Titanic sinking was tragic, but USS Indianapolis survivors battled starvation and sharks

By Kat Merrill Edgar Harrell holds a model of the plane that first began rescuing USS Indianapolis survivors from the sea.

By Kat Merrill
Edgar Harrell holds a model of the plane that first began rescuing USS Indianapolis survivors from the sea.

It’s hard to imagine that many people have not heard the story of the RMS Titanic.

The largest Olympic-class ocean liner in history up to that point struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage April 15, 1912, and went down in the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Because she didn’t have nearly enough lifeboats on board for all the passengers and crew, more than 1,500 people froze to death and/or drowned that night off the coast of Newfoundland.

That was a terrible tragedy, but so was the wartime sinking of the USS Indianapolis, a story about which you may not have heard.

The heavy cruiser was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine just after midnight July 30, 1945, in the last weeks of World War II. Of the nearly 1,200 men that were on the ship, an estimated 900 survived the blasts from two missiles and went into the water. They were cold and soaked with oil from the ship, and many of them were injured.

But because the ship wasn’t given an escort by the U.S. Navy, to which it belonged, no one from the American side knew that the ship had been hit and she therefore wasn’t reported missing. For five days, the men battled the cold of the Philippine Sea, their injuries, the lack of food or drinkable water and, even more horrifying, sharks.

One by one, the men, many of them really not much more than boys, drowned, died of their injuries or were attacked by the sharks. When they were finally rescued, there were only 317 left.

I recently had the honor to meet and speak with one of those survivors, one of only 23 still alive today.

I can’t remember a time in my life when a crowd of people was as silent as they were on this night, when Edgar Harrell spent nearly two hours recounting those terrible days, one by one. I was so stunned by the story, and so mesmerized by Harrell’s retelling of it, that I didn’t take a single note. Several times during the former Marine’s talk, I realized my mouth was literally hanging open. I wasn’t the only one.

Harrell was only 20 years old at the time. He’s 91 now. Hearing him speak about the experience, shaking his hand and thanking him for his service were among the best moments of my life. I bought his book, “Out of The Depths: An Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival, Courage, and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis,” and he signed it for me, saying, “God’s best to you. Semper Fi.”

U.S. Naval Institute Alfred Sedivi, the USS Indianapolis' photographer, died in the disaster.

U.S. Naval Institute
Alfred Sedivi, the USS Indianapolis’ photographer, died in the disaster.

Harrell’s appearance was part of the opening of a traveling exhibit of photos from the ship’s photographer, Alfred Sedivi, who took photos of the sailors and Marines during their time on the ship. He also “captured the aftermath of the battles on Tinian, Saipan, Guam, Tarawa and Iwo Jima,” according to the U.S. Naval Institute. “His photos survived the war because he secretly sent them home to his family until the days before his ship’s fatal mission.”

He also gave them to his buddies, who also often sent them home.

The photos are moving and poignant, and I was brought to tears several times while viewing them, thinking about the fact that most of the men in them didn’t survive the ordeal.

A treat that night was that the people in the audience were the first to see the trailer of the coming film “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,” starring Nicolas Cage. I will definitely be at the theater to see it.

You can learn more about the exhibit and the ship here.

And you can learn about and purchase Harrell’s book here.

U.S. Naval Institute The USS Indianapolis

U.S. Naval Institute
The USS Indianapolis


  1. Edgar Harrell · November 13, 2016

    A very accurate summation of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis on July 30 1945, where only 317 of the crew of 1197 would still be alive to be rescued after some 4-1/2 days swimming with sharks, which made it the largest casualty at sea in the history of the US Navy. So thankful that 23 of us are still alive as of this date. Read my book “Out of the Depths” for a complete analysis of the events of that disaster.
    God Bless
    Semper Fi
    Edgar Harrell -USMC -Survivor.
    http://WWW.indysurvivor.com –ed@indysurvivor.com http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOAg3wCkOkI


  2. Mary Kerr · July 29, 2018

    This story is riveting. Our church had USS Indianapolis survivor, Edgar Harrell for our annual Patriotic Sunday, June of 2017. He had everyone in the palm of his hand telling of the horrors of the sinking of the ship; the perseverance of the men who survived and the goodness of the Almighty to bring a rescue team at just the right moment. Any group, school, church, or civic activity would benefit from the challenge that this U.S. marine shares.


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