On July 16, 1945, the USS Indianapolis, CA-35 Portland class heavy cruiser, and flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance of the Fifth Fleet, had set sail, unescorted, to the island of Tinian, where she was to unload her secret cargo – the atomic bomb that would later be dropped on Hiroshima. The offload was successful; the journey to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines where she was to prepare for the Japanese invasion was not.
I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Edgar Harrell, survivor of the USS Indianapolis – a ship that holds the unfortunate title of being at the center of the worst naval disaster in U.S. history. His new book, “Out of the Depths: An Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival, Courage, and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis,” released May 1, 2014 by Bethany House Publishers, chronicles his incredibly moving story of perseverance, faith and desire to live despite the circumstances.
This interview – out of the many interviews I’ve done over the years – “made my eyes leak,” as my youngest daughter would say. I cried. I had a tough time getting my questions out. I was so incredibly moved – and my perspective on what constitutes a challenge was once again altered.
Having offloaded her cargo on July 26, the Indianapolis set sail for the Philippines – unescorted. The body of water separating the two islands was known for being home to Japanese submarines and sharks – both in abundance. On July 30, the USS Indianapolis was struck by two Japanese torpedoes; of her crew of 1,196, an estimated 900 survived the explosion. Only 317 of the original estimated 900 who escaped the sinking ship survived their ordeal. Only 38 survivors are left to tell their story–Edgar Harrell is one of the living survivors of the USS Indianapolis.
Mr. Harrell, a 19-year-old Marine who was born and raised on a farm, served as the Captain’s orderly. After the torpedoes struck, Edgar, who is now 89 years old, shared how he vividly remembers holding on to the rail, engulfed in the blackness of the night, as the ship’s bow was sinking. “There are times you pray, and then there are times you PRAY.” When I asked what drove him to survive, he said it was the thought of going home to his eight brothers and sisters and a “certain brunette that said she would wait for him to return.”
In 12 minutes, the ship sank. And with it many sons.
Faith plays a large part in Mr. Harrell’s experience. Hebrews 13:5, “I’ll never leave you nor forsake you” played, and continues to play, a significant role in Mr. Harrell’s life. He shared that every day of the 4.5 days he and others floated at sea waiting to be rescued produced a miracle. The discovery of a floating crate of potatoes, while mostly rotten, still produced enough food, water – and most importantly, hope – to continue the fight to survive, at least for some of them.
Many of the 900 who survived the explosion either lost hope, succumbed to their injuries or were attacked by sharks. Late on day four, it was only through what Mr. Harrell calls “the providence of God” they were discovered and later rescued. The rescue is also incredibly moving.
After returning home, Mr. Harrell attempted college and worked through the struggle of overcoming the loss of so many shipmates. He spent 35 years successfully growing and expanding the territory for Pella Windows, and he also went on to marry that “certain brunette” whom he is still married to 67 years later.
This experience should make us all pause, for just a moment, and ask, “What has our awe?” Is it the challenge in our life or is it the desire to overcome the challenge? Mr. Harrell’s faith in God is contagious. His perspective is refreshing. If there is one book you read this year, make it “Out of the Depths: An Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival, Courage, and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis.” I believe it could very well change your perspective on life and the challenges you face.
– By Michael Schindler
Michael Schindler, Navy veteran, and president of Edmonds-based Operation Military Family, is a guest writer for several national publications, author of the book “Operation Military Family” and “The Military Wire” blog. He is also a popular keynote and workshop speaker who reaches thousands of service members and their families every year through workshops and seminars that include “How to Battle-Ready Your Relationship” or “What Your Mother-in-Law Didn’t Tell You.” He received the 2010 Outstanding Patriotic Service Award from the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.