Before smartphones made every combatant a potential photographer and correspondent, much of the visual imagery of wars came from commercial news services and specialized members of the armed services. In World War II the Navy relied on a cadre of enlisted men in the photographer’s mate rating. One was Alfred Joseph Sedivi, who served the bulk of the war on board the heavy cruiser Indianapolis (CA?35). Alf Sedivi was no callow youth when he enlisted in the Navy in 1942, in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At 26 years old, he was already an experienced amateur photographer and portrait artist in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, and had an eye for composition, lighting, and the significance of subject matter. A light meter, remembered his niece Nickie Lancaster in an interview earlier this year, was his constant companion.
The Heavy Cruiser’s Role
The Indianapolis had joined the Fleet as one of the 10,000-ton “treaty cruisers” built in the early 1930s to specifications set down in international arms-limitations agreements. She had the 33-knot speed needed to run with the fast carriers, and nine 8-inch guns to provide shore bombardment or fire at surface targets. She carried floatplanes that could be launched for scouting and spotting the fall of shot for gunfire. In 1942, the year Sedivi reported aboard, the ship operated in theaters as varied as New Guinea in the South Pacific and the Aleutians to the far north. Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance selected her as his flagship for the Central Pacific campaign, which began in late 1943 with the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. This meant that Sedivi was able to photograph far more than routine shipboard operations. He had many opportunities to document the sage, taciturn Spruance and the senior officers who came aboard to confer with him. Sedivi also accompanied the admiral when he made trips ashore to see the damage wrought by U.S. invasion forces and to visit the Marines who had captured one island after another. Spruance became a four-star admiral in 1944, and his command was designated the 5th Fleet. He had deliberately chosen the Indianapolis to carry his flag because she was neither a carrier nor a battleship and thus not an essential part of the war-fighting capability. Therefore, she could afford to roam wherever the admiral considered best suited for his purposes. Spruance’s approach was in marked contrast to that of his 3rd Fleet counterpart, the flashy Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, who appealed to the press because of his aggressive nature and outgoing personality—not to mention his habit of uttering quotable proclamations, such as his desire to ride Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s white horse in Tokyo. Halsey spent the early part of the war on board the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV-6) and the concluding year in the battleships New Jersey (BB-62) and Missouri (BB-63). During Spruance’s many months on board the Indianapolis, the ship was present for a drumbeat succession of amphibious assaults that moved Allied forces ever closer to Japan: Tarawa and Makin in the Gilberts; Kwajalein and Eniwetok in the Marshalls; Saipan, Guam, and Tinian in the Marianas; Iwo Jima in the Bonins; and Okinawa in the Ryukyus.
A Viewer’s Impression
In some ways Sedivi’s photos are indicative of the prevailing and dehumanizing ethos of the time that the Japanese people were worthy of scorn and hatred. The word “Jap” makes several appearances in the captions, which were written by a shipmate who “borrowed” the photos from Sedivi’s family for many years. Through the lens of 70 years later, one sees the Japanese soldiers as fellow human beings who also made sacrifices on behalf of their nation. Many of Sedivi’s pictures ashore depict the destruction and waste generated by warfare. He saw the wreckage of buildings, vehicles, and weapons, and casualties—both American and Japanese—that had been chewed up and eaten by the maw of war. As a photographer, he must have keenly felt the juxtaposition of his civilian and wartime experiences, from coaxing his friends and relatives in Tennessee to “say cheese” to capturing images of mutilated corpses on distant Pacific islands. He found the devastation of the indigenous people on Saipan to be particularly disturbing. These photographs document a way of life that was prevalent for the first two centuries of the Navy’s history: all-male crews. We see men at work and at rest in an all-consuming environment in which fatigue was a common companion—night watches, day watches, drills, and general quarters at dawn and dusk to be alert for submarines. Sailors took rest and recreation in small increments. Camaraderie was a welcome antidote to spending day after day on board ship; desserts as common in civilian life as ice cream and cake became special treats when shared with those who faced the same potential danger.
