Joe’s Journal

A sailor remembers

Posted:  Wednesday, September 20, 2017 - 8:45am

I had trouble getting to sleep the other night after watching the MPBN TV documentary on the discovery of the wreck of the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser torpedoed in the last months of World War II. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the image of a smiling Irishman named James E. O’Donnell. He called himself “Jimmy.”

The MPBN show highlighted the efforts of a private undersea expedition, which found the mangled wreckage of the 610-foot-long vessel on the sea bottom under some 18,000 feet of water.

Growing up in Indianapolis, I guess I always knew the story of the “Indy.” Later, as a reporter, I was assigned to cover a reunion of her survivors. There I ran into a familiar face.

It was Jimmy O’Donnell, a city firefighter who lived a couple of blocks from our home. As a kid, I used to deliver newspapers to him and frequently saw him and his family at Sunday Mass. I didn’t know he was a war hero, but he was.

Back in 1945, Jimmy, then 25, was a Water Tender Third Class, a member of the “black gang,” the sweating crew that tended the mighty engines that powered the USS Indianapolis at speeds over 30 knots.

The “Indy” fought in 10 major battles, her huge guns providing support for brave American Marines and soldiers slogging their way though the Pacific islands.

In March 1945, a kamikaze attack sent her limping back to San Francisco for repairs. A few months later, she was ordered back to sea carrying a top secret cargo – the atomic bomb that was later dropped on Hiroshima. After delivering her cargo at Tinian island, she set off for the Philippines where a Japanese torpedo blasted off her bow. A second torpedo hit amidships. She sank in 12 minutes.

It was a clear night. Jimmy was spending the night on the cool deck rather than sleeping in the sweltering berthing area.

Around midnight, an explosion pitched him into the air. By the time he could find a life jacket, the ship was listing to starboard. He ran to the port-side sliding down her hull between the propeller shafts. Moments later, he watched as she slipped under the waves.

She had been crewed by nearly 1,200 sailors and Marines.  About 900 made it into the water.

Some scrambled on life rafts, others, clutching life jackets, bobbed in the waves. Jimmy told me that they tied themselves together in sort of circular groups.

Around first light, the sharks arrived.

“You could feel them bump your legs and we would kick them to make them go away,” he told me.

Not all went away. Without food or water, some sailors began to hallucinate. Some swam away. Some just gave up, while others just died. The sharks didn’t give up.

As the day turned into night and back into day, survivors clung together in the swells for five nights and four days before the pilot of a small patrol plane, a Lockheed Ventura, spotted an oil slick and followed it until the pilot saw groups of waving figures in the water. He dropped life rafts and other gear to an estimated 150 men in several groups. Then, ignoring a mandated radio silence, he called for help.

Within hours, several planes arrived on the scene, including a large amphibian, a PBY-5-A, called a Catalina. It was piloted by Adrian Marks, a small town lawyer from Indiana.

At one of the survivor reunions, Marks told the audience he circled the groups dropping provisions and other survivor gear. He also saw hundreds of circling sharks. Although his orders barred him from landing at sea, and the fact he had never tried a rough water landing, he decided to set her down.

“I saw men in the water being eaten by sharks,” he told the audience.

He and his crewmen pulled 56 survivors on board the plane, stacking some on the wings.

They were joined by other planes and a series of rescue ships. Of the estimated 900 men who fled the sinking vessel, just 317 sailors were pulled from the water, including Jimmy O’Donnell.

Back home, he got married, and spent 36 years as a city firefighter. He didn’t say much about the war until after he retired when he spent much of his time trying to raise money to memorialize his shipmates.

In 1995, at the dedication of an impressive memorial to the ill-fated vessel, hundreds of survivors and their relatives stood by as dignitaries prayed and praised them for their valor.

The crowd stilled as a band played the Navy hymn. Suddenly, their silence turned to cheers as their rescuing angels, a Ventura and a PBY, flew out of the clouds.

Jimmy O’Donnell, survivor, firefighter and faithful dad, just smiled and hugged his wife and kids.

Jimmy died in 2013, just weeks after celebrating his 70th wedding anniversary. He was 92.