On July 29, the eve of the 71st anniversary of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, I sat listening to a survivor of that horror recount his experience. Edgar Harrell, a Marine aboard the USS Indianapolis during World War II, was speaking at Page and Palette bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama. I had purchased a signed copy of his new book about the ordeal, “Out of the Depths,” before we took our seats. But I had little idea of what I was about to hear.
After his introduction, Harrell, “Ed,” took the microphone and boomed out a greeting. His voice was surprisingly strong for a man who will be 92 on October 10. He looked and moved like a man 20 years younger. He sported a red Marine ball cap with “USS Indianapolis” embroidered above the bill.
Ed didn’t waste any time getting into his story. After delivering a mysterious cargo to Tinian Island in the South Pacific, the ship headed, unprotected, to Guam and then to the Philippines. Because of the suffocating heat on the night of July 29, Captain Charles McVay III, allowed the crew to sleep on deck. Ed, fully clothed, lay down below one of the two forward gun turrets.
A few minutes past midnight, the first torpedo sheared away the bow of the ship. The second tore into the hull below the bridge. Few of the crew had brought their life vests to the deck, including Ed. As the ship listed, the crew scrambled to the upside rail. Amid the chaos, Ed asked a lieutenant if they could cut down the bags of new kapok life vests strung along a rope on the bulkhead.
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“No,” he replied. “Not until we are given orders to abandon ship.” Then a wounded commander staggered on deck.
“Get a life vest for the commander!” someone yelled.
When the rope was cut, Ed and others grabbed the vests.
As the ship’s list steepened, the captain’s “abandon ship” order had to be passed mouth to ear among the crew. Men began jumping into the oil-slicked water of the night sea.
Ed hesitated, frightened by the dark water. “I had no idea what was under there,” he said.
“Then something I must have learned in Sunday School came into my head, like a loud voice. ‘I will not forsake you. Be not afraid, be not afraid!’” Ed shouted the last “be not afraid.” With those words pounding in his head, he jumped.
Some who managed to get off the ship were so badly wounded that they died within minutes. “Those big screws were up out of the water and still turning,” Ed said. “One of the fellas jumped right into one.”
Despite the 85 degree water temperature, the men began to shiver. “I was lucky,” Ed said. I had on all my clothes. Most of them were wearing only their skivvies.”
Before the ship went down, an SOS had been radioed to the Philippines. Due to a number of factors, none of them defensible, the SOS was ignored. No rescue was launched.
The men formed small groups, linking up when they spotted one another. One group had put together a “raft” of two ammunition cans topped by slats from an orange crate. Several men clung to the sides of the crude structure.
As one day gave way to the next, the kapok vests became saturated, gradually losing buoyancy. The men slipped them off and put them under their bottoms, alleviating the need to constantly kick to keep their heads above water. As thirst grew and tongues swelled, some of the men sipped seawater.
“You know what that does to you,” Ed said, circling his index finger near his temple. “One of the boys in our group started hallucinating. He suddenly screamed that one of the other boys was a ‘Jap” and went after him. Others thought they saw an oasis, a little island, and took off swimming for it.”
A rainstorm blew up, soaking the thirsty men with fresh water. They cupped their hands and opened their mouths skyward. Ed’s hands, coated with oil slime, tainted the fresh water he poured into his mouth. “Of course, my stomach didn’t like that kerosene taste, and up it came,” he chuckled.
The men were growing weak, sunburned, dehydrated and delirious. Ed spotted something floating in the distance and swam over to investigate it. “It was a crate of potatoes!” he said. He reached through the slats and grabbed one. It was rotten. “But I scraped off the rot with my top teeth and got down to where it was still good.” He towed the crate back to his buddies so all could eat a few mouthfuls of food.
I studied his hands — big hands with palsied fingers — gazed at the skin on his arms, the top teeth that had scraped foul rot off potatoes. This man, standing before me, had experienced four nightmarish days floating, without hope, in the South Pacific during WW II.
Drawn by all the blood in the water, sharks continually circled the men, often brushing by their dangling legs. A shark attacked a man who had swum off to an “oasis” and “suddenly a whole bunch of fins were thrashing around him,” staining the foam with blood. With a nauseating stench of decay, the corpses of the men whose endurance had failed floated steadily alongside the survivors.
When, on day four, an American plane on submarine patrol appeared high above them, the men began waving wildly and splashing the water into foam. The crew did not see them. Due to a malfunction with the antenna, however, the pilot brought the plane down to a much lower altitude for the crew to make adjustments.
The moment the plane flew over Ed’s group, an air crew member opened the bomb bay - and saw the men.
“What were the chances?” Ed said. “It was a miracle.”
The pilot radioed that there were “ducks on the pond” and gave their coordinates. The rescue was underway — four days after the ship had gone down.
When Ed got to the hospital in the Philippines, medical personnel washed the salt and petroleum off his body. He was covered in bleeding ulcers. They coated him with Vaseline, wrapped him in gauze, and shot him full of the newly discovered penicillin. He spent months recovering in a succession of hospitals.
Needing a scapegoat for this tragedy, the Navy blamed Captain McVay for not “zig-zagging,” a maneuver designed to deter submarine attacks. He was the only captain in U.S. Navy history court-martialed for the sinking of his ship due to an act of war.
“In 1968, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger,” Ed said.
Ed states with some heat that Navy ship routers in Guam knew enemy submarines were prowling the area the Indianapolis was traversing. He said that a Japanese sub had recently sunk the destroyer Underhill within range of the ship’s route. Naval intelligence had not informed Captain McVay that the Japanese sub I-58 was operating in his path, nor had he been given the destroyer escort he requested. In addition, the Indianapolis was not equipped with the submarine detection sonar usually found on destroyer escorts. In defense of the Navy, there was a strategic reason for not informing Captain McVay of the dangers awaiting his ship. But you will have to read the book to discover it.
During the question and answer session, Ed had to ask his assistant to repeat the questions to him. “I don’t hear very well,” he explained. After the presentation, we lined up to speak to Ed. As we waited, I remembered something. I extracted my wallet from my purse and scooped out all the coins, selecting one that I had been carrying for a long time.
As Ed put his arm around me, I said, “You’re a true hero and we’re privileged to hear your story. I want you to have this,” I extended my hand. “I give one of these to our soldiers just before they get on the plane to go into combat.”
“Honey, I don’t hear very well,” he said with a kind smile.
He hadn’t heard a word I had said. As I pressed the angel coin into his palm, I put my lips close to his ear.
“You are a hero and an angel,” I said. It was the only truth he needed to hear.
After years of effort by survivors and others, Captain McVay was posthumously exonerated by the U.S. Congress and President Bill Clinton in October 2000.
And the mysterious cargo the Indianapolis had delivered to Tinian Island? It was uranium and components of the atomic bomb, destined for Hiroshima a mere six days after the Indianapolis went down.
War is a savage business.
Carol Megathlin is a writer living in Savannah.