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‘We knew the ship was doomed’: USS Indianapolis survivor recalls four days in shark-filled sea

Researchers finally locate the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis more than seven decades after it was sunk in the Pacific by a Japanese torpedo. (Video: Reuters)

It was a sweltering July night, about 110 degrees, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The USS Indianapolis had just completed a top-secret mission to deliver the contents of an atomic bomb to Tinian, one of the Northern Mariana Islands. That bomb, called “Little Boy,” would later be dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

That night, the ship was headed west to the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, where she was to join the USS Idaho to prepare for an invasion of Japan. The cruiser had been traveling 32 knots and had slowed down to 17, Cpl. Edgar Harrell heard his captain say on the speaker. It was about midnight, the end of Harrell’s watch duty. The 20-year-old Marine from Kentucky went below deck, grabbed his blanket and dozed off.

What he and the others on the ship did not know was that they were being watched. Down below, the Japanese submarine I-58 was about to fire six torpedoes.

Two struck the ship. The first one hit just a few minutes after Harrell fell asleep. The second hit the middle of the ship, near the fuel tank and a powder magazine, Harrell said.

He could hear and feel water flooding below deck. It was mostly dark. The explosion knocked the power out, and the only source of light was the fire. He had no idea what was going on, so he made his way to his commanding officer to get his orders.

Researchers find wreckage of lost WWII warship USS Indianapolis

“The first 100 yards of the ship was under,” Harrell said. “We knew the ship was doomed. … We knew that our ship was going to leave us, and it’s going to take us with us unless we get off.”

Then he heard his captain’s voice, echoing from a short distance: “Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Abandon ship!”

Harrell made his way to the high side of the ship, grabbed hold of a steel cable, and “looked out into eternity.”

The 610-foot World War II heavy cruiser was divided in pieces. It sank in just 15 minutes, leaving a layer of black oil floating on the surface.

About 800 of the nearly 1,200 crew members made it off the ship before it sank July 30, 1945. The Navy did not know what had happened, so help did not come. For four days, the men, some of whom had life jackets, floated aimlessly and helplessly in shark-infested waters. Many died of dehydration, starvation and shark attacks. Only 317 were alive by the time a pilot on patrol spotted them by accident.

Harrell, who turns 93 in October, is one of a handful who lived long enough to hear that a team of researchers led by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen had found the wreckage of the Indianapolis, almost 3½ miles below the surface of the Philippine Sea. The discovery was announced Saturday, 72 years after the ship sank.

“It brings closure to the story,” Harrell said. “But the experience that we survived, the trauma that we felt, that still exists.”

Harrell, who wrote a book about his harrowing tale of survival, has been traveling the country retelling his story, often with vividly descriptive details.

“I can still see and feel … the trauma of swimming those 4½ days,” he said. “I can still remember today as if it were just yesterday.”

Harrell said he was among about 80 crew members who were near each other after the ship went under. The rest were scattered elsewhere. He remembers seeing several shark fins surround them. He has not forgotten what it was like to see a fellow crew member one day, and to find that same person’s body another day, bobbing in the water, nearly unrecognizable.

Thirsty, dehydrated and desperate, some in that group drank salt water. Many hallucinated and drifted off. Sometimes, out of nowhere, Harrell would hear bloodcurdling screams.

“You look, the kapok [life] jacket goes under,” Harrell said.

A bloodied body, or what’s left of it, would surface later.

That happened over and over.

The life jackets didn’t have enough buoyancy to keep the men afloat, Harrell said, so they had to keep swimming.

By the third day, when only 17 from Harrell’s group were left, they spotted a small raft. He and a few others decided to use it to try to swim close enough to the Philippines, where they hoped someone would see them. Later that afternoon, Harrell spotted a crate. He swam to it, hoping it had some water and food. He was so dehydrated that his tongue had swollen. Inside the crate were rotten potatoes. He grabbed some, peeling off the rotten parts with his hands and teeth. It was the only food he and the others had.

In 1918, a U.S. Navy ship sank. Last week, a piece of it surfaced in Maryland.

About 11 a.m. on the fourth day, Lt. Wilbur Gwinn was flying his bomber aircraft on routine patrol when he looked down and spotted something. He dropped closer to investigate and saw men aimlessly floating in the water. He couldn’t land, so he called for assistance. “Many men in the water,” he radioed to his base.

Another pilot, Lt. Adrian Marks, was dispatched to help. On the way, he flew over the destroyer USS Cecil Doyle and alerted the ship’s captain of the rescue mission. The captain shifted course and headed toward where the crew members were found.

Marks arrived hours ahead of the Cecil Doyle and rescued 56 men. Harrell said he was one of them. It was dark by the time the Cecil Doyle arrived to pull the rest of the men out of the water.

“Most everyone was pretty much in my condition. You couldn’t stand up. Even difficult to sit up. You were exhausted, probably lost 20 to 25 pounds,” Harrell said.

He was flown to a hospital on Guam. He was still there when the “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. He made it back to the United States that October, but a perforated appendix kept him hospitalized for several more weeks in San Diego. Doctors gave Harrell 11.8 million units of penicillin, he said.

“I became a pin cushion. They didn’t think it was going to work. But I survived that,” he said.

By Jan. 6, 1946, he was sent to a Marine base in Chicago, where he was discharged from duty.

For years, the crew members did not know who was responsible for the sinking of the Indianapolis and the loss of countless lives. But the blame was placed on the crew’s beloved captain, Charles Butler McVay III, who was also among the survivors. McVay was court-martialed after the war and convicted of failing to steer the ship to avoid the torpedoes. Navy Secretary James Forrestal lifted McVay’s sentence in 1946, citing his bravery, but the conviction remained in his record. He retired three years later.

“It’s not justifiable to put the blame on Captain McVay,” Harrell said. “They just broke him in more ways than one.”

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Harrell said he saw McVay at the survivors’ first reunion in 1960 in Indianapolis, the city for which the warship was named. He had written his captain a letter, inviting him to join. The local paper took a picture of him and McVay shaking hands at the reunion. Harrell still has that picture and the letter from McVay when he wrote back.

But eight years later, in 1968, McVay shot himself with his service weapon, not living long enough to see evidence of his innocence become public.

By the early 1990s, previously classified information revealed that U.S. intelligence was aware that two Japanese submarines, including the one that fired the torpedoes, were in the path of the Indianapolis. McVay and his crew were sent out into the ocean without being informed that danger was ahead.

Years later, under pressure from survivors to clear his name, McVay was posthumously exonerated by Congress and President Bill Clinton.

“Just to have him exonerated meant something, but it didn’t do him any good,” Harrell said. “It certainly did us good.”

Harrell does not know how he managed to stay alive. For years, he couldn’t talk about it, until his son convinced him to write a book. It’s called “Out of the Depths.”

Nineteen survivors, including Harrell, are alive today. They still get together every year.

Lisa Rein contributed to this report.

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