intensified the grief.  The secret mission the USS Indianapolis had just completed and its aftermath (the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6), how the ship was unescorted and unprotected, the long delay in realizing the ship was destroyed, the questions about what could have been done to protect these men.

I remember Tootsie’s becoming friends with at least two other widows of sailors on the USS Indianapolis—one in Madisonville and Sarah Sitzler in Athens.  Sarah had five children and they and the Rowdens were very close for several years as they worked through their grief.

It’s a tragic part of our history—very personal to so many.  The survivors have fought to tell the truth about what happened and organized annual reunions in Indianapolis, where there is a memorial park. The Rowden sons connected with this group and attended quite a few reunions.

The number of survivors still alive is dwindling but their families continue to keep the stories alive. Remembering is important—so many lives lost, as well as so much suffered by the families and the survivors.

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