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At 84, U.S.S. Indy survivor attests to God’s grace

JOELTON, Tenn. (BP)–Ask Edgar Harrell enough questions, and he can relive the horrific moments he experienced 64 years ago during World War II, floating helplessly for more than four days in the Pacific Ocean, corpses all around.

Friends eaten by sharks. Shipmates suffering slow and excruciating deaths after drinking ocean water. Men hallucinating due to fatigue, thirst and hunger. But instead of seeing only tragedy, Harrell — who became a Christian some two years before his brush with death — sees the grace of God.

“He was my mainstay the whole time,” he told Baptist Press.

He lost about 27 pounds during those four and a half days in the cold open waters — as he puts it — “swimming with the sharks.”

Harrell and his U.S.S. Indianapolis shipmates weren’t wanting to make history in such a way that summer in the final weeks of World War II, but they did.

Four days after delivering the parts for the atomic bomb to the western Pacific island of Tinian on July 26, 1945, the Indianapolis — a cruiser with a crew of nearly 1,200 on its way to the Philippines — was hit by two Japanese submarine torpedoes just past midnight, splitting the ship in two and waking the sleeping sailors and Marines to the terrifying reality that their only hope for survival was to jump from the burning vessel into a black cold ocean.

The ship sank in 12 minutes, and of the 1,196 originally on board, some 900 made it into the water. They assumed a rescue ship was on its way and would be there in the morning, but it wasn’t. The distress signal didn’t get out, or if it did, it wasn’t received. Whatever the case, it wasn’t until their fourth day in the water that they were spotted, by chance, by the pilot of a U.S. bombing plane on patrol. By then, hundreds more had died, leaving only 317 survivors, scattered over approximately one mile. Harrell was one of them.

With dozens of books, a handful of documentaries and even a movie spotlighting it, the Indianapolis and its crew have carved a place in American history. Their story is the stuff of fiction. But Harrell lived it. He’s witnessed things he’d rather forget, things most Americans only see in books or on television.

“There’s nothing to compare with what I experienced,” he says, looking back on his life.

Harrell’s son David wrote a 2005 book, “Out of the Depths,” in which he recounted his father’s story. Oliver North penned the foreword. A retired distributor for a window company, the elder Harrell, 84, remains in good health and travels the country speaking to churches and veterans organizations about his experience.

Amazingly, Harrell says he’s never had a nightmare about the ordeal.

“And yet, I talk to many of my survivor buddies who say it still haunts them today,” said Harrell, a former member of First Baptist Church in Paris, Tenn., who now is a member of Calvary Bible Church in Joelton, Tenn., where his son serves as pastor. “But I can think about it and I can relive it. I can take the audio version of my book and be traveling and listening to it, and it comes to certain points in the book and different things that are happening, and even though someone else is reading it, I can shed tears just listening to my story. And the same thing is true in my telling the story, when I get to certain experiences that I had there.”

Unescorted, the U.S.S. Indianapolis was thought to be in safe waters at the time of its sinking — so much so that it was sailing “wide-open” and the sailors and Marines had been granted permission to sleep on deck to escape the heat below. Their peaceful sleep under the stars soon ended.

Harrell witnessed God’s providence every minute of the ordeal, including:

— the moment he chose where to sleep that disastrous night. The previous night he and a buddy named Munson had “stretched the regulations a bit” and slept in a life raft on top of the No. 1 turret gun. But on the night the Indianapolis was hit, Harrell chose not to sleep there, even though his friend did. “I told him, I’m going to sleep right here on the deck. I know I’m not supposed to sleep up there.” It was a fateful decision: The torpedoes caused the area around the life raft to explode, killing Munson.

— the moment he knew the ship was sinking and he stepped into the water. “As I was about to leave the ship, I stepped over the rail and hung on to it for a bit and watched others go over and then basically I just made a couple of big long steps down into the water. I felt assurance, though, at that time, that somehow, some way the Lord … was going to be with me, that I was going to make it. But certainly I had no comprehension of being out there for four and a half days.”

— the long mornings, afternoons and nights in the water. Harrell’s new faith guided him, and he helped others spiritually. “There’s an old saying, ‘There’s no atheists in fox holes.’ I say there were no atheists out there. Everyone wanted someone to pray for them.” Harrell remembers a 19-year-old friend who had never prayed in his life hollering, “God, if You’re out there, I don’t want to die.” Several decades later, that man accepted Christ.

