93-year-old U.S.S. Indianapolis survivor tells harrowing story of survival
Edgar Harrell may only be alive today because his ship’s captain told him 72 years ago that he could make his bed on the deck to escape the sweltering heat on the USS Indianapolis, which lacked any kind of air conditioning.
The now 93-year-old Marine veteran took his captain up on the offer, grabbing a blanket from his bunk below, but not his life jacket. Then, just after midnight on July 30, 1945, Harrell felt a Japanese torpedo strike the ship.
“All of that water is coming in,” Harrell said. “You could hear and feel the boat heads breaking.”
Harrell, a Kentucky native, shared these experiences to a crowd of several hundred Saturday at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo, an event sponsored by the Utah Military Academy on Veterans Day.
In 1945, Harrell was a 21-year old lance corporal. The USS Indianapolis had just completed a mission delivering atomic bomb components to Tinian, an island about 1,500 miles off Japan’s mainland, which Allied Forces used to stage heavy bombing attacks on the Japanese islands during World War II.
The ship, with its 1,196 crew members, then went to Guam, before beginning a journey to the Philippines it would never complete. On July 30, 1945, the ship was hit by Japanese torpedos, sinking in only 12 minutes, according to ussindianapolis.org.
Harrell said he knew the ship was going to sink, and hurried to his emergency post, where he was able to secure a life jacket, which he described as being “Like a horse collar made into a flotation device.”
Harrell described looking out into the blackness of the night, knowing he was going to have to enter the water, covered in a thick layer of black oil from the ship.
Though scared of entering the water, Harrell said he prayed like never before, wanting to see his parents and siblings again, and most especially, a “certain brunette” who had said she would wait for him while he was away at war.
“I called her today, and she’s still waiting,” Harrell said, “She’s 91. We’ve been married now for 70 years.”
Approximately 300 men went down with the ship when it sunk. The remaining 900 were left in the water, many of them injured.
Though those stranded could not have known this at the time, the ship sank so quickly a distress call was not sent out. And because the Navy did not notice that the ship did not show up at its port on time, it would be four days before 317 survivors would be rescued from the water.
After Harrell exited the ship, he ended up in a group of about 80 people floating in the water, he said. Many of them were injured, and did not make it through the night.
“I didn’t know the buddy I saw there that was broken, broken, broken,” Harrell said. “No doubt many, many broken parts of his body. Basically in my arms, trying to encourage him, trying to assist him. He passed on to eternity.”
Those who survived that night would look out in the morning to see fins breaking the surface of the water, Harrell said, which caused much fear among the men.
As the sun beat down on the dehydrated survivors, some of them started hallucinating, believing they saw oases or islands in the distance and trying to swim to them.
“He sees something that doesn’t exist,” Harrell said. “Leaves the group and starts out. Then all of a sudden, you know, you hear a bloodcurdling scream, and you look and you see that life jacket go under ... Then you see fins, fins, fins, fins, blood, blood, blood.”
“Sometime later you want to know who the person might have been, so you check, and you find bottom torso is gone or he’s disemboweled,” Harrell said. “That’s going to happen many many many times,” Harrell said.
Many of the survivors were so thirsty, with the sun beating down on them the second day at sea, that they tried drinking the salt water.
Within an hour, those who drank the sea water “couldn’t see which way was up,” Harrell said, and would attack other survivors, or stab them for a canteen of water.
“That’s happening so many times that second day,” Harrell said.
It rained once briefly — the only water Harrell had the entire four days. Rotten potatoes his group found was the only food.
By the third day at sea, the group of 80 people Harrell had been with had dwindled drastically.
“Shark, shark, dehydration, hypothermia. Every little bit, you are losing a buddy. The third day, about noon, there’s only 17 of us,” Harrell said.
A group of sailors with a small life raft found what was left of the group, asking if any of them wanted to try to make it to the Philippines. Harrell and a fellow Marine were the only ones to accept, Harrell said, and none of the 15 men who stayed behind survived the ordeal.
A plane searching for submarines eventually spotted some of the men in the ocean, radioing for ships to come help while the plane landed in the water and started picking up what survivors it could. Harrell describes being put in the plane “like a sack of feed” before being transferred to a ship where he was given a few tablespoons of sugar water.
Only a few days later on Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and a second on the Japanese city of Nagasaki on Aug. 9.
The Japanese signed their formal surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.
“I lost 880 of my shipmates” Harrell said. “Of the 317 that survived. There are 17 of us still living today as of three or four days ago. Of the 39 marines, 9 survived. I am the last Marine still standing. It is my opportunity and privilege to travel the country and tell the story of the greatest tragedy at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy.”
Though several attempts have been made to find the U.S.S. Indianapolis over the years, efforts were finally successful in August of this year, when researchers positively identified the wreckage found in the Philippine Sea.