Next week marks the 70th anniversary of one of the worst disasters in U.S. Naval history — and one of the worst shark attacks on record. But it’s a story that many people don’t know.
In the summer of 1945, World War II was almost over, but in the shadows of that moment comes a story of survival that changed lives forever.
If you’re a movie fan, you may recognize this line from the 1975 blockbuster, Jaws: “Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was coming back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. Just delivered the bomb.”
That’s Robert Shaw’s monologue about a wartime ship sinking and shark attacks. It’s a story that World War II veteran Dick Thelen knows all too well.
“July 26, we delivered the bomb. And July 30, the ship was sank,” Thelen says.
Thelen’s living room is full of memorabilia from the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis. The bomb he’s referring to is the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima a week later. Thelen is 88 now, but in 1945 he was just an 18-year-old sailor.
After the bomb had been delivered, the Indianapolis headed to Guam to prepare for the upcoming invasion of Japan. The date was July 30.
“It’s evening. It’s hot,” says Doug Stanton, author of In Harm’s Way, which details the survivors’ experiences. “Nearly 1,200 young men are asleep on this cruiser, which is about two football fields long.”
A Japanese submarine surfaced not far away, saw the silhouette of the ship on the horizon and began tracking it.
Torpedoes were fired and the ship sank in just 12 minutes.
“Everybody asked me, ‘Where was you when you jumped off the ship?’ I didn’t jump off the ship, the ship left me,” Thelen says with a laugh.
There hadn’t been time to get enough life boats into the water, so the survivors clung to life jackets, makeshift rafts and debris, thinking they’d be rescued within a few hours. But after two and a half days in the water, they realized help wasn’t coming.
And then things got even worse. Hundreds of sharks had been feeding on those killed in the explosion. But now they turned their attention to the survivors. Thelen saw people get taken by the sharks.
“Years ago, I wouldn’t be talking about it to you or anybody else. I wouldn’t talk about it for years,” Thelen says.
Meanwhile, the Indianapolis’ mission had fallen through the cracks of wartime secrecy, and the Navy didn’t realize the ship was missing. Five days had passed when a pilot named Chuck Gwinn happened to be flying over open water.
“Chuck looked down at the exact same time they were flying over an oil slick.” Thelen says. “Now if he’d looked any other way or wouldn’t have flew that direction, he wouldn’t have seen us. None of us would have survived.”
About 900 men survived the torpedo attack after the ship sank. By the time of the rescue only 321 survivors were pulled from the water.
A few days later, on Aug. 6, the first atomic bomb hit an enemy target, and soon after, World War II was over. Thelen came home to Lansing, Mich., got a job driving a truck, got married and raised a family. But he rarely talked about his ordeal. Most of the men didn’t, until the story entered pop culture in 1975.
Some survivors actually went to see Jaws together and began talking about their experience publicly for the first time. But not Thelen.
“I did not go see the movie. That and Titanic. Didn’t go see that either. I see one ship sink, I don’t want to see another one,” he says.
Thelen has stayed in touch with many of his fellow survivors by attending reunions each year. This year’s is taking place in Indianapolis this weekend.