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UPFRONT: AN HISTORIC COMMISSIONING PROJECT

Mike Lawson • September 2003 • September 1, 2003

‘Hope Afloat’
Music Class Remembers the USS Indianapolis

On July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea and sank in 12 minutes. Of the 1,196 men on board, approximately 300 went down with the ship. The remaining sailors were left floating in shark-infested waters with no lifeboats, food or water. By the time the survivors were rescued five days later, only 316 men were still alive.

The Fulton Junior High Symphonic Band commissioned a work of concert band music in honor of the crew of the USS Indianapolis. “Hope Afloat,” by Ryan Fraley, was debuted by the band at the Indiana Music Educators Association Convention in January 2003.

An in-depth curriculum was designed and implemented to provide the band members with opportunities to broaden their understanding of and appreciation for the hardships the USS Indianapolis survivors experienced. The sacrifices World War II veterans made helped to provide the way of life Americans enjoy today. It was our hope that the students would learn that the freedom and liberty they enjoy in their lives came at the expense of the generations that preceded them.

Sparking Interest Through Group Reading

We began our lesson by requiring all of the symphonic band students to read and write a book report on “Abandon Ship,” by Richard F. Newcomb. This simple activity might be quite traditional for a core-curriculum course; however, required reading is not a typical exercise for a performing ensemble. To our satisfaction, the students were extremely inspired by the story of the USS Indianapolis and its crew. With their interest piqued by the reading of “Abandon Ship,” the band members anxiously anticipated the delivery of the commissioned music. When the music arrived, the students were mesmerized as Fraley, the composer, told them what the various themes and phrases in the composition represented in the historic events surrounding the USS Indianapolis sinking.

Life Lessons

The next phase of our project was to relate to the students that the USS Indianapolis was not just a story from a book, but an event that changed the lives of men who, at the time, were not much older than themselves. We wanted each student to have the chance to make a personal link to the history we were studying.

We began by visiting the USS Indianapolis memorial monument in downtown Indianapolis. The text on the monument itself helped the students realize the national significance of the action the crew of the USS Indianapolis saw during World War II. However, the most powerful part of our visit to the memorial came as the students read the names of the sailors lost at sea listed on the back of the monument. At this point, our students began to realize that in another moment in time, they could have been among the crew. This realization led to the discussion of the respect that people in our country owe the men that defended our way of life in the Second World War.

One of the most memorable moments of our project occurred when we invited several of the surviving USS Indianapolis sailors to visit our band class. It was an honor to have these heroes speak to our students. We were so pleased to witness the open-armed welcome the students gave these men. As the survivors told their personal stories and answered questions, a bond began to develop between the men and the young people. As the sailors and students jointly shed tears, we realized the new meaning our project had taken on for the class. The students began to understand that these sailors are national treasures and how important it is that they are remembered and honored for their sacrifices. The survivors were deeply touched by the reverence the students had shown them.

The Key Role of Technology

Technology played a key role in the research and organization of this project. Our initial attempt to contact the USS Indianapolis survivors was through their Web site. Our consultation with Paul Murphy, President of the USS Indianapolis Survivors Association, was made easy through e-mail and electronic file transfer. With his encouragement, we were able to use the Internet to access several government archives and private Web sites to gather information, graphics, and materials to use in creating a bank of reference material to aid the students in their projects. We recorded this data onto a CD-ROM and mass-produced it for all of the students.

Student Research and Discovery

The main activity within the USS Indianapolis lesson was the creation of student research projects. These projects required each student or team of students to research a specific aspect of the USS Indianapolis tragedy and create a presentation based on their findings. The students employed a variety of technological methods to deliver their projects, including PowerPoint presentations, Web site design, digital recordings of poems, electronic magazines, and a video documentary. The student-produced video documentary included interviews with Jim O’Donnell, a survivor who resides in Indianapolis. Some students used the Internet to research the schematic design of the USS Indianapolis and constructed models of the ship by hand. Other students accessed the archived Navy reports through the Internet to write reports of the trial of the USS Indianapolis commander, Captain Charles McVay III. Students also used graphic programs to design diagrams indicating the procedure of “zig-zagging,” which was a point of controversy in the historic events surrounding the sinking of the ship. Electronic media were used to create a variety of lab reports, including such reports as survival at sea and the effects of drinking seawater. Students researched and designed historic time-lines of the experiences aboard the USS Indianapolis.

