Monday, November 11, 2013

Veteran's Day 2013: Remembering the USS Indianapolis

Last Thursday night at a DAR meeting, I had the privilege of hearing Edgar Harrell speak about his WWII experience on the USS Indianapolis. This was an astounding tale, one full of nightmarish detail, horror, sadness, and bravery. All of these men aboard this ill fated ship are heroes.

Edgar Harrell, 7 November 2013

There were 1,196 men aboard the USS Indianapolis on the night of 30 July 1945 when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine. Approximately 300 men went down with the ship. One of the survivors who would live to tell the tale was Edgar Harrell, a farm boy from Kentucky. In 1943 at about the age of 19, Edgar signed up with the Marines. Upon seeing the USS Indianapolis, Edgar described it as a "floating city" and getting goose bumps when he saw the big guns.

After the USS Indianapolis delivered parts and uranium of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that would later be dropped on Hiroshima, the ship first made a stop in Guam and after proceeded toward the Phillippine islands. They would never make it. Somewhere over the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the Pacific, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine commanded by Mochitsura Hashimoto. Within approximately 12 minutes it sunk. The men that didn't go down with the ship were surrounded by fires, oil, salt water, and the night sky.

There were few lifeboats and some of the men did not have time to put on their life jackets. Communications had been knocked out when the ship was hit, and the command to abandon ship was passed on from crew member to crew member verbally. Some of the men that survived were badly injured and would not make it through the night or the next day. All of the men were covered with oil from the ship, and some would struggle with the oil getting into their eyes. This oil combined with the salt water would irritate their eyes to blindness.

These men would spend the next 5 days and 4 nights trying to survive in the Pacific Ocean. To make matters worse there was little food if any, no drinking water, and sharks. The men huddled together in groups as best as they could. This did not prevent the sharks from attacking, although to stray from the group was an almost guarantee of being eaten by a shark. They also had life jackets that read "only good for 48 hours."

For the next 5 days the men would deal with hypothermia, shark attacks, dehydration, life jackets that no longer worked, few life boats, salt-water induced hallucinations, exhaustion from trying to stay afloat, and hunger. These men would watch their buddies become eaten by sharks, watch body parts of attacked buddies float to the surface, see other buddies drown, go crazy, succumb to wounds and exhaustion, or just generally give up.

Then on 2 August 1945, when they had realized that there were no rescue missions and were giving up hope, they were spotted. While on a routine patrol flight, co-pilot Lieutenant Wilbur "Chuck" Gwinn spotted Edgar and one other man that he was swimming with. This is a miracle in and of itself, that required so many details to line up exactly right. Just imagine for a moment flying high above the ocean and all you see for miles and miles is just water. You see the sun reflecting off of it here and there, little white caps breaking on the surface among the undulating motion of the sea. You are too high to see much in the way of specific little details, and besides you are only looking for enemy ships. Nothing else.

On this particular routine flight an antennae had become loose. Lt. Gwinn decided to try and fix it. He opened the bottom hatch, glanced down at the ocean far below for a brief second, and saw a reflection. Thinking it was the enemy he sounded the alarm. What he saw was the ship's oil reflecting off of Edgar and the other man's bodies. This was truly a miracle.

The survivors, 321 of them, would eventually be rescued and taken to hospitals. Some of these men would end up succumbing to wounds or other ailments. Of the 1,196 original crew members of the USS Indianapolis, only 317 would survive.

The book written by David Harrell, as told by Edgar Harrell.

This was an extremely powerful talk last Thursday. It is one I keep thinking of and pondering over. It is amazing that these 317 men survived. They lived through a nightmare, somehow finding the courage and strength to do so. Edgar's son, David, wrote a book about it that gives more details than could be covered during the talk. I'm looking forward to reading it and finding out more of the story. So on this Veteran's Day, I've been thinking of the USS Indianapolis crew. True heroes. It is impossible to put into words the thanks for your sacrifice.

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