Straughn pic

Corporal H. Vernon Straughn

When a weathered trunk was discovered in Nov. 2022 during restorations of a historic La Grange home, it looked like nothing more than a forgotten time capsule. And in a certain sense, it was.

While most of the items were tattered souvenir booklets and yellowed newspapers,

others were more personal—pieces of a story that had been mostly untold for almost 80 years.

A pair of suspenders indicated the owner was a man; graded homework revealed he was a student, and a good one according to his high marks. An assortment of sketches demonstrated his artistic ability. But the item that perhaps said the most was a Bible with a note lovingly inscribed on the inside:

“To Howard Vernon Straughn.His Birthday April 3, 1936

From Mother.”

The owner was established, but what he accomplished was revealed by a quick online search.He died in defense of his country when his ship, the U.S.S. Indianapolis, was sunk on July 30, 1945—just 15 days before the war ended.

Born on April 3, 1925 in La Grange, Vernon was the Straughns’ eldest and only son.

Affectionately called “Howie” by his mother, he was reserved yet good-natured, as was evident by his understanding smile and kind, gray eyes. Like most boys, he grew up with a love for sports and was a University of Kentucky basketball fan, coached at the time by the legendary Adolph Rupp.

Vernon had a flair for the creative arts. Not only was he musical, playing the cornet in his high school band, but he was also a talented artist. He spent hours redrawing characters from some of his favorite comic strips and doodling on every scrap of paper he could find. While many sketches were made in fun, most were an overflow of something weighing on his and everyone else’s hearts: the war.

Little stick men paratroopers sailed down the front page of his English book. Battle scenes, the skies busy with fighter planes and the sea with enemy submarines, filled spare notebook pages.

Detailed drawings of naval ships and aircraft occupied several pieces of paper.

It would only be a matter of time before these imaginations would materialize before Vernon’s eyes.

Almost immediately after his graduation from La Grange High School in 1943, Vernon enlisted and was sent 2,000 miles away from home for basic training at the Marine Corps Depot in San

Diego. From there he went to sea school, and from sea school, to the sea itself, where he would spend the duration of his military career. As a member of the Marine detachment aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Vernon’s duties would likely have included anything from performing guard duty in her jail and “captain’s orderly”, or personally guarding the ship’s captain, to participating in beach landings and firing the ship’s guns. He proved especially skilled in the latter duty, earning several marksmanship medals and a sharpshooter badge.

During his two-year career, Vernon was with the U.S.S. Indianapolis during some of the most notable battles fought in the Pacific Theater, including those of Saipan—known as the ‘Pacific D-Day’—Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. In between moments of fighting, while rocking on the waves of waters over 6,000 miles from home, he grounded himself by penning letters to his family. In one which was published in the paper back home, he took the opportunity to caution readers against

becoming too certain of victory, in hopes of keeping the home front as engaged as ever in the war effort.

“We still have a hard road to travel. It will not be easy and we will not come out unscratched,” Vernon wrote. “But I hope the American people will realize that the more effort they devote to the war effort the sooner the end of the road will be reached and with the least of scratching.”

Vernon returned home for furlough in June 1945, spending a week with his family and his fiancée, to whom his engagement had just been announced in the papers. He said friendly hellos and goodbyes to people who had watched him grow up, attended Sunday services at his home church, DeHaven Baptist, and strolled the streets in which he’d played as a boy, not knowing that all the while, he was doing these things for the last time.

One month later, Vernon departed from San Francisco on what would be the final and most important voyage of the U.S.S. Indianapolis’ storied career.

Undisclosed to most of its crew, the ship was transporting parts of a bomb, as well as the uranium 235, which would detonate it. Upon reaching the island of Tinian, they left the cargo in the capable hands of men who would craft the atomic bomb “Little Boy”.

From Tinian, the ship and her crew returned to business as usual and departed for their next destination, not knowing that what they had just left in Tinian would end the war in only a couple of weeks.

A few days later, in the darkness of the night on July 30, a pair of torpedoes launched from a Japanese submarine pierced the U.S.S. Indianapolis, sinking her and more than 300 men within only 12 minutes. In the four long days that preceded rescue, the hundreds of others who were stranded suffered in every way imaginable, most succumbing to starvation and dehydration, saltwater poisoning and shark attacks. The latter incident would later be graphically retold in a memorable monologue from Jaws.

Only a week later, “Little Boy” landed on Hiroshima, an event which only 316 of the 1,195 men who helped make the event possible lived to see. Before the bomb was dropped, a triumphant message was scrawled on its side: “This one is for the Boys of the Indianapolis.”

Of the 39 men from the Marine detachment to which Vernon belonged, only nine survived. The U.S.S. Indianapolis sinking was the Navy’s largest ever single loss of life at sea and is still considered by many to be one of the worst naval disasters in our nation’s history.

Yet on Aug. 15, news of the sinking found only a small place in most papers across the country, for in big, bold letters above it, there was the announcement of Japan’s surrender. It was a haunting contrast. While most of the country celebrated the war’s end and their loved ones’ promised return home, a select few waited for telegrams that would tell them whether they would ever see their own again.

That telegram came to Vernon’s family one night in late September. Afraid to waste time with the sticky adhesive, they tore into it from the side and pulled out the message. The words ‘Deeplyregret to inform you…’ instantly met their eyes and sank into their hearts.

Shortly following the telegram was a letter from Charles B. McVay III, captain of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and one of the survivors. He detailed the mission and sinking of the ship, trying to offer words of comfort throughout. But perhaps the best comfort he was able to give the Straughns was the hope that Vernon may not have suffered long.

“The exact manner in which your son met his death is not known,” McVay wrote, “but it is believed that he went down with his ship.”

He went on to write, “Nothing that I can say will lighten the burden which is yours at this time, but I do want you to know that your son had done his part in the team-work which made the INDIANAPOLIS an efficient fighting unit of the fleet.”

Corporal Straughn was posthumously honored with the Purple Heart in November 1945. The same month, a memorial service was held for him at DeHaven Baptist Church.

In the years afterward, Vernon’s things were quietly packed up in the trunk and kept in the attic of his childhood home. Other than a cenotaph placed for him in his family’s plot, little attention was drawn to his name or his sacrifice. Many in his hometown today know nothing about him.

But with the resurfacing of the trunk some 78 years after his death, Vernon is beginning to receive the remembrance he is due.

For in the words of Marcus Cicero, “Poor is the nation that has no heroes, but poorer still is the nation that having heroes, fails to remember and honor them.”

-This article was written and contributed by La Grange resident Abigail Harrelson. Sources available upon request.