During World War II, the USS Indianapolis frequently served as the flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance. In 1943 and 1944 he commanded the Fifth Fleet in battles across the Central Pacific. The USS Indy survived a bomb released during a kamikaze attack which badly damaged the ship and killed 9 members of the crew. The ship earned a total of 10 battle stars for being in every major battle from the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific to major battles in the southern Pacific. The Pacific battles included Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Saipan Tinian, Peleliu, and the Gilbert Islands, just to name a few. The USS Indianapolis also accomplished completing a top-secret mission that was of the utmost significance to national security and critical to ending WWII.
This year, 2021, marks 76 years since the sinking of the USS. Indianapolis (CA-35) after delivering the top-secret components of Little Boy, the atomic bomb which was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan. After delivering the cargo the USS Indy was headed back to the Philippines after a short stop in Guam. The ship was hit by 2 Imperial Japanese Navy submarine torpedoes which claimed the lives of nearly three out of every four of her 1197 crew of sailors and marines. This mission was so secret the Navy did not know they were missing as they were on radio silence. The Indy sank in 12 minutes. Due to a heavy list the ship rolled completely over as there was a great deal of armament on board making the Indy top heavy. The crews struggle for survival began shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945. Those who did not succumb to wounds, exhaustion, dehydration, sharks, or despair were sighted by Navy PV-1 Ventura patrol bomber pilot, Lt. Chuck Gwinn and his 5-man crew on August 2, 1945. Gwinn spotted an unusually large oil slick on the sea below and circled around, flying low to investigate and spotted heads bobbing in the oil. At this time the crew had been in the water for approximately 84 hours and that’s when the rescue started.
It soon became clear to Gwinn that “heads bobbing in the oil” were men clinging to life in water-logged life vests and floating nets. He sent urgent messages back to his base on Peleliu Island. By now the groups of survivors were spread out for miles. Other planes arrived on scene and provided air coverage and direction for dropping supplies. Gwinn was low on fuel and was instructed to return to base. Lt. Adrian Marks, Navy Pilot of the Catalina Flying Boat, being one of the first to pick up Gwinn’s messages arrived on scene by midafternoon. He attempted to land his aircraft in the open sea and the plane suffered damages and would no longer fly. But it was still intact and soon became a rescue vessel with single swimmers climbing on the wings. His efforts saved 53 men from certain death.
Over the next 24 hours Navy ships began arriving. By now it had been 96 hours in the ocean. Seven ships eventually arrived and searched for survivors. The young crews of these ships heroically lifted men to safety, cleaned their oil covered bodies, dressed their wounds from sun, sharks and saltwater exposure, fed them, and gave up their own bunks to shelter the injured, before transporting them for better medical services. Of the 1,197 onboard the USS Indianapolis, 880 were killed in action and/or lost-at-sea, with approximately 300 going down with the ship and of the 900 that went into the Pacific, only 317 survived.
Of the 317 that survived, there are only 5 still living today. One of those five is Fire Controlman 3rd Class, Cleatus Lebow of Memphis, Texas, who is now 97 years old. Mr. Lebow remembers very vividly the night the Indy sank and the days that followed. Mr. Lebow, we salute you and thank you for your service and sacrifice and honor you as you are a true American Hero!
To bring some closure to the crew of the USS Indianapolis, in December 2018, President Donald Trump signed into law to collectively award the crew of the USS Indianapolis the Congressional Gold Medal, “in recognition of their perseverance, bravery and service to the United States”. The Congressional Gold Medal is an award bestowed by the United States Congress as the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and impact on American history by individuals and is the highest civilian award in the United States.
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