Image of ship with sunset by Paul Higdon.
The story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis told by one of the last survivors
By Edgar Harrell with David Harrell
July 30, 1945: After transporting uranium for the atomic bomb that would soon be dropped on Hiroshima, the USS Indianapolis headed unaccompanied toward a small island in the South Pacific. At 12:14 a.m., she was struck by two Japanese torpedoes and rolled over, sinking into the ocean. Between the initial attack and the four days before survivors were spotted, 879 lives were lost, making the USS Indianapolis the greatest catastrophe at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy.
Enemy in Wait
At 12:08 a.m., when the I-58 was fully submerged, Commander Hashimoto gave three orders: “Ship in sight,” “All tubes to the ready,” and “Kaitens stand by.” After the submarine dove, it altered course to port so that the black shape that was the USS Indianapolis was straight ahead. Hashimoto was still unsure of what it was, but it seemed to be getting closer as it took a course directly toward the submarine. He was ready to launch six torpedoes, but at this point he still thought it might have been a destroyer that had already detected the submarine and was approaching for a depth-charge attack. (It was impossible at that time to determine how far away a ship was unless you knew the class — and therefore the size — of the ship.) Even if it wasn’t a destroyer, he couldn’t let us get directly overhead or we wouldn’t be in good position for a torpedo hit.
At long last, he gave the order: “Stand by — fire!” Soon the report came from the torpedo room that all tubes had been fired. Hashimoto watched through his periscope, waiting as six torpedoes sped toward the Indianapolis. He ordered the submarine to be brought parallel to the enemy ship. Finally, a column of water shot up on the Indy’s starboard side by the forward turret, and then another by the aft turret. Immediately red flames shot out of the ship, and then another huge column of water that seemed to engulf the entire ship rose from the area by number 2 turret. Hashimoto shouted, “A hit! A hit!” and his crew danced for joy.
The Front of the Ship . . . Was Gone
There has not been a season in my life since that night that I fail to remember what happened next. The first torpedo pierced the Indy on the forward starboard side about forty feet in front of number 1 turret, where I slept. The concussion jarred me instantly to my feet. In the time it took Commander Hashimoto to say, “Fire one . . . fire two,” the second torpedo hit around midship, forward of the quarterdeck, somewhere in the close vicinity of my Marine compartment. Then, a few seconds later, a third explosion rocked the ship. It was the ammunition magazine underneath me. The explosion blew all the way through the top of number 1 turret — my bed the night before and, devastatingly, Munson’s bed that disastrous night. I’m sure he never felt a thing. The detonations sent water high into the air, drenching me as it rained down, yet protecting me from the massive fireball that flared all around me. The blast was so powerful that the massive turret with its three 18-foot barrels was lifted off its moorings and sent over to the starboard side.
With almost no one left on the quarterdeck, I stepped over the rail and walked two long steps down the side of the ship that now made a ramp into the water. Then I jumped feetfirst into the murky, oil-laden ocean. My kapok jacket came up over my head, and as I came up to the surface of the water, I desperately parted at it with my hands in an effort to get my head above the layer of the thick black oil. Pushing the oil away from my face, I swam away from the sinking ship about fifty yards and joined a few others who had also abandoned ship.
The Approaching Night
Certainly our resolve to do whatever we could to stay together was strengthened the first night. But our hopes of rescue seemed to sink with the setting of the sun. Incredible thirst and inexpressible fear of the sharks only worsened as the dark approached, dehydrated sailors continued to become incoherent and thrashed about until all their energy was depleted, and the thought of having to endure another shivering night was depressing. We were all miserable and helpless.
Desperation and fear only worsened as the blackness of night enveloped our quivering bodies. The darkness seemed to isolate us in our misery, preventing us from even seeing the guy next to us. For some of the men, there was nothing to bring hope. And without hope, all that is left is despair. But for me, hope never waned. And I do not say that to my credit, but to God’s.
Growing up I was absolutely convinced God existed, but before reporting to boot camp, the reality of war and likelihood of my death began to grip my soul. I asked myself questions like, Why was I placed here upon this earth? What is the real meaning of life? What if I don’t make it back? Am I ready to stand before God and give an account of my life?
Despite my church-going ways and other religious practices highly acceptable and expected in my Bible Belt culture, I realized I had no real relationship with God. He was distant, not personal. As a nineteen-year-old, I really had no faith, no passion to glorify God, no real hunger to hear the sound of His voice in Scripture and obediently serve Him, no real desire to commune with Him in prayer. I realized my best efforts fell far short of His standards. I was scared. My fear of death in war suddenly paled in insignificance. My sin condemned me to an eternal hell, and I knew it. I needed mercy. I needed forgiveness. I needed a Savior.
Racked with guilt and shame, the Lord, by His grace, drew me to himself in faith on the first day of August 1943 while I attended our little church in Murray, Kentucky. That Sunday after the sermon, the pastor gave an invitation and pronounced the benediction. Being deeply convicted that I had violated the laws of God in many ways, I remained seated as most everyone left. The pastor saw me and sat down by me and asked if he could help. I told him I needed to get things right with the Lord and that I felt as if today was my last chance. He opened his Bible and turned to Acts 16:31, which says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” In the quietness of that moment, by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, I begged God for His gift of mercy and grace, based solely on Jesus Christ paying for my sins on the cross. That day God forgave my sins, and I experienced the miracle of the new birth in Christ. Knowing the sinless Savior had taken my sins in exchange for His righteousness, my heart was filled with joy and relief. I remember thinking to myself, Now I am ready for war, because now I am ready for eternity.
