Four days after delivering the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan to Tinian Island in the Pacific during the final days of World War II, the USS Indianapolis was hit by two torpedoes from a Japanese sub. She sunk in 12 minutes and her demise resulted in the biggest loss of life in the U.S. Navy’s history.
Shortly after midnight 880 of the heavy cruiser’s 1,196 sailors were wearing kapok life jackets swimming in the shark-infested Philippians Sea. When the ship’s crew was rescued four days later only 317 survived. The rest died from shark attack, wounds, exposure or drowned.
Jim Jarvis of Sun Seekers RV Park in North Fort Myers, Fla. was one of the lucky ones. The 87-year-old former 3rd Class aviation metal smith has been a winter resident in the park for 14 years.
“I felt a jar that woke me up when the torpedo hit. The explosion cut out all our electrical system,” the old salt explained. “I reached over in the dark for my flotation belt and knife on a nearby shelf, but couldn’t find it. I found one of the kapok life jackets we had just taken aboard that were stacked in the port hanger where I slept. I think that jacket saved my life; the life belts weren’t as good.
Jarvis and a group of sailors ended up on the well deck waiting for orders that never came. The Indianapolis was listing dangerously and he and some of the others slid down the side of the heavy cruiser into the inky water.
“Dr. Lewis Haynes, the chief medial officer aboard ship, herded 150 jacketed sailors together as he tried to treat the most seriously injured while everyone was in the water. I never saw a life raft until the final hours of the ordeal,” Jarvis said.
The young metal smith was looking for his buddy Harold Hopper from Muncie, Ind. He didn’t find his friend until their third day in the water and by then almost everyone was hallucinating.
“On the third day he was losing it. He said to me, ‘Let’s swim to Leyte.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I tried to talk him out of it, but he went anyway. The last time I saw Harold he was out 100 yards swimming away from the group.
Sharks were a constant worry. Jarvis was fortunate.
“I saw one big fish near me. I’m not sure if it was a shark or a dolphin. It went right in front of me and it was big. Every now and then I’d hear someone yell when the sharks got them. I wasn’t near them when it happened.
After three days in the water everyone was suffering from hypothermia. It was affecting their minds.
“By then guys were pointing toward the bottom and telling me, ‘There’s fresh water on the ship and its right down there.’ They’d dive down drink the sea water and come back up. If you drank saltwater you were done for.
“A few hours later they’d die of dehydration. Someone would pull their life jacket off as they headed toward the bottom.
“On the afternoon of the fourth day a twin engine PV-1 “Ventura” patrol plane flew over and spotted the oil slick in the water. It circled around and came in lower as hundreds of oil-soaked faces bobbing in the water waved,” Jarvis said. “The pilot of the PV-1 called back to base and they sent out a PBY (seaplane) to investigate. The PBY flew over and dropped life rafts then landed.
The Navy had a strict probation against landing in the sea, but the pilot did it anyway. Lt. Adrian Marks, pilot of the PBY, spent the rest of the day pulling sailors aboard his plane.
“I was 100 yards or so at one point from the PBY, but I was just too tired to swim. I ended up hanging onto a five-man life raft Dr. Haynes was using to treat the most seriously injured,” Jarvis recalled. “It must have been around 9 p.m. when one of the sailors the doctor treated died and was dropped over the side. I climbed aboard the raft and took his place.
“An hour later all aboard the raft were rescued by the USS Cecil Doyle, a destroyer escort. The next morning the survivors were taken by ship to Pelelieu, a nearby island, for treatment. They ended up on a hospital ship bound for Guam and more treatment.
Sitting in a yellow aluminum lawn chair outside his mobile home almost 65 years later Jarvis said their skipper, Capt. Charles McVay, was unjustly accused and court-martialed. In 2000 the U.S. Congress passed a bill signed by President Bill Clinton exonerating him for the loss of his ship. By then it was too late, the captain committed suicide in 1968.
“Some 800 Navy ships were sunk in World War II, including the Indianapolis, and our skipper was the only commanding offer who received a court-martial,” Jarvis explained as he sat in his chair wearing a red, white and blue T-shirt emblazoned: “USS Indianapolis Swim Team.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, March 16, 2009 and is republished with permission.
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