OUT OF THE DEPTHS by Ed Harrell, USMC

(Reprinted from Courier-Journal.com, July 19, 2005)

 
USS Indianapolis
Requiem for a ship lost in WWII
Survivors to gather this week in Indy to mark sinking

By Kelly Cuculiansky
kcuculiansky@courier-journal.com
The Courier-Journal
 

INDIANAPOLIS -- Having just finished his watch at midnight, Marine Cpl. Edgar Harrell had barely dozed off, curled up in a blanket aboard the USS Indianapolis, when the first torpedo jarred him awake.

It had hit the ship near where he was lying, severing more than 30 feet from the bow. The second torpedo struck near midship.

He knew the Indianapolis was doomed.

That night -- July 30, 1945 -- was so hot that all the hatches were open, to let air circulate below deck. Water gushed in, and the ship began to roll onto its starboard side.

On his way to the emergency station, Harrell said he saw men pouring onto the deck, flesh hanging from their faces and arms from flash burns.

"They were desperate to get off the ship," he said last week.

Only minutes after a Japanese submarine attacked the heavy cruiser Indianapolis, about 900 men were floating in the water -- some on rafts, some in lifejackets and some clinging to others with lifejackets. They watched the ship slide into the ocean with about 300 men trapped inside.

Of the 1,197 men aboard, only 317 survived -- one of the nation's worst naval disasters, according to a history of the sinking.

This week, 60 years later, about 60 of the roughly 90 remaining survivors from the USS Indianapolis will gather for a reunion in the ship's namesake city.

The four-day event, which will run Thursday through Sunday at the Westin hotel, is open to the public. It will include a speech by Navy Secretary Gordon England and a memorial service.

"It's a real camaraderie reunion when we get together," said Harrell, 80, a Murray, Ky., native who now lives in Paris, Tenn. "When we leave, we shed tears wondering if we'll get to make it back to shed tears together again."

The reunions, which once were held every five years, now take place every two because fewer survivors are left.

"Some men are coming against their doctor's orders," said John Gromosiak, public relations director of the event.

To help keep the stories alive, people are encouraged to "sit and laugh and cry" with the men and their families, he said.

Nita Kemp of Sun Prairie, Wis., used to attend the reunions with her husband, David, a survivor who died about 10 years ago from lung cancer.

Now she and her son, Thomas, attend in his memory, and they bring other family members when they can.

Her son, who lives in New Orleans and is himself a Vietnam War veteran, said he attends the reunions to listen to the history and meet the men who knew his father and to keep the survivors' stories alive.

"History should never be forgotten," he said. "It's always good to remember what people have gone through to preserve freedom."

A star-crossed ship

The Indianapolis was a fast ship.

Having been repaired about two months before its sinking after a Japanese plane attacked it at Okinawa -- an attack that killed nine men -- the ship was chosen to deliver parts for the atomic bomb that would eventually be dropped on Hiroshima, according to a summary of the events by the survivors' organization.

No one aboard the ship knew what the secret cargo was.

"I don't think the captain even knew what it was," said survivor James O'Donnell, who now lives in Indianapolis.

After delivering the parts to Tinian Island, the Indianapolis was refueled and proceeded to Guam, arriving on July 27, 1945, according to a history of the tragedy titled "Only 317 Survived!"

The ship's captain, Charles McVay, received new orders and set course for Leyte, in the Philippines, to begin gunnery training with a battleship for the planned invasion of Japan, O'Donnell said.

McVay had requested an escort for protection, but the request was denied.

Three days later, two of the six torpedoes fired by that Japanese submarine hit the Indianapolis. It sank within 12 minutes.

Hundreds adrift

The roughly 900 men who escaped the sinking ship and swam away, including O'Donnell, who had a kapok lifejacket, were covered in fuel oil.

"You got the fuel oil in your eyes, it just burned real bad, you got it in your throat, you started throwing up, and it's real heavy oil, you got it in your nose, you couldn't hardly breathe," O'Donnell recalled.

A great irony, said Robert Cembrola, curator of maritime history at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., was that few even realized the Indianapolis was missing.

"It was a classic Catch-22," he said. "The mission had to be made top-secret, so because of that people didn't even know she was out there."

Some men thought that an S.O.S. had been sent out, or that someone would have noticed them missing after the ship did not show up for training as scheduled on July 31, Harrell said.

But instead the survivors of the blast floated in shark-infested waters for five nights and four days.

The temperature during the day reached 110 degrees, O'Donnell said, but at night the men would shiver.

"Ninety degrees is hot, isn't it? But at night � it was cold," he said. "I know that sounds farfetched, but if you was out there you'd believe me."

Men tried to stay in groups to keep the sharks away, Harrell said. But those who drank saltwater would hallucinate, thinking they could see an oasis or island and then would swim away, he said. As soon as they thrashed in the water, a shark would attack, and then the blood would attract even more sharks.

"It's hell on earth to have to watch," he said.

Fighting to survive

To survive, he and the men in his group tried to drink rainwater, when a few drops fell on the third day.

On the same day, they also spotted a crate floating nearby that contained half-rotten potatoes. They peeled the rot off and ate what they could.

The first day Harrell counted about 80 men in his group. By the third day, 17 were left. On the fourth day, only two others were with him.

One man died just an hour before an airplane picked up Harrell's group.

"I survived not by luck -- I survived by providence of God that allowed me to endure what I had to endure," he said.

When some of the survivors were brought to a hospital on the island of Samar in the Philippines, most of the men Albert Cutini talked to didn't want go aboard a ship ever again.

"I was shocked that they even got saved," given how bad their condition was, said Cutini, a nurse's aide from Murray, Ky.

At the time, no one in the hospital's staff knew the circumstances of the sinking, and they had no idea the vessel had just delivered the atomic bomb components, Cutini said.

War changes direction

The survivors credit themselves with helping to bring an end to World War II.

Just 11 days after they delivered the bomb parts to Tinian, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay on Aug. 6, 1945. After a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan surrendered.

"This freedom that we got today didn't come cheap," O'Donnell said. "We lost 880 men in one shot, and how many lives did we save by not having to invade Japan?"

Today Harrell tours the country regularly to talk to high school students and church groups about the Indianapolis.

When he gives speeches, he said, he wants people to remember his buddies who died and he wants young people to be aware of their sacrifices.

"Freedom isn't free," he said. "Freedom costs."

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