Two years later, bobbing in the middle of the Pacific, I was reassured that even if the Lord chose to let me perish, I knew His sweet providence was ultimately in charge. In fact, it was a welcome thought to consider that He might decide to take me to my heavenly home and relieve me from my distress. But somehow I knew that He had plans for me and wanted me to survive.
Ducks on the Pond — the Fourth Day
My memories are limited as I reflect upon the fourth morning. I was so weak that I could barely move my arms and hands to help me stay seated on my water-logged kapok jacket. I was besieged with thoughts of surrendering to the sea. Yet I am certain that the Lord’s all-seeing eye remained fixed on me as my impoverished body bobbed atop the massive ocean. As Psalm 139:9–10 promises, “If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me.” Certainly the ministering spirits of His angelic host were actively engaged in my survival, for by now, I was almost gone. While I could not see them, I am sure they protected me.
Only the marvelous providence of God can account for what happened next. Unknown to us, Lt. Chuck Gwinn was flying overhead in a Lockheed Ventura PV-1 bomber used to search and destroy Japanese submarines. As Gwinn patrolled the waters at about three thousand feet, a recurring problem with a weighted antenna sock, of all things, set our unexpected sighting in motion. The sock was used to prevent the long whip antenna from flailing about. For some reason the troublesome sock had come off, causing the antenna to whip back and forth against the side of the plane — a potentially dangerous situation. Gwinn decided to leave the cockpit and assist his bombardier, Joe Johnson, in coming up with a remedy for the problem. As he looked out the bomb bay window in the floor of the airplane to consider a creative solution, his ever vigilant and well-trained eyes unexpectedly fell upon some tiny shining objects on the water below. Looking more closely, he noticed what he thought was some kind of discoloration on the water. He hurriedly climbed back into the cockpit and dropped down for a closer look, thinking perhaps it was an oil slick from a wounded enemy submarine.
When you hear about the antenna problem that led to Lieutenant Gwinn’s discovery of the survivors, It indeed sounds fortunate, even surprising. But it’s much, much more than that. Once you begin to calculate the odds of our being discovered by “chance,” you realize there is no word to describe it other than miraculous.
As Lieutenant Marks, the second pilot to reach us, later told me and other survivors, “I know that most of you prayed a lot; and I know that some of you feel that it made a difference. Wilbur Gwinn is a wonderful man and a fine pilot. He never said that he heard a voice speak to him; but was there an unseen hand upon his shoulder? Did he find you by pure chance? The odds against it are one in a million — nay, one in a billion. But somehow he was chosen as the instrument to overcome these impossible, astronomical odds. Wilbur Gwinn looked down at the split second that would become one of the great moments of history. I, as well as you, am proud to know him as a friend.”
I agree. Our rescue was a marvel. And this doesn’t even get into the fact that it is not humanly possible for a person to swim for four and a half days with next to no food or water. Not to mention swarmed by hungry sharks. Our survival truly defines reason.
The Miracle of Reconciliation
Often people ask me, “Do you harbor any resentment toward the Japanese for what happened to you and all the others?” The answer is no. But it took time for me to gain a proper perspective.
Everyone has a theology, whether they know it or not. This is mine, anchored in the Word of God. So my resentment for the Japanese gradually shifted to the real Enemy of men’s souls. Man’s only hope in triumphing over sin, Satan, and death is in God alone through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13–14).
Armed with these eternal truths, I was able to let go of resentment and have compassion on my enemies. I learned to pray that God would be merciful to them as He had been to me. I also understood that we are most like God when we forgive, and that harboring malice only gives an enemy prolonged power to inflict pain.
Since then, I have had the privilege to get to know Commander Hashimoto’s granddaughter, Atsuko. She and her family are faithful attendees of every USS Indianapolis survivors’ reunion. This is an incredible act of courage on their part. But it’s important to remember that the atrocities of WWII greatly affected both sides. Hashimoto’s family experienced profound loss in that horrific war. The unthinkable happened. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima instantly incinerated all of the commander’s family (his granddaughter is the progeny of a second marriage after the war).
At the 2013 reunion, Atsuko and I hugged, and she thanked me for opening my arms and receiving her embrace. She told me she wasn’t sure how I would respond. I told her how much it meant to me that she and her family would come to the reunions to honor us and our families. We agreed to build upon this friendship, and we promised to stay in touch.
The Navy Hymn
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bid’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
Adapted from Out of the Depths: A Story of Faith, Courage, and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis by Edgar Harrell with David Harrell. Published by Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group © 2014. Used by permission.
Edgar Harrell, USMC (Ret.), owned and operated a distributorship for the Pella Window Company in Rock Island, Illinois, for 35 years, served for 15 years on the board of the Moody Bible Institute, and has been a lay minister throughout his adult life. He lives in Clarksville, Tennessee, with his wife, Ola, enjoying their two children, eight grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. Edgar speaks extensively around the United States about his survival at sea.
David Harrell is currently the senior pastor-teacher of Calvary Bible Church (www.cbctn.org), where he has served since 1997. His Bible expositions are heard and read regularly around the world over the Internet and broadcasted over the radio. He is married to Nancy, and together they have three children and six grandchildren.