Thursday, September 25, 2008

USS Indianapolis

US Navy Photo

The USS Indianapolis

How 800 Died With Ship Told

By Rick Johnson-Indianapolis Star, July 27, 1975

Seven Indianapolis men were aboard the cruiser USS Indianapolis when she went down in the Philippine Sea on July 30, 1945. More than 800 of the 1,199-man crew were lost.

Only one from
Indianapolis survived…Lt. James E. O’Donnell, a city fireman for 30 years.

WTHR Photo

From Friday through next Sunday, O’Donnell will gather here with other survivors for a reunion and memorial service for the shipmates who didn’t make it back from that hot summer night of terror 30 years ago.

Indianapolis Star Photo

Men who have lived through such trials often are reluctant to speak of the details. Sometimes their reason is based on respect and sorrow for the men who died; other times their silence is motivated by the grief and suffering they witnessed.

Thirty years has eased O’Donnell’s pain of recall, but he wears no banner which proclaims he is an
Indianapolis survivor. He will talk, but this account comes forth deliberately, and he makes few mentions either of the suffering he experienced or witnessed, or of the things he heard. O’Donnell’s story clings to what happened to him and what he knows.

Keith C. Smith Photo

O’Donnell, now 55, grew up in the near-Eastside neighborhood around State Avenue and Ohio Street, and was graduated from Holy Cross School and attended Cathedral High School two years. He joined the Navy in February 1944, and after basic training was assigned to the Indianapolis as a water tender.

The ship hit the Pacific hot spots…Guam, Tinian, Saipan, and others during O’Donnell’s first cruise. Then, as the island hopping was increased in tempo, came to Iwo Jima and Okinawa. At Okinawa during April 1945, a Japanese kamikaze plane crashed into the
Indianapolis, necessitating major repairs.

Indianapolis was in dry dock on the West Coast when the first atomic bomb was being assembled on the tiny isle of Tinian. Vital parts of the bomb had to be carried swiftly to the island. A lone ship, cruising at top speed, could do the job, and the Indianapolis was chosen.

Repairs were rushed, and crew members were ordered back to duty at 6 a.m. one morning during the first week of July.

“I don’t believe there were very many people who knew what we were carrying,” O’Donnell said. “I certainly didn’t. It was another cruise, and back into action, for all most of us knew. When we sailed, we didn’t even take a shakedown cruise. The skipper headed her into the wind, and we went under the Gate (the Golden Gate Bridge) at 20 knots. Our first stop was Pearl Harbor for refueling and provisions. From there, we went to Tinian, and we averaged 24 ½ knots for the trip. That was really moving in those days.”

US Navy Photo

“But we still didn’t know what we were carrying. We didn’t find out about that until much later.”

The day of July 29, 1945, was routine for O’Donnell…playing pinochle, bull sessions, eating, and catching a few winks in the crowded, hot sleeping quarters three decks deep in the ship.

“My watch was to begin at 4 a.m. on July 30 (a Monday). Sleeping below decks was tough…it was so hot. An awful lot of us took our blankets and went topside to sleep out in the open on the fantail of the ship.”

“I guess it was about 10 or 11 p.m. on Sunday, when I decided to get some sleep before standing my watch.”

With a cool breeze coming over the deck in the moonlight, and the gentle roll of the ship and the pulse of the turbines playing their lullaby, O’Donnell was soon asleep.

Within two hours, O’Donnell and the others were blasted awake when two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine crashed into the ship.

Groggy from sleep, O’Donnell said it felt as though the ship had been picked up and slammed down hard two or three times.

“I was bewildered and dazed, but I wasn’t hurt. I looked forward, and all I could see was a wall of flames. I knew we’d been hit hard. The kamikaze let me know the feeling. A Marine Corps lieutenant was running around, telling us to stay with the ship…that she wouldn’t sink. But men had already begun to drop over the side, even though we were still under way.”

