It began with a 13 year-old San Diego girl named Sara Vladic who was oddly drawn to the story of the USS Indianapolis. Wondering if the story she’d heard was true, the young girl sought out everything she could find in the library about the ship and the men on it. There was little available to read. Years later, she would graduate from Pepperdine after studying film and television, still not being able to shake the story of the men of the USS Indianapolis. Driven by this quest that seemed to choose her, she decided to find the survivors and start a dialogue to tell their story through film. After meeting with 117 survivors — there are now only 23 left — Vladic gained the men’s trust and 15 years later she and producer Melanie Capacia Johnson are telling their story in both a documentary film called the USS Indianapolis: The Legacy and a book.
Vladic is collaborating with NY Times bestselling author Lynn Vincent (who co-wrote Heaven is For Real and Sarah Palin’s book Going Rogue). The USS Indianapolis book is being done through Simon & Schuster and they are working with publishing heavyweights Jonathan Karp and Jofie Ferrari-Adler on the project for release next year.
They are also in conversations with distributors for their documentary which is getting a premiere in Fairfax, VA at the GI Film Festival which is sponsored, in part, by the Gary Sinise Foundation. Val Kilmer and other talent from Hollywood are expected to attend.
The film tells the story of the bravery of the men setting sail on the flagship of the Navy’s 5th Fleet in WWII and its delivery of the atomic bomb, the subsequent torpedoing of the ship by the Japanese, the men’s fight for survival in shark-filled waters, some covered in oil, as they watched their colleagues eaten alive and facing certain death themselves. From there, the story chronicles their subsequent rescue, politics and the request for secrecy, the court martial of Captain McVay, and the men’s lives since.
“It’s been a hard project, a hard story and I’ve been driven to a point at times where I don’t think I can do it and then it was at those moments that I would get a call from one of the survivors,” said Vladic, who said that the men kept her going. “I feel a responsibility and an honor to it. This is part of my life, and I believe it was meant to be.”
The documentary film is just one about the incident prepping to debut this year. Why the sudden interest in the USS Indianapolis? No reason, but they all dovetail 71 years after the 1945 tragedy at sea.
“The story has a wide berth and there are so many facets to it. There are other films that are telling different stories than we are,” said Vladic. “There is room at the table for everyone. The idea is to get the story of this bravery out there. As long as people doing this have a pure intention to get the story right, I don’t care how many there are.”
Producer Johnson says that Vladic traveled over the years to 22 states and conducted more than 104 interviews of now old men who were only 17 and 18 years old when they experienced what they did.
“With all the bad things that have happened in this generation, the WWII men have a quiet dignity about them, there is no sense of entitlement,” said Vladic. “These men did what they did to help our country and they didn’t come back thinking that anything was owed to them.”
Johnson noted that because of the deep trust between the survivors and Vladic, who many of the men treated as an honorary granddaughter and told her things that they had never discussed with their families.
“Back in early 2005, I met with Paul Murphy at Denny’s in Las Vegas and he said he talked to other survivors and they would trust me with the story,” said Vladic. Murphy, who has since died, was once the chairman of the USS Indianapolis Survivor’s organization. “He essentially charged me with telling the story, and from there it was my mission.” The ‘mission’ was to tell the story truthfully for legacies’ sake, she said.
The film is 96 minutes long and the filmmakers hope that it will be used in educational purposes at schools across the country and for military families. USS Indianapolis: The Legacy is opening at the GI Film Festival, which helps preserve veterans’ stories in film and TV, provides job training for veterans in the entertainment industry, and helps heal PTSD through film therapy workshops. Sinise and his LT Dan Band will kick off the first night of the festival.