BY BOBBY HALTON
I recently had the honor of extending a small token of our appreciation to our military service personnel and, in particular, those firefighters who have chosen to serve in both the fire service and our nation’s military. Each one of them represents the American respect for the rights of all people’s dignity, freedom, and libertyrights that we correctly believe all people were endowed with by their creator and rights for which this nation has always been willing to fight. The defense of this same human dignity from disaster, accident, fire, and natural human frailty is what defines our heritage service as firefighters.
In both military service and our fire service, simply put, service is our most fundamental cultural value. None may be higher, for from service spreads all of our other values. Service is rooted in humilityhumility that drives us to believe that we must give of ourselves to express our respect and love of what we have been given. A very important part of the humility of service is the recognition that our lives are only made meaningful when we do for others, not when we do for ourselves.
Service means that we gratefully share our gifts, our talents, and our time for the benefit of others. Service means we understand every life is sacred and everyone is entitled with and everyone is blessed with God’s grace, and that as firefighters we are obligated to protect this grace, others’ lives, even at our own peril.
The firefighters and military personnel of today represent the greater collected work of generations of soldiers, sailors, guardsmen, airmen, marines, and fire service members who have been and continue to be the greatest generation after generationthe greatest example of service for whatever generation they happen to have been born into.
I want to share one of the most inspiring stories you may ever hear, a story rich in humanity and steeped in dignity. It is a story about service to the city of Indianapolis and this country. It is a story about bravery, sacrifice, and honor. Most of all, it is a story about what it truly means to be a member of the fire service.
Let me take you back more than 60 years to July 1945, somewhere between Guam and the Leyte Gulf. The USS Indianapolis is sailing alone to rejoin the fleet. Cruising unaccompanied was highly unusual during wartime, but she had just delivered a top secret payload, and few knew where she was or for what reason. Shortly after midnight, she was hit by two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine. The first blew away her bow; the second struck her near midship. The resulting explosion split her to the keel, and within minutes she went down by the bow.
The Indianapolis had about 1,200 men on boardsurvivors believe that about 900, including wounded and badly burned men, made it into the water. There were few rafts that survived the attack, and not every sailor had time to don a life jacket. But still, 900 men were believed to have made it alive into the toxic oil-coated sea. Only 317 survivors from that night would be rescued, for sunrise brought shark attacks, which continued until the men were physically removed from the water, almost five days later.
For five days, these 900 men faced the most terrifying days in the history of the Navy. While these brave servicemen struggled against starvation, thirst, exposure, and the relentless brutality of the sharks, the Navy for awhile had no idea that they were even missing. One by one, men were savagely taken, and one by one, the others grew more and more determined to survivenot for themselves but to live to tell their brothers’ story, to live so the rest of the world would never forget their brothers’ final act of service.
The sharks did what the enemies’ bullets and bombs couldn’t do: They brought fear into the lives of the men of the Indianapolis. They were a threat for which the men of the Indianapolis had no defense, no refuge, and no escape. Yet by luck, and still another incredible act of selfless bravery, five days later 317 men were rescued from the water.
One of those men on the ill-fated USS Indianapolis was James O’Donnell of the city of Indianapolis, who on his return joined the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department (IFD), where he served proudly and exemplary for 35 years. James retired as an officer, and many men and women were fortunate to serve under him. He spoke rarely but reverently of his service in the Navy, but his fellow IFD firefighters knew of his ordeal. He never asked for special considerations or special attention; he just “did his job” as he did while in the Navy.
I thought we should take some time this July 30 and remember James O’Donnell and his USS Indianapolis shipmates. We should say thank you to our dads and moms and granddads and grandmoms who served and to our brother and sister firefighters who are now serving. Some of us need to thank our sons and daughters who are following this proud, almost uniquely American, heritage of unselfish service-centered character.
It is clear to me that the character of the fire service did not just happen; it was forged through time and experienceforged out of tradition. We should take exceptional pride in our fire service customs, our heritage, and our traditions. Our customs and traditions are part of our earned heritage of service. Etiquette and discipline are founded on this heritage of service. It is by adhering to these customs and courtesies that we define ourselves as belonging to something greater than ourselvesas belonging to the fire service.
You see, tradition is not about things or artifacts. Tradition is taking action. It is the living embodiment of our heritage. Tradition requires we pass down the elements of our heritage from generation to generation. Firefighters are obligated to uphold our rich heritage through our actions, conduct, appearance, and attitude.
Remember forever. Remember them all.