A Tragic End
That potential danger became dramatically real in late March 1945 as U.S. troops prepared to invade Okinawa in the Ryukyus. Okinawa would be the final stepping-stone before the planned offensive against the Japanese home islands later that year. For seven days the Indianapolis shot against both shore targets and attacking aircraft. She was credited with shooting down six planes and helping with two others. In the morning twilight of 31 March, the day before the invasion, a Japanese fighter approached. Despite heavy antiaircraft fire from the ship, the pilot dropped a bomb from a height of 25 feet before crashing into the main deck on the port side. It went through several steel decks before exiting through the bottom and exploding beneath the cruiser, killing nine crewmembers. After receiving temporary voyage repairs, the Indianapolis steamed back to the West Coast and entered the Mare Island Navy Yard near San Francisco to be made whole again. After she was fixed, she was on the West Coast when the Navy needed a ship to haul atomic-bomb components to the forward area. The pieces came aboard under heavy guard and remained there while the ship steamed to Tinian to drop them off for the Army Air Forces to use in the air offensive against Japan. Following the delivery at Tinian, the cruiser set off for nearby Guam to drop off personnel and then headed westward to Leyte in the Philippines, whence she was due to rejoin the fleet for further combat operations. But she never made it. Shortly after midnight on 30 July, the Japanese submarine I-58 launched two torpedoes that hit the mark. The Indianapolis sank in 15 minutes. At the time of the attack, Sedivi was in his photo lab, developing film and labeling prints of the atomic bomb components being off-loaded. Marine Jake Greenwald, who was helping, had left the lab shortly before the torpedoes struck the ship to grab some sleep. He survived; Sedivi did not. For days, crew members awaited rescue in the waters of the Philippine Sea. However, the Navy lacked an adequate system to report that the Indianapolis didn’t arrive as scheduled on 31 July, so no one went looking for her right away. A plane on a routine patrol spotted an oil slick and survivors in the water on 2 August, but the rescue effort wasn’t completed for six more days. In the meantime, hundreds of sailors perished from exposure, drinking saltwater, and attacks by predatory sharks. Only 316 of the 1,199 men on board survived. The failure of immediate rescue added disgrace to the tragedy. Still further insult came in December 1945 when the Navy decided to court-martial Captain Charles McVay, skipper of the Indianapolis, for hazarding his ship by not taking the precaution of steering a zigzag course to make a fire-control setup more difficult for an enemy submarine. The U.S. Navy called as a witness the commanding officer of I-58, Mochitsura Hashimoto, who testified that zigzagging would not have made a difference. In February 1946 McVay was sentenced to lose 100 numbers on the seniority list. The sentence was remitted, but the incident effectively ended his career. More than 50 years later, a Florida schoolboy, Hunter Scott, mounted a campaign on the captain’s behalf. Congress passed a resolution in McVay’s favor, and in 2001 the secretary of the Navy cleared the record of wrongdoing. Justice in this case was long delayed; McVay had killed himself in 1968. Fortunately for the sake of history, Sedivi had been sending prints of his photos home to his wife, Hazel, who was working as a teletype operator at the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft plant in Nashville. As the years passed, the photo collection went to Nickie Sedivi Lancaster, the daughter of Alf’s brother Nick, who served in the Marine Corps in World War II. For many years, Nickie kept the photo albums stored under her bed so they wouldn’t be exposed to the perils of a hot attic or damp basement. She and her daughter, Shawn Marie Lancaster Wade, made the pictures available for use in historical projects in 2013. Janis Jorgensen, manager of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Heritage Group, worked with the family as it donated the valuable collection for preservation in the organization’s photo archive. Thus it will continue to inform future generations of the contributions made by Alf Sedivi and his brothers-in-arms.
Help Preserve Sedivi’s Legacy
The Photography Collection of Alfred Joseph Sedivi, which was recently donated to the U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive, consists of approximately 1,650 prints. In addition to photos of the USS Indianapolis and her crew, the collection includes images of the aftermath of the battles on Tinian, Saipan, Guam, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima. The overwhelming majority of the photographs have never been published and offer rare insights into the lives of the sailors who served, played, prayed, and fought on the ship they affectionately called “the Indy Maru.” Unfortunately, a portion of the photos were damaged when they were borrowed decades ago and improperly stored. The surfaces of several of these prints stuck together and were partially torn when they were separated. A few hundred other photos have curled and started to crack. Now that the entire collection has been reunited, the U.S. Naval Institute has launched a campaign to raise the funds needed to properly store and digitize all 1,650 photos so that they will be available for future generations. For more information or to contribute to this important preservation project, please visit www.usni.org/ussindianapolis or send an email to [email protected]