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.”
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.