Stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, hope seemed lost for the men of the USS Indianapolis.

Sharks swarmed beneath and around them. The merciless sun burned them. Exhaustion, dehydration and hunger picked them off.

Hundreds of men died before they were rescued. Their mission to deliver parts of the atomic bombs had been so secretive, no one knew they were even out there.

Story continues below gallery

Even more than 70 years later, the details of their story have remained largely hidden.

“What intrigued me is that there was this whole part of the war that no one knew anything about, and these were the guys who ended the war,” said Sara Vladic, filmmaker and director of “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy.” “How do we not know this? It was this mystery that needed to be solved.”

The film — written and directed by Vladic and produced by Melanie Capacia Johnson — will be one of four movies showcased this weekend during the annual Best of the Fest event. The Historic Artcraft Theatre has partnered with organizers of the Heartland Film Festival to bring some of the festival’s best selections to Franklin.

Attendees will have a chance to learn the story of Mary Thompson Fisher, a woman who crossed cultural barriers to become one of the greatest Native American performers of all time.

They can explore the ways people communicate in “Wild Prairie Rose” and go on a magical mystery in “The Adventure Club.”

But the jewel of the event focuses on the USS Indianapolis.

The USS Indianapolis was a heavy cruiser active in the Pacific during World War II. The ship had seen combat in New Guinea, the Marianas Islands and Okinawa, among other battles. But it will forever be remembered for its run to Tinian, one of the Northern Mariana Islands, to bring enriched uranium and other parts for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima.

Following delivery of the parts, and a stop in nearby Guam, the ship was heading towards the Philippines when a Japanese torpedo struck it. The ship sank in a matter of minutes — sailors giving their recollections in Vladic’s interviews said, “I didn’t jump off the ship, the ship left me.”

The sinking came so quickly that few lifeboats had been deployed. Most of the sailors didn’t have life jackets on.

Four days passed before they were rescued. At that point, nearly 600 men had died in the water, in addition to the nearly 300 who perished in the initial explosion.

“When I first heard about it, I wondered if this was real. I wanted to find out more about it,” Vladic said.

She started crafting the film around 2000. As a teenager, she had become fascinated with the tidbits of the USS Indianapolis story that she saw in a documentary.

Her attempts to learn more about it were stymied. She couldn’t find movies or books that dealt with it.

“Even back then, I knew I wanted to make movies. I always thought someone would make this story into a really great movie, and no one did,” she said.

When she graduated from Pepperdine University with a degree in cinematography, Vladic vowed that she would tell the USS Indianapolis story. She sought out survivors of the naval disaster and attended reunions of USS Indianapolis survivors.

Slowly, she got to know these men and talked with them. After years of discussion, a group of the survivors asked Vladic to document their history.

“They took me in,” she said. “They kind of became adopted grandparents; it became more than telling a story.”

Over a period of 10 years, Vladic interviewed these different survivors and captured their recollections — prewar life, their service in the Navy, what they remember about the sinking of the ship and its aftermath.

Many of the men hadn’t even told their own spouses the story.

“For the first time, I got a chance to see the war as a very personal thing,” Vladic said. “I didn’t expect that to happen; it’s been so removed from our generation. But this was so personal to these men and their families.”

Getting the survivors wasn’t the only challenge of the filming. Vladic also was faced with the unfortunate reality that these veterans were between 80 and 90 years old. When she started her interviews, there were 117 Indianapolis survivors still alive. By the time it was over, that number had dwindled to around 30.

Only 22 are still living now, Vladic said.

With more than 170 hours of interview footage, Vladic had to pare these stories down into a cohesive film. Getting rid of any of these sailors’ words was difficult.

“At this point, these men had all become very close to me. I didn’t want to cut anything,” she said.

But she went through all of her materials, and lovingly assembled a documentary that told the story.

Since its release in 2015, “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy” has been featured at film festivals and screenings throughout the country. At the GI Film Festival, held in San Diego to recognize veterans’ stories in film and television, it won awards for best documentary in the local showcase and audience choice award. Vladic also won best female director for it.

The film was a special presentation at last year’s Heartland Film Festival.

The ability to educate and inform people, those who were alive during World War II and those who knew next to nothing about the sinking of the Indianapolis, has been incredibly rewarding, Vladic said.

But nothing compares to the reaction from survivors.

“Seeing the survivors recognize that people actually care about their story has been so rewarding and so cool. After the screenings, everyone wants to talk to them. I told them, ‘Your story is important,’ and it is,” she said. “They’re so happy. It makes my heart so full.”

Best of the Fest

What: A selection of four of the top movies shown at the 2016 Heartland Film Festival.

Where: The Historic Artcraft Theatre, 57 N. Main St., Franklin

Admission: Tickets to each film are $6 apiece.

Schedule

“Wild Prairie Rose”

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Summary: In 1952, Rose Miller returns to her rural hometown of Beresford, South Dakota, to care for her ailing mother. Once there, she falls in love with a deaf man and must decide if she has the courage to follow her heart. “Wild Prairie Rose” is an examination of the changing roles of women in 1950s America and the ways we can learn to communicate with one another. The film will be shown in English and American Sign Language with limited English subtitles. An ASL interpreter from LUNA Language Services will be in attendance; deaf and hearing-impaired guests are encouraged to attend.

“The Adventure Club”

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Summary: “The Adventure Club” is a heartfelt story about a group of friends who find a magical mystery and are banded together on an exciting adventure. They encounter challenges and adversaries, joining forces as The Adventure Club in order to outsmart opposing forces and save the day.

“USS Indianapolis: The Legacy”

When: 5 p.m. Saturday

Summary: “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy” is the story of the greatest sea disaster in U.S. Navy history, told for the first time by only those who lived it. After two Japanese torpedoes sank the ship following its top-secret mission to deliver the atomic bombs, 880 men were left in the water to face searing sun, thirst, hundreds of sharks and ultimately each other, for five days. Just 317 men survived — only to band together again in a 58-year fight to clear their captain’s name.

“Te Ata”

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Summary: “Te Ata” is based on the inspiring, true story of Mary Thompson Fisher, a woman who traversed cultural barriers to become one of the greatest Native American performers of all time. Born in Indian territory and raised on the songs and stories of her Chickasaw tribe, Te Ata’s journey to find her true calling led her through isolation, discovery, love and a stage career that culminated in performances for a United States president, European royalty and audiences across the world.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.