Minutes after the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis‘ bow was blown away by a torpedo fired by Japanese submarine I-58 on July 30, 1945, Ensign Harlan Twible was treading water in the shark-infested, inky waters of the Philippine Sea.
He was one of hundreds of sailors struggling to stay alive until they were accidentally found four days later by a bomber pilot flying a routine antisubmarine patrol.
By that time only 151 of the 325 men in Twible’s group survived. The Indianapolis tragedy, cost a total of 883 sailors their lives. It was the worst disaster in U.S. Naval history. The cruiser was also the last U.S. capital ship sunk by the Japanese in World War II.
Two weeks earlier the Indianapolis sailed out of San Francisco Harbor, under the Golden Gate Bridge under a cloak of secrecy and raced at 31 knots for Tinian Island in the South Pacific 5,000 miles away. The cruiser was carrying the core for the first atomic bomb. It was housed in a metal container welded to the deck.
Ten days later she delivered the contents of the container that would be inserted in “Little Boy.” This was the atomic bomb Air Force Col. Paul Tibbets dropped on Hiroshima, Japan helping end World War II.
After surviving the calamity at sea, highly-decorated Capt. Charles Butler McVay III, skipper of the Indianapolis, was court martialed. He was the only skipper in World War II court martialed for losing his ship. McVay was convicted of “negligence” for failing to zigzag the Indianapolis while steaming through enemy waters.
This was a trumped up charge brought against him by the Navy’s top brass. Although not dismissed from the service, McVay never rose above the rank of rear-admiral.
For decades, until 2001, members of his crew worked to restore the captain’s good name. More than a decade ago, Congress approved a resolution attached to a defense spending bill clearing McVay of negligence.
It came 33 years too late. In 1968 the retired admiral took his own life. He shot himself with his Navy service revolver at his Litchfield, Conn. home.
What follows is 90-year-old former Ensign Harlan Twible’s account of his four day and five night ordeal to survive the sharks, the elements and the Philippine Sea. At 11 a.m. on the fourth day Lt. j.g. Chuck Gwinn, pilot of a Navy PV-1 Ventura twin-engine patrol bomber, spotted the oil slick left by the Indianapolis when she sank. Hundreds of heads were bobbing In the gooey mess that stained the sea’s surface far below. He radioed his base for help.
“I was a gunnery officer aboard the Indianapolis. I had just finish my watch on the secondary con,” Twible explained. “I was hit in my left side by shrapnel from the explosion. At first, it didn’t bother me as I went down to the main deck looking for the executive officer.
“Red Flynn, the exec, told me to go aft and take as many men to the high side of the ship as possible. It was impossible to get on the high side because the starboard side was about half a foot above water,” he said.
“It was pitch black and they were passing out life jackets. The guy passing out the jackets was the one whose court-martial I sat on the week before,” Twible said.
“‘Sir, are we gonna be okay?’ he asked. ‘Lord willing,’ I replied as I took a jacket.
“I was 23-years old. I was waiting for someone to give the order to do something. But nobody did. So I gave the order, ‘ABANDON SHIP!’
“Then I yelled, ‘FOLLOW ME! Sailors went over the side and dropped into the water beside me.
“It was at this point I expected to hand the control over to someone with more authority. There were other officers in our group, but none of them spoke up,” Twible recalled.
“Finally, Lt. Dick Redmayne, the chief engineer aboard ship, spoke up. Both his hands were badly burned so he couldn’t take charge in his condition. I looked after Dick while we were in the water and brought him through the ordeal. He was my friend for many, many years after that until he died.
“I’d say fear was the dominant problem. The men were afraid because they didn’t know what to do. None of us had ever gotten any training on abandoning ship.You weren’t suppose to abandon ship.
“I told the men to count off. Nothing happened. Then Gunner Horner piped up and yelled, ‘ONE!’
“By the time they finished counting we had 325 people in our group. It was the largest group. We also had six life nets floating in the sea with us and four lifeboats,” he said. “I ordered all the rafts emptied of uninjured sailors. We replaced them with the most seriously injured.
“The people in the rafts didn’t want to get out. They were scared. But they did what I told them, because they knew I was a Naval Academy graduate and that impressed the sailors.
“I kept giving orders and they knew I had taken over. They paid me some deference,” Twible said. “I ordered everyone in the water to get inside the life nets. They were all floating in their kapok life jackets. The vests were suppose to keep them afloat for three days.
“I told the sailors to tie themselves together so they wouldn’t float away from the group. Guys that broke loose and floated off we didn’t go after because you just couldn’t do it.
“It was the second day when the sharks arrived. That was tough,” he said as he removed his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes. “Everyone who broke loose the sharks got.
“We discovered the sharks didn’t like a mass of people making a commotion. I set up a shark watch around the whole group. Anyone who sighted a shark would yell out and everyone would start kicking and yelling.
