Heroes of their ship

The recent discovery of the USS Indianapolis on the floor of the North Pacific Ocean brought a small measure of comfort to the family of Walton DeFoor, a 22-year-old Jasper man who died when the ship was sunk by the Japanese during World War II. DeFoor was a radarman on the USS Indianapolis. He was among the nearly 900 crew members who died on July 30, 1945 — the largest loss of life from a single ship in the history of the Navy. For years, the only mementos Travis DeFoor, his sole surviving sibling, and his family had of DeFoor’s supreme sacrifice were service photos, a few letters and telegrams, a framed letter of commendation signed by President Harry Truman, a Gold Star and a Purple Heart. In 2003, his nephew, Travis DeFoor Jr., made a request for information at Sen. Richard Shelby’s Birmingham office. He received a packet of military records that tells the story of Walton DeFoor’s bravery in the years leading up to the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. DeFoor enlisted in the Navy on Feb. 17, 1942, and reported for duty in Birmingham on March 9, 1942. He served aboard the USS Helena, which sank in 1943, before spending the remainder of his service aboard the USS Indianapolis. “It doesn’t seem like I’ve been gone almost two years. Time goes by pretty fast here. But I don’t think I will have to stay another 2 years from the way things look now. I hope not anyhow,” DeFoor wrote to his parents in one of the family’s few surviving letters. According to his military records, DeFoor saw combat throughout the Pacific Theater, including Guam, Tinian and Saipan. Over 350 Japanese aircraft and several ships, including Japanese carriers and destroyers, were destroyed during the assault on the Mariana Islands in June 1944. In February 1945, DeFoor participated in the air strikes on Tokyo that supported the assault and occupation of Iwo Jima. In July 1945, the USS Indianapolis carried components of the atomic bomb Little Boy to Tinian Island. The ship, which carried 1,196 sailors and Marines, sank in 12 minutes after being struck by two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine shortly before midnight on July 30, 1945. “They were on the way back to participate in war games getting ready for the invasion of Japan if the bombs hadn’t worked,” DeFoor Jr. said. Approximately 300 servicemen went down with the ship. The survivors were in the shark-infested waters for four days before a bomber on routine patrol spotted them. Only 316 were eventually pulled from the water alive. DeFoor’s family was initially notified that he was missing in action. In September, they received a second telegram confirming his death. “I received a letter from mother saying she had gotten a telegram from the navy department saying they had gave up hope for his recovery,” DeFoor’s brother, J.L., wrote from Germany in September 1945. “Well, Bud, I can say one thing in Walton’s and the many others behalf who had to pay that supreme sacrifice in order that the country at peace we now have could be accomplished have the respect, prayers and the gratitude of the nation. Walton and those boys went as heroes of their ship, of their Navy, of their country, and their family. Even though we have the deep regret there wasn’t anything we could do about it, we can rest assured that God called him and God knows best.” DeFoor was awarded nearly a dozen posthumous medals and ribbons, including the Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Unit Commendation, World War II Victory Medal, American Defense Service Medal, Asiatic Pacific Service Medal, Gold Star Lapel Button, Honorable Service Lapel Pin, Discharge Button and the Purple Heart. J.L. DeFoor, the oldest of three brothers, served in Patton’s Third Army and was injured in the Battle of the Bulge. Travis DeFoor served in the U.S. Army from 1948 to 1951. On Aug. 22, Travis DeFoor read an Associated Press article about the expedition crew that recently discovered the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis 18,000 feet deep in the North Pacific Ocean. He saved the clipping, which confirms the final resting place of the brother honored posthumously by President Truman: “He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live and grow and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it he lives in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.”