RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Seventy years ago this week, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine as she crossed the Pacific. After the ship's sinking, some 900 men were left floating in the shark-infested waters for days. More than half would not survive. It was the greatest single disaster in U.S. naval history. Sarah Adams has the story.
SARAH ADAMS, BYLINE: If you're a movie fan, you may recognize this clip from the 1975 blockbuster, "Jaws."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JAWS")
ROBERT SHAW: (As Quint) Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was coming back from the island of Tinian to Leyte... Just delivered the bomb.
ADAMS: That 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.
DICK THELEN: July 26, we delivered the bomb. And July 30, the ship was sank.
ADAMS: We're sitting in Thelen's living room surrounded by 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 years old 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. Doug Stanton wrote the book "In Harm's Way," detailing the crew's experiences.
DOUG STANTON: It's evening. It's hot. Nearly 1,200 young men are asleep on this cruiser, which is about two football fields long. A Japanese submarine surfaces not far away and sees the silhouette of this ship on the horizon and begins tracking it.
ADAMS: Torpedoes were fired, and the ship sank in just 12 minutes.
THELEN: Everybody asked me, where was you when you jumped off the ship? I didn't jump off the ship. The ship left me (laughter).
ADAMS: There hadn't been time to get enough lifeboats into the water. So the survivors clung to life jackets and debris, thinking they'd be rescued within a few hours. But after two and half days in the water, they realized help wasn't coming.
THELEN: Wednesday afternoon, getting dark - I'll never forget it. It was a group of about 12 or 15 guys. I don't know who he was. he said, they ain't looking for us Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. They ain't looking for us. I said, we've had it.
ADAMS: And then things got even worse. Hundreds of sharks had been feeding on those killed in the ship's explosion. But now, they turned their attention to the survivors.
Did you see people taken by sharks?
THELEN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Years ago, I wouldn't be talking to you or anybody else. I never talked about it for years.
ADAMS: Meanwhile, the Indianapolis's 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.
THELEN: Chuck looked down at the exact same time they were flying over an oil slick. If he'd looked in the other way or wouldn't have flew that direction, he wouldn't have ever - never seen us. None of us would've survived.
ADAMS: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: At 8:15, in the morning of August 6, Japanese time, the first atomic bomb hit an enemy target.
ADAMS: And soon after, World War II was over. Thelen came home to Lansing, 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 Dick Thelen.
THELEN: I did not go to see the movie. That and "Titanic," didn't go see that one either. I've seen one ship sink. I don't want to see another one.
ADAMS: On Thursday, it will be 70 years since the USS Indianapolis sank into the Pacific. Dick Thelen has stayed in touch with many of his fellow survivors by attending reunions each year. This year's is taking place this weekend in Indianapolis. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Adams.
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