USS Indianapolis survivor from MI shares story with PBS

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LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan’s lone living survivor of the USS Indianapolis’ sinking said he was “flabbergasted” by the phone call he took this summer: An expedition crew had found the wrecked ship at the bottom of the ocean, 72 years later.

“I used to tell the other survivors at our reunions, they’ll never find it,” said 90-year-old Dick Thelen of Lansing. “The last man at our last reunion told me, ‘Dick, we’ll find it. We got a lot better technology today.’ But I didn’t believe him.”

Thelen also couldn’t believe how intact the USS Indianapolis was. The vessel’s teak wood decking was still in place, largely because not much can grow in the frigid temperatures 3 miles below sea level.

Thelen represented all of the men who were on the USS Indianapolis during an hourlong PBS special in September.

Thelen was aboard the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945, when two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine hit the ship, sinking it in 12 minutes.

It was a hot night, so a then-18-year-old Thelen was sleeping on deck instead of in his quarters below.

“When it blew, I don’t know if I went 2 feet, I don’t know if I went 20 feet, but I went in the air,” he recalled.

About 300 sailors went down with the ship while 900 ended up in the water.

Because of several communications issues, the Navy didn’t know what had happened to the ship. So the sailors spent four days and five nights stranded in the water with little to no food or fresh water as sharks surrounded them.

“Twice a shark was poking me in my life jacket. That shark’s eyeballs and my eyeballs were [not] far apart, but he looked me over and swam away,” said Thelen.

Thelen thinks the diesel fuel he was covered in may have saved him from the sharks and the sun.

Other men weren’t so lucky. For Thelen, images of the wreckage provoke memories of men being get eaten alive or hallucinating.

“Some guys went out of their head out there. [They] would take their service jackets off and surface dive and say, ‘I’m going to go down below deck and get a cold drink of water.’ But if you do that, you’ll go crazy. Your eyeballs will pop out, (you’ll) foam at the mouth and within two hours, you’re dead. You cannot gulp saltwater on an empty stomach; it’ll kill you,” explained Thelen.

The crew of a PV-1 Ventura on routine patrol spotted the oil slick in the water, and eventually saw the men. A total of 317 sailors survived, including Thelen.

It was such a traumatic experience that Thelen rarely thought or talked about it even to his late wife. They were married for seven years before she knew anything of the horror he had been through.

“I got married in 1951, and [the] book, “Abandon Ship”… came out in 1958. In seven years of marriage, I didn’t tell my wife one word,” Thelen said. “She knew from my sister … that I was on a ship that sank, but thought I was only in the water an hour or two…. When she found out, she was one mad woman!”

It’s easier for him now to talk about what happened, since he has spent so many years attending reunions with the other survivors, and giving talks at schools statewide.

However, Thelen says nothing made him more nervous than appearing on national television, where he felt responsible to accurately represent the 1,200 sailors aboard the ship and their families.

“I wanted to make sure that I didn’t make a joke of it, my own words and just don’t goof up is all,” he said. “A lot of guys went down with it (the ship), and so it’s more or less a tombstone. I know you can’t go out and look at it or nothing, but it’s kind of a closing story.”

ABOUT THE USS INDIANAPOLIS

The USS Indianapolis played a crucial role in ending World War II. It was part of the attack at Iwo Jima, and then later delivered the key components of the atomic bomb to Tinian Island, which would be used on Hiroshima. It was immediately after that trip that the ship was torpedoed.

Captain Charles McVay was a controversial figure in the years that followed the USS Indianapolis’ sinking. He had commanded the ship and was among those rescued in the water, but was court-martialed and convicted of hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag.

There was evidence that the Navy itself had placed the ship in harm’s way, since McVay’s orders were to “zigzag at his discretion, weather permitting.” The commander of the Japanese submarine, Mochitsura Hashimoto, also testified that zigzagging would have made no difference, but McVay was still convicted.

McVay killed himself in 1968, when he was 70 years old. A congressional resolution signed by President Bill Clinton eventually exonerated McVay in 2000.

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