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Remembering the struggle to survive 66 years ago

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I prayed. I was scared to death, Harrell, 87, said as he began his presentation to a hushed and reverent audience. He was one of only 317 to survive the ships sinking on July 30, 1945, while 880 perished.


The ship was torpedoed at night by the Japanese. He recalled that on day one he and 79 others, who had managed to jump from the ship, formed a group as they swam in the ocean.


 We had company the first morning. We saw fins (the fins of sharks) swimming around us, Harrell said. He detailed how some of the men because of their desperate situations began seeing and imaging things that werent present.


They thought they were seeing an oasis and would break from our group and begin swimming toward what they thought they were seeing.


He said moments later the group would see this person disappear, dropping beneath the surface of the water, and then like a fishing float their life jacket would bob back up and either be empty or have only the upper portion of their torso showing. The absent Marine had been the target of lurking sharks.


On day two Harrell said he had become so thirsty that his tongue was swelling in his mouth. Some, he said, sampled the salt water and later became sick and mentally deranged.


By noon on day three there were only 17 survivors remaining of the original group of 80. He said while its generally repeated that there are no atheists in fox holes, there were no atheists in their group either.


One young Marine he said told him he had never prayed before but then began to pray, God, if youre out there, I dont want to die. I have a son back home Ive never seen.


Late on day four, the small contingent was spotted by a plane that initially saw an oil slick in the water and on closer inspection found the remaining Marines. The rescue effort then began.


The Indianapolis had been on a mission to deliver the worlds first operational atomic bomb. It was the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. It completed its mission on July 26 and then was given orders to join the battleship USS Idaho (BB-42) at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Navy command had advised the ship that there was no need for an escort although the ship had requested one.


The impact of this unexpected disaster is said to have sent shock waves of disbelief throughout Navy circles in the South Pacific. A public announcement of the loss of the Indianapolis was delayed for almost two weeks until Aug. 15, thus ensuring that it would be overshadowed in the news on the day when the Japanese surrender was announced by President Truman.


Harrell told about this and noted a number of flaws in the way the Navy handled the whole ordeal including a court martial of the ships captain, Captain Charles McVay.


Years after the court martial of McVay, Harrell and other survivors appealed to members of Congress, the Navy and the Armed Services Committee to clear the captain of any wrongdoing in connection with the ships sinking. After top secret records were opened and released, it became clear that McVay was not at fault and in fact the Navy had made a number of errors itself including providing false information to the ships captain with respect to its voyage from Guam to Leyte Gulf.


Harrell said McVays name was cleared but that it was too late because the ships captain had taken his life years before.


It was not until long after McVays court martial that certain information about the Indianapolis was made public including the fact that the Navy was aware that U.S. Intelligence had broken the Japanese code and knew also that two Japanese submarines were operating in the path of the Indianapolis. This information was classified at the time and not made available to either the court-martial board or to Captain McVays defense counsel. It did not become known until the early 1990s that -- despite knowledge of the danger in its path -- naval authorities at Guam had sent the Indianapolis into harms way without any warning, refusing its captains request for a destroyer escort, and leading him to believe his route was safe.


Now living in Clarksville, Harrell owned and operated the Pella Window Company, Inc., Rock Island, Ill., for 35 years until his retirement in 1985.


During the years 1970 to 1985, he served on the board of trustees of the Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago, Ill., and has been a popular Bible teacher and lay minister throughout his adult life.


He and his son David Harrell have authored a book about his story as a survivor of the USS Indianapolis titled, Out of the Depths.


CEO and Publisher Sam Hatcher may be contacted at shatcher@wilsonpost.com.

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