Member Ed Lester was particularly interested in this article from theDecember 17th issue of the New American American Magaize.
USS Indianapolis: Miracle at Sea
by William F. Jasper
In the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the USSIndianapolis was sunk by the Japanese. The tale of how the crew survived in the open sea is nothing short of miraculous.
Ensign Harlan Twible was coming off his watch, sky aft, in the crow’s nest of the USS Indianapolis. Just eight weeks out of the Naval Academy, he was at the bottom of the officer ratings, but the 23-year-old son of Massachusetts mill workers would soon demonstrate his mettle and his leadership. Along with his shipmates, he was about to take part in one of history’s most harrowing and heroic epics of survival.
It was 14 minutes after midnight, July 30, 1945. Ensign Twible was getting ready to start down the ladder to the main deck when a Japanese torpedo struck with thunderous impact. The ship’s bow was blown away. Seconds later another torpedo struck the great ship on its starboard side, exploding the powder magazine and fuel bunkers. "At one and the same time I heard the explosion and felt the tear at my side," recounts Twible."Then another explosion. Without thinking I reached down to my side and felt wetness." He had received a shrapnel wound. But, as he told THE NEW AMERICAN in a recent interview, "There was no time to think about my problem. I had other responsibilities to tend to. When you blow a ship to smithereens like that virtually everyone is wounded or injured. I think that probably all but 10 percent of the crew suffered some wound from the attack."
He ran to the quarterdeck, where the executive officer told him to go aft and get the men to the high side of the ship."When I had arrived amidships, our starboard side was about one foot above the water and sinking fast. I yelled, ‘Over the side.’ No one moved or let go of the lifeline he was holding. Who wanted to go into that forbidding sea?Many of them were only 17, 18, 19 years old; they were frightened — we were all frightened. Then I yelled, ‘Follow me’ and jumped into the water. The crew followed."
He had to get them away from the ship, so that it would not roll over on them or suck them under when it went down. The water was covered with oil and most of them had swallowed some of the toxic substance. Ensign Twible told the men to vomit to get the oil out of their system and then had them smear oil on their heads and faces to protect against exposure to the sun and the elements.
An estimated 300 of the ship’s 1,200 crew were killed upon impact; as many as 880 were cast into the sea alive, though many were severely injured. Many of the men were badly burned or had suffered broken limbs, gaping wounds, or internal injuries. A large number of men had been forced to abandon ship without life jackets. Survival in the open sea was doubtful enough for men in peak condition; for this mass of maimed and mangled sailors it would take a miracle — and courage beyond measure. Pain, exhaustion, dehydration, blood loss, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, delirium, depression — and sharks — took their deadly toll. By the time help finally arrived, four-and-a-half days later, only 321 remained.
Ensign Twible had the men count off. There were 325; only 151 would survive until rescue ships arrived. They had only four rafts. "I told them to put the worst wounded into the rafts and for everyone else to tie themselves to the floater nets."
Off in the dark Pacific night, in the rolling waves, another, larger group of nearly 400 were assembling, under the leadership of Dr. Lewis Haynes, Marine Captain Edward Parke and Father Conway, the Catholic chaplain. They had no life rafts; Dr. Haynes called them his "swimmers." Only 66 from their group survived. Other smaller groups and individuals were scattered across the waves. By the time help arrived, the survivors had drifted 100 miles and were strung out along a swath 18 miles long.
Seaman first-class Ed Brown was in Dr. Haynes’ group. "There was a huge explosion and a big ball of fire that shot up into the sky — probably 200 feet or more," he recounted to THENEW AMERICAN."It did not take very long for the ship to start listing badly. I jumped; it was about 70 feet down to the water." He swam for about 100 yards, then turned back to look at what seemed "just like a Hollywood production. We could see the keel standing up, the fantail with the screws still turning, silhouetted against the moon." Then, as the ship sunk beneath the waves, the moon hid again in the clouds and all was dark.
A few days before, Ed Brown had unknowingly played a key role in world history. On July 26th, the Indianapolis, one of the Navy’s most prized cruisers, had completed a record-setting run from San Francisco to the island of Tinian (about 100 nautical miles north of Guam and nearly 5,300 nautical miles from California). It was a secret mission, delivering critical components for an ultra-secret weapon: two uranium-235 triggers for the atomic bombs that would be dropped on Japan.
At Tinian, Brown had operated the crane that unloaded the mysterious cargo. "It wasn’t until after our rescue, while we were at the hospital in Guam, that we learned that our cargo was the A-bomb," Brown recalled.
What was the worst part of his ordeal in the water? "Physically, there was, of course, the heat and the cold. We took that for granted, but we only expected to have to endure it for a day before we would be rescued. The thirst and dehydration was terrible and many men went mad from drinking the sea water. And the sharks, of course. But even worse than the terror of the sharks was the anguish of feeling utterly deserted and alone out there in this huge expanse of sea. It seemed at times so hopeless, that help would never come. Especially after the second day."
Did he pray? "Oh yes, I think everyone prayed," said Brown, agreeing with the old maxim that there are no atheists in foxholes — or on sinking ships. "We were bobbing there in the water and someone said, ‘How do you pray?’ I hadn’t always been that religious, but I led them in the Lord’s Prayer. In a desperate situation like that you quickly realize how vulnerable you are and how dependent you are upon God. I was at the end of my strength, within an eyelash of death when I was picked up. I had just started to fall asleep and would have drowned."
Harlan Twible agrees that it is by the grace of God that he was saved. "I never thought that I was going to die. I knew I was in God’s hands and was sure he was going to keep me alive to help keep the other men alive," he told THE NEW AMERICAN.
The experience profoundly changed him and the other men of the Indianapolis. "In those four days and five nights, we had experienced a tragedy beyond dimensions," he says. "We had watched our shipmates die tragic deaths of their wounds because there was no means of assuaging their pain. We watched our shipmates give up all hopes of life because weakness of body had overtaken their strength of mind. We watched as our shipmates were snatched from life by those foraging sharks. We watched as our shipmates expended energy on their wounded friends which they could have marshaled for their own survival. We saw man’s love for his fellow man. We saw men holding up other men while they themselves were dying. We saw true greatness.
"We came out of that water different men than we were when we went in. We would forever think of those who had given their lives, who would never see their loved ones again. We were quiet, stronger, and somehow more knowledgeable than we were before and probably ever would be again. We believed in the brotherhood of man because we had seen that brotherhood in action. We didn’t know how or why but we had become different people. I’ve been asked, ‘Why did you live, Mr. Twible, when other people died?’ My answer was that it was God’s will. We know that it was through God’s grace that those of us who survived did survive. We have tried to fulfill the obligation cast upon us of living the life that honors those who gave theirs. We will never forget, we must never forget. They gave up their places at the table of Life so that we could have ours. We owe it to them to make our lives ones that were worth their sacrifices."