Ensign Harlan Twible recalls sharks, sea and fight for life after USS Indianapolis sank

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.

The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis sails under the Golden Gate Bridge into the Pacific. Some 883 American sailors’ lives were lost in the disaster when she was sunk by a Japanese submarine a few weeks before the end of the war. Photo provided

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 finished 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!’

“Nobody moved.

“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 supposed 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 supposed 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.

Fleet  Adm. Raymond Spruance pins Purple Hearts on survivors of the USS Indianapolis. Twible is in the foreground. Photo provided

“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.

Ensign Harlan Twible and Alice in their wedding picture the week after he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. on June 6, 1945. Photo provided

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.

Twible’s File

Name: Harlan Malcolm Twible
D.O.B: 10 March 1922
D.o.D: 8 April 2018
Hometown: Gilbertville, Mass.
Currently: Sarasota, Fla.
Entered Service: 6 June 1945
Discharged: Dec. 1946
Rank: Lieutenant
Unit: USS Indianapolis
Commendations: Purple Heart, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Medal, American Area Medal, World War II Victory Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Pacific

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 28, 2012 and is republished with permission.

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Click here to view Twible’s collection in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. 

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Harlan M. Twible

March 10, 1922 – April 8, 2018

Harlan Twible, 96, went home to the Lord on Sunday, April 8, 2018. His beloved wife, Alice, predeceased him. He is survived by his children Pamela, Susan, Barbara, and David.

Harlan was born in Gilbertville, Mass. to Ruby and William Twible, one of four children.

He graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1945 and soon thereafter married Alice Southworth of Ware, Mass., who was, from their first date, the love of his life. His first naval assignment was to the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser that was assigned the secret mission of delivering the first atomic bomb to the island of Tinian. Four days after delivering the bomb, the Indianapolis was sunk by enemy action in the Phillipine Sea, sinking so fast that no distress call was sent from the ship.

He and his shipmates who survived the sinking spent 4 days and 5 nights in the water, with almost no fresh water or survival gear. During this time, and, despite injuries he suffered during the sinking, Harlan Twible constantly aided the 325 men in his group, maintaining order among them, ministering to their needs, and preventing half-crazed and injured men from leaving the safety of the group; actions for which the Navy later awarded him the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. He credited his survival to God’s presence and care. He also served in the Korean War, serving 11 years in the Navy.

After his time in the service, Harlan pursued a career as a business executive, specializing in turning around failing businesses, including Picker Corporation, and Siemens Medical of America. His employees recognized him as a fair and compassionate man in all his dealings with them.

Harlan Twible thanked God every day for the blessings in his life. His greatest earthly joy came from his beloved wife Alice, and his family, and he always placed their happiness and well-being above his own.

Harlan found great enjoyment in woodworking, and made a great deal of the furniture in his, and his children’s homes.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, April 21 at 11 AM at Church of the Palms, 3224 Bee Ridge Rd., Sarasota, FL. Interment is Monday, April 23, at 1 p.m. at Sarasota National Cemetery, 9810 State Route 72, Sarasota, Fl.

Published in Herald Tribune from Apr. 13 to Apr. 15, 2018

A memorial service will be held Saturday, April 21, 2018, at 11:00 a.m., at Church of the Palms, 3224 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota, FL 34236.

A graveside service will be held Monday, April 23, 2018, at 1:00 p.m., at Sarasota National Cemetery, 9810 St. Rd. 72, Sarasota, FL 34241.

Alice B. Twible
Feb. 1, 1924 – Mar. 15, 2015

Alice Twible, 91, went to be with the Lord March 15, 2015. As in life, her beloved friend and husband, Harlan M. Twible was by her side as she peacefully passed away in her home in Sarasota. She predeceases her children, Pamela Twible, Susan Lestock, Barbara Twible, and David M. Twible and grandson James McCluskey and his wife Diana McCluskey.

She was born February 1, 1924, in Ware, Mass., to Marion Davis and Bernard W. Southworth.

After graduating from Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt. Alice married Ens. Harlan Twible, a recent graduate of the United States Naval Academy. This began a full and happy life for her. June 14, 2015 would have marked their 70th wedding anniversary.

Alice had a great love for music. As a small child she joined the church choir and continued to sing in every church the family attended through the years until retiring a short time ago.

Her love of her husband, family and friends was the joy of her life.

Services will be held on Tuesday, March 24, 2015, Church of the Palms, Sarasota, FL at 11:00am. Followed by burial at the Sarasota National Cemetery at 2:00pm.

– See more at: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/heraldtribune/obituary.aspx?n=alice-b-twible&pid=174457855#sthash.a61aiDYg.dpuf

Published in Sarasota Herald Tribune from Mar. 22 to Mar. 23, 2015


  1. Admiral Raymond Spruance was a 4 star Admiral. Fleet Admiral was 5 star. Leahy, King, Nimitz and after the war Halsey. Spruance would not accept 5 star unless Halsey got it also. Spruance got full 4 star pay in retirement instead. He liked $.
    He commanded the 5th Fleet which did the invasions of Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Roi Namur, Marshall Islands, Iwo Jima, Okinawa. Maybe I missed a few? Admiral Nimitz commander of the Central Pacific did not trust Halsey to command invasions. Like at Leyte which was a MacArthur invasion. Halsey took the main battle fleet after the Japanese decoy carriers, which had few planes on them.
    Spruance was very smart. He won the Battle of Midway. Browning, Halsey’s air officer was on the Enterprise. Spruance saw he was incompetent and ignored his advice. Spruance moved the fleet east after the 4 Jap carriers were sunk instead of chasing after the Jap Fleet. His officers were against doing it. During the day the Jap battleships were getting closer to Midway with the idea to attack our carriers after dark. Spruance moved them to safety since we had no night fighting capability in aviation and no fast battleships escorting the carriers. Cruiser could not handle the Yamato, etc. Halsey said later if he had been in command he would of gone after the Japs. We would of lost our carriers and the fleet in that case.
    Spruance worked out very detailed plans himself leaving all commanders knowing what to do in every possible situation. They loved working for Spruance. They could not say that about working for Halsey. 5th Fleet became the 3rd Fleet when Halsey was in charge. Spruance would be back at Pearl Harbor working up the plans with Nimitz for the next invasion.
    Politicians and press loved Halsey. King and Nimitz trusted Spruance and wanted him to get 5 stars.

  2. VERY interesting

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