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Puyallup sailor grants grandfather’s wish: a burial at sea

Post by Scott Fontaine on Oct. 31, 2008 at 2:49 pm with No Comments »
October 31, 2008 2:49 pm

For years, Eugene Morgan didn’t talk much about his experiences aboard the USS Indianapolis.

The Seattle man served aboard the Portland-class cruiser during World War II including on July 30, 1945, when the ship came under attack from a Japanese submarine and sank in the Pacific Ocean near the Marianas Islands.

Morgan was one of 317 survivors among the crew of almost 1,200. Eventually, as the anti-war sentiment waned in the decades following the Vietnam War, he began to share his story.

Nearly a decade ago, he shared it with his grandson, Jason Witty of Puyallup.

Witty joined the Navy after graduating from Puyallup High School 11 years ago. Today he’s a machinist mate 1st class.

Morgan died of a heart attack in June at age 87. Among his last wishes was to be buried at sea near the spot of the Indianapolis’ sinking.

His grandson fulfilled that request earlier this month.

Witty’s submarine, the USS Ohio, surfaced at sea on Oct. 2 near the spot of the attack. The waters were calm. The skies were clear.

Witty, 29, held his grandfather’s ashes in a silver pitcher wrapped in blue cloth, and he released them into the water after a simple, somber ceremony.

Ten sailors stood upright and respectfully. One read scripture. Witty recited a eulogy written by another one of Morgan’s grandsons, Steven Wilson. The firing detail shot three times.

Witty then leaned over the side of the deck and spread the ashes into the sea.

"Just going to that spot on the chart, what went through my mind was what they must have gone through," Witty told the Associated Press. "They knew they were by themselves."

Morgan was asleep when the first Japanese torpedoes ripped into the starboard side of the Indianapolis.

He was thrown from his rack. He scrambled to the deck and jumped off the port side of the ship, Witty told the AP. It took five days for help to arrive. Crewmembers who survived the sinking died of dehydration or drowning. Others lived by clinging to makeshift rafts or to each other.

At one point, Witty said, Morgan saw some food floating on the surface. As he swam toward it, he was attacked by a shark. It swam away without killing Morgan, but he could hear his shipmates scream as they were attacked. The attack left Morgan’s backside scarred for life.

The wreckage from the Indianapolis has never been found.

Morgan returned to civilian life and became a Seattle firefighter. He enjoyed playing bingo, socializing with his friends and attending horse races, his son-in-law, Walter Witty of Puyallup, said Friday.

Morgan became a regular attendee at annual reunions for Indianapolis survivors.

"He started going to grade schools and junior highs and talked to kids about what he went through," Walter Witty said. "I never heard one of his discourses, but I talked to a number of people who heard him speak. Everyone always said they really enjoyed it."

Witty asked one of his officers last month if his grandfather’s wish for a burial at sea could be granted. It was quickly approved.

"I thought it would be an honor," Capt. Dennis Carpenter told the AP. "And I wanted to make sure that we did it right."

Jason Witty couldn’t be reached for comment Friday because his submarine was on duty in the Western Pacific, a Navy spokesman said.

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