On July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis, with 1,196 Sailors and Marines aboard, was hit by two of six torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine. The 610-foot-long heavy cruiser was chopped into three sections, all of which were sinking … But that’s just the beginning of the story….
Corporal Edgar Harrell was a Marine, a 20-year-old kid, who finished his watch on the USS Indianapolis at midnight July 29, 1945. It was unbearably hot, stifling down below where his berth was, so he got permission to make a pallet on deck, right under the barrels of the No. 1 forward turret.
Harrell had just dozed off.
And then, a few minutes into July 30, the world exploded.
The USS Indianapolis, with 1,196 sailors and Marines aboard, was hit by two of six torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine. The 610-foot-long heavy cruiser was chopped into three sections, all of which were sinking.
Metal groaned and twisted, water churned and rose, and men scrambled and screamed. Three-quarters of the crew would die in the disaster.
For years afterward, Harrell and his fellow survivors talked little — if at all — about what happened that night. And when some did, they were dismissed or ignored. But eventually, they not only talked, they hollered — to correct the historical record and to redeem the captain they revered but who got the official blame for the single worst loss of life at sea in the U.S. Navy’s history.
One of the few left
This weekend, Harrell, who now lives in Tennessee, was among about a dozen of the remaining 36 survivors of the ship at a reunion in the city that gave the famed vessel its name. Harrell told his story, vivid with details and passion, insistent that it not be forgotten.
He also has chronicled his story in his book, “Out of the Depths: An Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival, Courage, and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis,” which Harrell republished in May after initially self-publishing it in 2005. Harrell’s story, like that of his shipmates, is one of harrowing survival and gruesome death, tremendous courage and painful betrayal, and, eventually, redemption, albeit posthumously for many.
That night, in the chaos, the young Harrell, originally from Kentucky, realized he didn’t have his drab brown kapok life jacket. He’d left it below. He spied some of the jackets on deck, but waited permission to take one. He also searched for his commanding officer, looking for orders on what to do next. They all waited for the official command to abandon ship. The order came, but really, it was a moot point.
Within 12 minutes, the USS Indianapolis sank. There were few lifeboats. Of the original crew, 900 men went into the water. Some had the life jackets, some didn’t, and most bobbed in the water like corks.
Some were severely burned from explosions, some had broken bones and cuts, most were covered with fuel oil loosed in the water as the ship broke into pieces.
How did he survive?
The gruesome and harrowing story of the next four days was little known in the years right after the war. Harrell didn’t talk about it, even privately, for the first few years. They didn’t have this label back then, but today, the 89-year-old knows he suffered from post-traumatic stress.
The men in the water faced relentless exposure to the sun, starvation, dehydration — surrounded by water, they had nothing to drink — and fatal saltwater poisoning if they gave in and tried to drink the ocean water. And then there were the sharks.
Harrell found himself in a group of about 80 men that first night, including another Marine, badly injured. Harrell held the man, keeping his head above water, but there was little else he could do.
“He basically died with me holding onto him,” Harrell said, lowering his eyes but pausing only slightly. He has told the story many times by now; he knows how to get through it.
“And that first morning, we had sharks.”
The men were bobbing in the water, trying to pack together, and fins would appear around them, Harrell recalled. But inevitably, a man would get separated from the group and float off.
“And then you hear a blood-curdling scream,” he said. “And then the body would go under, and then that life vest popped back up.”
No water to drink
The life vests, crude by today’s high-tech standards, would become water-logged and less effective as flotation devices, he recalled. The men figured out they could fashion vests in a way that allowed them to sit on them, sort of like inner tubes, allowing them to keep their heads above water if they maintained the effort, strength and discipline to stay balanced in a seated position.
The thirst and dehydration were unimaginable, Harrell said. Tongues swelled, lips split open and salt caked their eyes and faces as the briny ocean water dried in the sun. In desperation, some men drank the salty water, and those who resisted the impulse soon saw what happened to the brains of those who relented. It took only about an hour, Harrell said, before the hallucinations began for those men. Terrifying, final hallucinations.
By Day 3, only 17 of the original 80 who were with Harrell were still alive.
That day, his group spotted what looked like a small raft. A few sailors had found a few ammunition cans and potato or orange crates and figured out a way to lash them together. On the raft, they placed sodden life jackets, which they squeezed as dry as possible, like sponges, then allowed them to further air dry atop the crude raft. That way, they could trade out the jackets and buy themselves more time.
Also that day, Harrell saw another crate floating. He swam to it. Inside were potatoes — mostly rotten, but with some nutrition and moisture in them. He stuffed some in his pockets. He ate, peeling skin and the most rotten parts off with his teeth.
It was on the fourth day that finally, and by accident, a U.S. military plane discovered “the boys” in the water, still with sharks all around. That plane couldn’t land in water, but summoned help. The pilot, Harrell recalled, didn’t even know if the bobbing heads he saw were American or Japanese. It didn’t matter. A sea plane and rescue vessels were dispatched.
In all, 317 men were plucked from the ocean. They were moved from emergency to longer-term hospitals. It took years to recover. Harrell was in hospitals for months, a stay extended when his appendix burst and his body was riddled with infection. In those early days of penicillin, Harrell received 11.8 million units of the new antibiotic over 29 days — he remembers it, to the unit, to the day.
And then, the young man basically went home, stopping in Chicago in early 1946 to be discharged from the Marines and in 1947 marrying the pretty brunette who had promised to wait for him. Friday, together in Indianapolis, Edgar and Ola Harrell celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary last week.
The USS Indianapolis’ mission was top secret — few of the crew knew that it was delivering to the island of Tinian key parts and enriched uranium for the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima. After completing that mission, the ship stopped off in Guam and was then sent to Leyte Gulf to prepare for a likely invasion of Japan. En route to the Philippines, disaster struck.
As the years unfolded, Harrell and other survivors became angry — that their ship was sent out without a protective destroyer escort, that a cable intercepted before the USS Indianapolis took off from Guam said an attack submarine was in its path but that information wasn’t relayed to the ship, that the celebratory transmission about the sinking from the Japanese submarine to Tokyo was intercepted but didn’t trigger a rescue effort, and that the skipper of the USS Indianapolis, Capt. Charles Butler McVay III, was held accountable and court-martialed even though critical information had been withheld from him.
“They just sent us into harm’s way,” Harrell says, in a booming voice and with vehemence. “It was a miscarriage of justice!”
The goal of many of the surviving USS Indianapolis crew was to un-write the inaccurate chronicles of their ship, and to correct the record of McVay.
“We wanted our good captain exonerated,” Harrell said.
On Oct. 30, 2000, they got their wish, when McVay was posthumously exonerated by Congress and President Bill Clinton. It was a victory for the USS Indianapolis survivors, but too late for McVay. He committed suicide in 1968.
Harrell and many of his fellow survivors went on with their lives, drawing strength from their faith, family and friends. Forgiveness came — last year, Harrell held on his lap the great-granddaughter of Mochitsura Hashimoto, the commander of the Japanese submarine I-58 that sank the USS Indianapolis. The baby smiled at him; Harrell had tears in his eyes.
One weekend not so long ago, Edgar and Ola Harrell attended a survivors reunion and memorial service with their son, grandson and great-grandson, in the embrace of a few remaining survivors and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Now, Harrell said, the important thing is that the story is told. The true story.