GR family discovers old photo after WWII ship wreckage found

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In August, researchers in the Pacific Ocean finally discovered the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis.

Word of the find spread across the globe. In Grand Rapids, Delores Sparks got wind of the discovery — and was left stunned.

“It was just almost unbelievable,” Sparks said of learning of the news.

The story of the ship is well known — a tragedy at sea.

It was July of 1945 at the end of World War II when two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine hit the ship.

About 300 sailors immediately went down with it. The 900 still in the water were forced to spend four days and five nights surrounded by sharks and with little to no food or fresh water.

Only 316 men were alive when the crew was finally found.

Sparks’ cousin, Robert “Bobby” LeBaron — an 18-year-old from Grand Rapids — was a seaman on the ship. He was among those who didn’t make it.

“He gave his life at such a young age for his country,” Sparks said.

Upon hearing news of the ship’s discovery, Sparks became determined to find something she wasn’t sure she even had: LeBaron’s old Navy photo.

She and her daughter, Terri Pols, couldn’t seem to locate it until a couple weeks ago. Tucked away in a closet, Sparks discovered the decades-old print.

“I knew that I could find something. I wanted to find something,” Sparks said. “Because he’s part of our family.”

She grew up with LeBaron in Grand Rapids, displaying the old photo from when they were just kids.

“It brings back memories,” she said.

But with those memories comes a bit of heartache.

Sparks said her cousin never got a proper goodbye. No memorial or funeral for LeBaron — at least not locally or beyond immediate family.

Pols reached out to 24 Hour News 8, not asking for those things — but simply to share LeBaron’s story.

Pols said it’s a reminder of the sacrifice of every man or woman who serves our country.

“They don’t do it for fanfare or accolades. They (do) it for the love of country. And for the freedoms that we really take for granted,” Pols said of U.S. military service members. “I personally don’t think about it as often as I should. But we need to thank them more.”

For the few USS Indianapolis survivors still alive, and for families of those killed, many questions remain.

“We know he’s with God,” Sparks said. “But what really happened? Did he live longer or was he gone immediately? We don’t know.”

And they may never have those answers. But at least now, they have something: closure.