Sunday, August 3, 2014

52 Ancestors #31: A Savior of the USS Indianapolis Survivors

Ancestor Name: William Graham CLAYTOR, Jr.

I have an ancestor who once wrote:

"If any family tree is shaken hard enough, I am sure it will produce stories of heroes and horse thieves. Lives to be proud of and some to regret. Your family tree, no doubt will be the same, so I think it is wise to remember that we are totally responsible for ourselves and our lives but we owe no debt to the past."

This is a story about one of the heroes.

I have written about William Graham Claytor, Jr., and his father before. Both were accomplished professionals who gave much to their communities and the country. But today I'd like to write about the highlight of William Graham Claytor's service during World War II.

Lt. Wilbur C. Gwinn was on a routine patrol mission. Flying low over the ocean he spotted an oil slick and followed it until he saw several men waving madly and floating in the vast Pacific ocean. He sent an urgent message to squadron headquarters and began dropping supplies to the survivors. Gwinn was stunned; a major ship must have sunk and he had received no word of it prior to his patrol mission. Gwinn was replaced by Lt. Marks, flying a PBY. As he approached the site, he believed he was on a wild goose chase and responding to a garbled message. He was incredulous when he arrived and made his own count of the survivors. Wouldn't someone know if a vessel carrying at least 150 men had been sunk?

USS Indianapolis survivors with a shark in the
water, the survivors worst enemy during the 5 days
before they were rescued; photograph from a
French website

Then Marks heard from the commander of the destroyer USS Cecil J. Doyle. In his book, Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis, Dan Kurzman describes this moment:

"...Claytor, a stone-faced officer with a will to match, who, like Marks, was a bright young lawyer and reserve officer endowed with a deep sense of personal mission in the war.

Anything up? Claytor asked.

Marks told him of our mission, but with skepticism. Claytor was puzzled by the report, too. Actually he'd heard of it minutes earlier from his own command and was heading toward the designated area to help in the rescue effort. If the report was accurate, the horror these men must be going through! What ship must have gone down? He could not have guessed that it was the USS Indianapolis -- commanded by Captain McVay, the husband of his dear cousin Louise." 

Commander William G. Claytor (center) with crew members from the
USS Cecil J. Doyle; photograph courtesy of member Steve

As Claytor neared the survivors, he lit up the ship's search lights, turning the clouds a pinkish white the survivors could see. It was the first glimmer of hope they'd had in several days.

"...Claytor had given the men the a pink cloud as a symbol of hope. Whoever was guiding him, it wasn't his superiors. He was breaking Navy rules repeatedly, but like Marks, was ready to risk court-martial if it meant saving even one life. 

Though sailing in submarine territory, Claytor had ordered his seamen to switch on two 24-inch search lights -- one to find the survivors in the water and avoid running over them and the other beamed to the heavens to let them know help was on the way. The danger was that any enemy submarine lurking in the area would find his ship a perfect target. But, given the circumstances, he felt that it was a calculated risk was warranted. Claytor had been well-trained to to calculate risks, and to bend rules when conditions so required. A native of Roanoke, Virginia, he had served as president of the Harvard Law Review and law clerk to Judge Learned Hand and Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis."

The USS Cecil J. Doyle was the first Navy ship on scene and immediately began plucking survivors out of the ocean. What they found was horrific. Soon several ships had arrived and the rescue continued in earnest. It is thought nearly 800 men survived the torpedo explosions and sinking yet 112 hours later only 300 men were rescued. The rest were victims of their injuries and sharks.

Captain McVay was court-marshaled, the only Navy man so punished for losing a ship in wartime. He committed suicide in 1968 but was finally vindicated by Congress in 2001. His second wife, the former Louise Claytor, died of cancer in 1961. William Graham Claytor, Jr. went on to become president of Southern Railway, secretary of the Navy, deputy secretary of Defense, acting secretary of Transportation, and president of Amtrak.

The main hall at Union Station in Washington, DC, is named Claytor Concourse in his honor.

To learn more about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and why it took so long for the survivors to be rescued, please read my brother's guest blog. My brother is a World War II historian and will be publishing a book in the near future.

This is my entry for Amy Johnson Crow's 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge.

William Graham Claytor, Jr. was born 14 Mar 1912 in Roanoke, Virginia, to William Graham and Gertrude Harris (Boatwright) Claytor. His father was a prominent executive in the utility industry and his mother was a poet. He married Frances Murray Hammond and they had two children. He died on 14 May 1994 in Bradenton, Florida, and is buried at Fair View Cemetery in Roanoke. The reference in Dan Kuzman's book about his "dear cousin Louise" was tantalizing. No one with Claytors in their tree had a Louise Claytor. I traced her back to her great grandfather; her Claytor family came from southern Maryland and her father was a physician, who moved his family to Washington, DC, about 1900. I have yet to find a connection between the two Claytor lines.


  1. Just found this after piddling around the sinking of Indianapolis info? Gives some info about Louise Claytors roots maybe?

    1. Yes, I have that book and it was the source that said Louise Claytor was a cousin. However, after researching her ancestors, I never found the connection. Her Claytor line seemed to originate in Maryland and had been there for generations.

  2. Schalene,

    My great-grandfather LT James A. Fite, Jr. was the Communications Officer onboard USS Cecil J. Doyle (DE 368). He is mentioned by name with LCDR Claytor in Richard Newcomb's "Abandon Ship." I have a great picture of him with W. Graham Claytor, Jr. on the ship if you have a way for me to send it to you.

    Jason Fite

    1. Jason, my email address is psd11719 @ (no spaces)

  3. Found this very interesting. My mother's first cousin was Cecil J. Doyle, the man who the first-on-the-scene ship was named after. Cecil was killed in November 1942 near Guadalcanal.