Local Veterans Recall Worst Naval Disaster in U.S. History

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STARK COUNTY, Ohio -- They say time fades most memories, but not all. The harrowing events that unfolded the week of July 30, 1945 are forever burned into the memories of the men that survived.

“Whenever I see something on TV about sharks, or a ship it bothers me for a couple days,” said Albert Morris, 87, “Then I got to get it out of my mind you know.”

The Akron area World War II veteran is one of two Northeast Ohio who survived five days in shark infested waters after the worst naval disaster in U.S. history: the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (CA35).

Jim Jarvis of Uniontown was also on board when the ships S.O.S. calls went unanswered.

“You just think somebody’s gonna see ya,” said Jim Jarvis, 90, “You think a big ship like that somebody‘s gonna be looking for you. That’s what we all thought, but actually they weren’t.”

Nearly 1,200 sailors were on board the powerful Indianapolis, flagship of the 5th Fleet, when she departed San Francisco on July 16, 1945.

Unbeknownst to the crew the ship was carrying a top secret cargo: the worlds’ first atomic bomb, which would be delivered to Tinian Island, loaded on to the Enola Gay airplane and dropped on Hiroshima.

Albert Morris said, “We didn’t know what it was.”

“We’d walk around on the box or jump down off it,” said Jim Jarvis.

The Indianapolis broke all ocean surface speed records, covering some 5,000 miles when she arrived in Tinian on July 26th.

The plan was to stop for supplies in Guam and then continue on to join the rest of the fleet in the Philippines.

Cpt. Charles McVay asked for an escort ship since there had been recent submarine attacks in the area but was denied the escort.

“So we were all by ourselves,” said Morris.

Just after midnight July 30th 1945 Jim Jarvis, an airplane mechanic, was sound asleep in the hanger while Albert Morris, a Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class PO was just starting watch duty, when two torpedoes struck the ship.

“We never did hear an abandon ship order,” said Jarvis.

The Indianapolis sank in just two minutes taking about 300 men with her to a watery grave.

Albert, who had just turned 20 two days before the ship went down, can still vividly remember the men screaming from inside, “But there was no way to get to them.”

The 900 men who survived the initial attack were now in the ocean.

“We figured they’d get us right quick,” said Morris.

But the initial S.O.S. calls were discounted as a Japanese trick and ignored.

Also, the mission was so secretive many sailors believe no one in the Navy was watching for it and they simply lost track of it.

The men were on their own, no food, no fresh water and surrounded by sharks.

At first the sharks only went after those already deceased but soon they began preying upon all of the sailors.

“You could see the fins coming,” said Morris, “Everybody would holler shark and scream and kick the water…kind of scare them away. Sometimes it helped sometimes it didn’t.”

The men formed groups, but still were dying at a rate of about four per hour from shark attacks, hypothermia, drowning and dehydration.

Men who broke down and drank the salt water became delirious and started having hallucinations.

“They started to lose it,” said Jarvis.

One of Jim’s buddies thought he could swim over 300 miles to safety.

Jim tried to talk him out of it but the friend swam away.

“I saw his head on top of a wave and that’s the last time I saw him,” said Jarvis.

Albert also lost friends and says they wondered who would be next.

But then after nearly five days in the ocean, a pilot named Lt. Chuck Gwinn was on a routine submarine patrol when he noticed the large oil slick left behind by the sinking ship. He radioed for help and three hours later a Catalina PB-Y arrived and dropped life rafts and supplies for the men.

The PB-Y’s pilot also disobeyed orders and despite being in enemy territory he turned on his lights so the men could see it.

“I think it was a good thing he did,” said Jarvis, “He wanted to give us hope and it did. It really helped us to know something was coming for you.”

Nine hundred men went into the water and only 321 were rescued, four of whom died soon after at the field hospital.  Only 317 sailors survived.  When asked how they made it, Albert’s eyes welled with tears and he couldn’t speak, but he brought his hands together as if in prayer.

While at the hospital they learned the war had ended during the days they were lost at sea.

However it was all bittersweet.  Although they delivered the bomb which helped end the war it seemed no one knew or supported them.

The men say the Navy was so embarrassed by the incident that they blamed the ships’ Captain Charles McVay, and they released very little information in news reports.

Years later McVay was eventually exonerated, and the sailors were all honored with purple hearts and other medals.

Jim is thankful, but he’s also pretty fond of a special t-shirt his granddaughter made for him which says, “Indianapolis Swim Team.”

“I think it’s important that you don’t take things too seriously,” said Jarvis.

Both men worked hard, got married and raised families in Northeast Ohio. And they say they made sure they earned their lives.

“I can’t complain,” said Jarvis, “I don’t know anything I’d have done different really.”

Albert Morris added with tear filled eyes, “It’s beautiful. Beautiful.” And then she shrugged his shoulders wiped the tears and joked,”Oh what the hell.”

[Note: Some accounts say only 316 men survived but that was due to an error in the Navy records. A veteran’s group of the USS Indianapolis survivor’s list 317 survivors]

For more information on the Indianapolis, click here.

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