To survive and to stay warm at night, the men formed groups, locking their legs or joining their life vests together. But that wasn’t easy: Because the ship kept moving during the 12 minutes it took to sink, the 900 initial survivors were spread out over hundreds or thousands of yards. Harrell’s group that first night contained 80 men, a third of whom died by morning due to wounds suffered from the torpedo blasts. By the second day, that number had dwindled to 40, and by the third day, 17. Each time someone died, survivors would remove the dog tags, even though the corpses kept floating.

The men often suffered gruesome deaths.

Some died during the night from hypothermia when their core body temperature dipped to 85 degrees, the water’s temperature. The survivors would wake up in the morning, only to discover that their friends — who they had talked to hours earlier — had died in their sleep and were now face-down in the water.

Other men — dehydrated and miserable during 100-degree days — succumbed to temptation and began drinking ocean water, which contains twice the salt that the human body can safely ingest. Their lips turned blue. They foamed at the nose. Their eyes rolled back in their heads. They would go into violent fits and then fall into a coma.

Still other men were eaten by sharks. The sharks rarely attacked the men when huddled in a group but waited for an individual to drift or swim away, which happened somewhat frequently due to strong waves or a hallucinating sailor who thought he saw an island or ship in the distance. As Harrell recounts in his book, survivors would “hear a blood-curdling scream” and then see a body be pulled below the water and resurface, much like a fishing bobber. When a shark came toward Harrell, he would pull his feet up to his backside, make himself as small as possible and pray, thinking he was about to die. Several times he felt a shark fin brush his body.

Harrell says he made it through the four-plus days of thirst, hunger and exhaustion thanks to prayer and Scripture quotation, and by thinking about his friends and family back home, which included eight siblings, a mom and a dad, and a “certain brunette that was waiting for me.” He later married that brunette, Ola.

Although Harrell now talks openly about his experiences, he didn’t do so immediately after returning from the war.

“My mom and dad, they really didn’t know anything about what happened for the first two years, but finally I unloaded,” he said. “I had a friend of the family — dad’s personal buddy, so to speak — and he didn’t know anything better than to keep prodding me one Sunday afternoon to get me to kind of talk. That was the best medicine that I could have taken to get that off my chest. From there, I began to tell the story.”

Harrell has other stories: how he lost the hearing in his left ear during a U.S.S. Indianapolis gun battle with a Kamikaze plane; how he got through the second day thanks to a small rain cloud that provided drinking water; how he and his friends survived the third day by eating rotting potatoes found in a drifting crate. And, of course, he has stories about the atomic bomb.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis delivered the parts for the atomic bomb that was to be dropped on Hiroshima. The ship left San Francisco on July 16, 1945, and arrived in Tinian 10 days later in record time. Only a handful of people on board, though, knew what the ship was carrying, and Harrell wasn’t one of them.

“We didn’t know what we had,” he said. “I was a Marine corporal, and my captain told me, ‘I want you to station a guard here in the port hanger’ where that container [with the parts] was. I asked him what we had and he said, ‘We don’t know what we’ve got.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you think we have?’ He said, ‘The skipper of the ship doesn’t know. We understand, though, that every hour that we delay will cost lives, so that tells us we’ve got something hot.'”

In fact, Harrell didn’t know anything about the atomic bomb until after his rescue, when he was in a hospital in Guam and a reporter from a Louisville, Ky., newspaper asked him about it. By then, the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. He believes the U.S. made the right decision to use the bomb so as to avoid a land invasion of Japan.

“Britain would have landed 2 million men and we would have landed 3 million men,” Harrell said, “and the Japanese would have been the same as they were at Iwo Jima and Saipan and down in Peleliu. They would have fought to the last person. So had we landed, that would have been a slaughterhouse all the way through that whole invasion. They would have lost 10 times the number of people that they lost at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. So, yes, I think that President Truman did the right thing in doing what he did.”

Harrell and his U.S.S. Indianapolis crewmates still have reunions, although their numbers are dwindling. The get-togethers began in 1960 with the goal of having them every five years but are now taking place yearly. Last year, of the 65-70 who were still living, less than 20 were able to attend, Harrell said.

Harrell’s goal in speaking about his ordeal is to keep the memory of the U.S.S. Indianapolis alive and to attest to God’s providence amidst the four days in the water. He spoke to a group of more than 6,000 earlier this year, gave an interview to a radio program broadcast on 1,000 stations and has other speaking engagements for the remainder of 2009.

He wants to tell about the history, yes, but keep God the focus.

“I feel that it was because of His mercy and grace that I’m here today. Rather than look at the dark side, I look at the bright side that the Lord was with me.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. For more information about Edgar Harrell, visit www.indysurvivor.com.

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  • Michael Foust