“The sharks turned away from our group because of all the commotion we caused when we spotted one of them. I knew we had discovered something important about the nature of these sharks.
“As the guys died I’d say a prayer over them. Then I’d take their life jacket off and let them float off. When I let them go the sharks would eat them. We had no other choice. We had to get the dead men out of the group or those still living would go crazy.
“When the sun came up the next day it was chaos. The sea was filled with hundreds of men who were trying to survive, but didn’t know much about how to do it.
“Every time things got chaotic I would start praying out loud. I’d make up my prayers as I went along. This quieted the men down,” Twible recalled. I was praying for Jews, Catholics and Protestants. I don’t think we had any atheists in our whole damn group,” he laughed.
“One of the serious problems we faced the first day was that no one had any fresh water to drink. One of my big problems was trying to stop these guys from drinking sea water. i told them stories about how their lips and tongues would swell up if they drank sea water and what would happen to them then.
“I think I scared the hell out of them. It stopped a lot of them from drinking sea water and saved their lives.
“The best thing we had going for us: We were in the middle of the oil slick left by the Indianapolis when she went down. The slick stretched for miles. One of the first orders I gave was that everyone should cover themselves with oil so they wouldn’t get sun burned. The oil also protected us from the cold water we were swimming in.
“When we were finally spotted by a patrol plane swimming in the oil slick we were 58 miles away from where our ship sank. We drifted that far in four days at sea.
“The oil was probably our biggest saving grace. It protected us from the sun and the cold which saved a lot of lives. It was also the oil that drew the pilot of the patrol bomber to take a better look at what he was flying over.
“One myth I would like to dispel. They say you can only stay awake 72 hours. I stayed awake four days and five nights. I never slept once. Of course when I was picked up by the USS Bassett (APD-73) and they carried me aboard I immediately fell asleep.
“The whole time we were floating around out there we had a sky watch. We were hoping a plane would fly over, but none of us had a mirror or anything to signal him with.
“We never saw anyone in the sky until Lt. Gwinn flew over in his twin-engine patrol bomber. He spotted the oil slick and dropped down to take a closer look. One of the crewman spotted heads in the water and Gwinn wiggled his wings. At that point we knew there was a good chance we were going to be okay.
“A PBY (flying boat) arrived three or four hours later. It dropped life rafts with signaling equipment in each boat. I got one of the mirrors and started signaling the plane,
“I flashed the guy in the plane, ‘You have found the crew of the USS Indianapolis!’ From that point on all hell broke loose. A four-engine bomber flew over and dropped more life boats.
“Lt. Adrian Marks, at the controls of the PBY, decided to land his plane in the sea, against Navy regulations, because he could see some of the men in the water being attacked by sharks. Before the day was over, Marks and his crew rescued 56 sailors.
“It took ships from Admiral Raymond Spruance’s fleet another 18 hours to arrive and start picking us up. I remember it was one hell of a long time.,” Twible said.
The USS Bassett picked up our group. By then only 151 of the original 325, who went over the side four days earlier, were still alive. The rescue ship dropped over its whale boats and came and got us.
“I was the last to come aboard. That was Navy tradition. When they carried me aboard the Bassett I saluted and said, ‘I turn the crew of the USS Indianapolis over to the USS Bassett.
“I was a mess when they took me aboard. There was blood all over me and I was covered with oil. I blacked out after they gave me a blood transfusion. When I came to some sailor were looking after me.
“The Bassett sailed for Samar in the Philippines. I ended up in General Hospital 95 on Samar where I spent the next several weeks recovering.
“By Aug. 13 I was out of the hospital and a group of us received Purple Hearts from Spruance. It was two days before the Japanese surrendered to the Allies ending World War II.
“Adm. Spruance was a nice guy. He wanted to be with his crew. The Indianapolis had been his flagship before she was sunk. He sat down and played cards with us. He was fantastic.
“I’m also a big fan of Harry Truman. He was the one who gave the order to drop the bomb on the Japanese. He and Ronald Reagan are the only two I recognize as being dedicated recent American presidents.
After the war Twible went back to college. He received a graduate degree in Economics and Marketing from the University of Chicago. He went to work for a series of companies until he suffered four heart attacks in 1976, at 54, and almost died.
He and his wife, Alice, retired to their home in Sarasota where they have lived for the past 35 years. They have four children: Pamela, Susan, Barbara and Randy. The couple has a grandson, Jimmy, a Tampa doctor who has also made them proud.
Name: Harlan Malcolm Twible
D.O.B: 10 March 1922
Hometown: Gilbertville, Mass.
Currently: Sarasota, Fla.
Entered Service: 6 June 1945
Discharged: Dec. 1946
Unit: USS Indianapolis
Commendations: Purple Heart, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Medal, American Area Medal, World War II Victory Medal
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, May 28, 2012 and is republished with permission.
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