Altogether, our students created over 60 research projects, which were presented in the commons area outside the school auditorium and in the media center computer lab nearby. The community was invited to view this gallery before our winter concert. The student documentary was shown as an introduction to our performance of “Hope Afloat” during the concert. The educational value of the research project gallery was enormous and provided a means for our students to express their respect for their new heroes.

The academic endeavors of the students seemed to build the level of excitement for our debut of “Hope Afloat” at the Indiana Music Educators Association convention in January. Our commissioned work was extremely difficult for our students to prepare. The complex story of the USS Indianapolis motivated Fraley to write many technically demanding passages. However, the symphonic band students were inspired and presented the performance of their lives.

We were honored to have several survivors in attendance in the audience. One survivor stood after our performance and praised the efforts of our students. With tears in his eyes, he expressed just what our project meant to him and his fellow shipmates. Everyone in attendance was profoundly moved as this hero humbled himself in honor of the students. Our convention performance was certainly a moment that our students will never forget.

Student Video Product

A team of six of our students created a video documentary project that seemed to take on a life of its own. Their project began as a simple interview of a local hero, Jim O’Donnell. However, through their hard work and motivation, the completed project is a 25-minute video documentary that covers the history of the USS Indianapolis, the circumstances of the sinking, the ordeal of the men in the water, the rescue of the survivors, the trial and court-martial of Captain McVay, McVay’s exoneration, the building of the USS Indianapolis Memorial, and the current activities of the Survivors Organization. In a word, this student production is “amazing.”

These bright students experienced all of the various tasks required to produce a video in a professional studio. Their project started with a storyboard on which the students laid out each scene of the documentary. Each student was responsible for researching and writing dialogue for one topic. One group of students conducted interviews and read the program text. The remaining students handled recording and editing equipment. As a group, the students worked on the final editing of the video, including the setting of video transitions, inserting audio tracks, editing sound levels, inserting graphics, and creating text effects. The final step of this project was the production phase from which each student received a videotape of his or her work.

The video project was named “The USS Indianapolis – Looking Back.” The students explained that they selected that name because: “In order to see where we are going, we must look back to see where we have been.” These students understand that it is young people of their age that must keep the stories of the survivors alive and honor them as they deserve.

The students are still improving the “Looking Back” documentary project. Their extra effort has drawn the attention of the technology specialists in our school corporation. They have encouraged us to continue the documentary project by incorporating the video into a distance-learning lesson that will be offered to schools all over the country via the Internet. The students who created the documentary will help in delivering the lesson.

Assessment and Curriculum Standards

Our band students were assessed in five different ways during this project. The students wrote a book report on “Abandon Ship.” Each student was assessed on the quality of questions turned in on 3X5 cards to be used during classroom visits by survivors. The main assessment for this lesson focused on the technology research project. Each student wrote a short essay on the importance of remembering and honoring American War Veterans. This written assessment was taken on Veterans’ Day. Finally, the band was publicly assessed during their performance at the IMEA convention.

The USS Indianapolis project seemed to gain momentum and move to new educational heights on its own. This project is a wonderful example of a cross-curricular learning activity. Many music, technology, language arts, and social studies standards were met and exceeded in this large-scale lesson.

Though these goals are significant, the most important lessons learned through this project do not appear on any list of academic standards. Our students learned what freedom costs. They learned about sacrifice, dedication, and perseverance. Most of all, they learned that every American has the responsibility to respect and honor the selfless acts of patriotism that have helped to maintain the American way of life that we all enjoy.

David Cole is the band director at Fulton Junior High School in Indianapolis, Ind. For further samples of student projects, including
electronic presentations, visit www.wayne.k12.in.us/fjhteach/music/ussindyfinishedprojects.htm.
For more information about the composition, “Hope Afloat,” by Ryan Fraley, visit www.ryanfraley.com.

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