Today marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most tragic events in U.S. Navy history. On its previous cruise, the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis had suffered a kamikaze attack in which 13 crewmen were killed. On July 16, 1945, she sailed from San Francisco on a secret mission to deliver Atomic Bomb parts to Tinian Island in the Pacific. Soon the bombs made from those parts would end World War II and save an estimated 2 million casualties, American and Japanese, that would have resulted from a conventional invasion of Japan.
Around midnight on July 30, the Indianapolis was struck by a Japanese torpedo and sank in twelve minutes. Because her mission was secret, no one knew where she was or that she was in trouble.
About 400 members of the Indy's crew died in the sinking. The rest resorted to rubber rafts and life vests. There they endured 4-5 days lost at sea. They suffered from their wounds, thirst, and exposure. Many died from shark attack. Some became delirious and swam off toward an imagined island. Of the original 1200 men, only 316 were rescued.
The captain, Charles B. McVay III, was blamed for the sinking and convicted in a court martial, but his sentence was commuted and he returned to duty. Sadly, McVay committed suicide in 1968. In 2000, he was exonerated by act of Congress.
Survivors of the Indianapolis gather each year in her namesake city to commemorate the sinking, remember those lost, and relate their experiences. Of her crew, 93 still survive.
"I never gave up," said Loel Dene "L.D." Cox. The men that did, they didn't make it back. And it was easier to give up than it was to stay alive."
"Through this experience, I really knew that there was a God, and it sent me to searching," said crew member Charles McKissick. "I just remembered my mother saying that she knew who could go out there with me, that Jesus could go with me and take care of me -- and He did!"
According to Cletus LeBeau, "I was scared to death and I just said, `Lord, help me.' And I just heard a voice saying, `Fear not.'"
Al Havens considered himself a "modern-day Jonah" who had been running away from God. "That's what God wanted," said Havens. "He wanted to lead me into a place where I would say, `All right, it's out of my hands. Now it's in yours, totally."
L.D. Cox is still haunted by a recurring dream of those desperate days in the sea. "I turn around and [my shipmates are] gone. I hunt for them, and I may accidentally find one of them, and lose him again. It's that way every night."
Cox returned to Texas A&M to finish his degree, then became a teacher, rancher, and bank director. "I'm thankful to be alive and I believe in God," he said.
"He delivered us from the ocean," added one survivor, "and I feel like and know that He delivered us for a purpose."
[Sources: The 700 Club, August 17, 1995; John W. Gonzalez, "Nightmare at Sea," Houston Chronicle, July 29, 2005, pp. B1, 6.]
Copyright 2005 Paul A. Hughes