WWII Vet Recalls Days Lost at Sea

BLOUNTVILLE, TN (WJHL) Seventy years ago, Japanese torpedoes sank the U.S.S. Indianapolis in just 12 minutes. In the following years, the tragedy earned the awful distinction of being the worst disaster in U.S. Navy history.

Of the 1,196 men on board the night of July 30, 1945, only 317 survived.

One of them was 21-year-old James Smith, a crew member who, only hours before, had just finished serving 5 days in the brig for sneaking off to visit a girl.

James Smith escaped the U.S.S. Indianapolis on July 30, 1945 after Japanese torpedoes sank the ship in just 12 minutes. Photo - submitted by James Smith and family
James Smith escaped the U.S.S. Indianapolis on July 30, 1945 after Japanese torpedoes sank the ship in just 12 minutes. Photo – submitted by James Smith and family

“I was asleep because it was just after midnight,” James Smith said, pointing to a model of the USS Indianapolis on a bookshelf in his bedroom in Blountville. “I walked back up to my gun, then I went back down the side of the ship and walked into the water.”

Smith floated in the warm Pacific Ocean, covered in ship fuel, listening to the screams of his shipmates. “And then I thought, ‘Oh hell. I’m in hell now.”

Already weak after days of the brig’s bread and water diet, Smith spent the next four days – 90 hours – in the water kept afloat by a life preserver around his neck and what he remembers as an unwavering insistence that he would make it home alive.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis sank in 12 minutes on July 30 1945 after being hit by two Japanese torpedoes. (Photo: US Navy)
The U.S.S. Indianapolis sank in 12 minutes, on July 30, 1945, after being hit by two Japanese torpedoes. (Photo: US Navy)

“I wanted to go home and see my Mom and Dad,” Smith said.

Hundreds of feet below him was the wreckage of the ship he’d called home for years, the same ship that had delivered key elements of the first atomic bomb which historian say rapidly accelerated the end of World War 2.

Most of the people on board, including James Smith, had no idea.

At daylight, Smith said the survivors started finding each other in the water. Groups formed in hopes they might find strength in numbers.

Seaman Smith remembers being with people he didn’t really know. “All my buddies…. I think they all died.”

What happened over the next four days proved to be far more difficult to survive than the blast of torpedos.

Hundreds died in the broiling sun. Those who drank ocean water to quench a blazing thirst started hallucinating and that was the beginning of their end. “Someone would yell, ‘My Moma has a hotel on that island over there.’ They’d swim away and we never saw them again.

Worst of all, sharks found the survivors.

“I’d hear, ‘Shark!’ and then people would scream. I’d lift my legs high to keep ’em from getting me.”

Through it all, he says he never gave up hope that he would survive.

Mercifully, the men of the U.S.S. Indianapolis did not know that the U.S. Navy wasn’t even aware the ship had sunk. Not until a plane’s crew spotted survivors four days later did anyone realize what had happened.

Smith says was the first man out of the water and into a rescue plane that landed on the surface of the sea.

“I remember being lifted out of the water. They took us to a ship and gave us some juice. That’s the last thing I remember for several days.”

Just how many survivors of the U.S.S. Indianapolis crew are still alive is unclear. James Smith estimates there are 32.

Over the years, the survivors have gathered for reunions.

Now, there’s even talk of a move about the disaster starring Nicolas Cage.

70 years later, this survivor of the most deadly naval disaster in American history hasn’t lost his drive to stay alive.

“I’m going to hang on and be the last one.”

Copyright 2015 WJHL. All rights reserved.

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