“The ship began to go down by the bow to the starboard (right) side. We began putting on our life preservers, but not everybody got one. The ship rolled hard to starboard, hesitated a moment, and began turning over. As it began to roll, I headed uphill to the port railing, and I hung on as she rolled over on her side. I went through the railing and walked down the side.”

“I dropped into the water between the hull and the propeller shaft, and got away from the ship as quickly as I could. When I hit the water, I got my mouth, nose, ears, and eyes full of seawater and oil. I got plenty sick, but I kept moving. I’d heard stories about the tremendous suction a sinking ship creates, and I didn’t want to be close.”

“I turned around, and could see the stern high in the air…straight up. Then, it went straight under. If it caused suction, I didn’t feel it, and I always thought that was curious. There was a large group of us in the water, and we made it to a floater net and a raft. We put those men with burns and broken arms and legs on the raft, and the rest of us just hung on to the life lines of the rafts.”

“We had no water, and in the four days I was in the water, I had one small cracker to eat.”

During those four days, man after man in O’Donnell’s group, and in two other groups of survivors, died of wounds or burns, from drinking seawater, or were victims of sharks.

“Every so often, the lieutenant commander in charge of my group would make us quit talking, and we would say a prayer together,” he recalled. “It seemed strange to say a prayer, and the next moment hear a man cuss, but there were so many delirious men. You could nod off to sleep in your life jacket, and when you woke up, the man next to you…a guy you’d just been talking with…would be gone. Just gone…and no one had seen him leave.”

“Men delirious from the sun and thirst would swim away, telling everyone they were going below to get a drink of water. Then, they’d gulp seawater and get sick and die. I kept calm and collected my thoughts. After going over the side and choking on that seawater and oil, to me the seawater was poison.”

“I know it’s probably wrong…physically impossible…but I kept telling myself that my body would filter and absorb all the water it needed. I just didn’t drink seawater, or think about doing it.”

“There were men aboard who worked hard at staying physically fit. They’d walk around the ship all the time and exercise and work out. They were in good physical shape, but none of them made it. There’s something inside a man that makes him want to live,” O”Donnell said with an emphatic nod, “but he’s got to have some luck, too.”

It was late on the fourth day in the water that O’Donnell’s group was picked up by the attack transport

The survivors were taken to the Philippines and hospitalized. O’Donnell was treated for dehydration and numerous salt ulcers.

While they were recovering, the
Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, Nagasaki sprouted the dreaded nuclear mushroom, and the war was drawing to a rapid close…thanks, in part, to the contributions and sacrifices of the men on the Indianapolis.

O’Donnell was discharged from the Navy in January 1946, and during May of that year he was appointed to the fire department. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1966. He and his wife, Mary Alice, are the parents of three sons, Jim, Tom, and Tim, and a 12-year-old daughter, Mary Teresa. They are members of Our Lady of Lourdes parish.

O’Donnell received a Purple Heart, and he carries a photograph of the
Indianapolis in his billfold with the pictures of his family. He still has the telegrams the War Department sent his wife and mother notifying them of the disaster. He also kept three oil-soaked pieces of currency…a $5, a $2, and a $1 bill he had with him when he jumped into the water.

US Navy Photo

What does O’Donnell believed pulled him through?

“I’m not what you call a real religious man, but then, I just put my faith in the Good Lord. You know, they turn a page in the book every day. When the page with your name on it is turned…that’s it…you go.”

When the survivors of the
Indianapolis meet at the Atkinson Hotel, there won’t be much talk about those days of pain, suffering, and sorrow.

“We’ll talk about what we’ve done since then, and we’ll have a good time. But we’ll think about the ones who didn’t make it, and be thankful we did.”

Indianapolis Star Photo

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to comment away with your bad-ass selves.

Cursing and foul language is fine...even encouraged here. In fact, I think cussing is fucking wonderful.

Just remember...this is MY house, and I will not be insulted or maliciously messed with here.

Good-natured ribbing is cool, but if you and I don't have some kind of previous relationship, you had best mind your fucking manners or I will relegate you to the intardnets dustbin for being a cunt.

To know me is to love me.

Or something.