We often hear that soldiers back from war struggle or hesitate to tell their stories. Richard (Dick) wasn't any different. By a fluke, his wife found out. He certainly heard about holding that detail from her! His son learned about it after watching Jaws for the first time. After excitedly telling his mom about the Indianapolis reference in the movie, she smiled and told him to talk to his father. Imagine finding out like that! We are thankful that Dick did get to a point where he felt comfortable talking about it. He shared it with about 100 people Thursday, April 21 in St. Mary's Hall. He also told his story to some of the upper elementary students at St. Mary's School earlier that day.
Dick got right to the point by giving us an overview of his experience. He said he liked to take questions more than simply give details alone, and he challenged the adults to come up with as good of ones as the school kids.
The over 600 foot Indianapolis' mission was the deliver the atomic bomb, Little Boy, in July 1945. They took off (hightailed it) across the Pacific Ocean at 30 knots. During the voyage, he guarded the bomb, which put him within 20 feet of it. They delivered it to the island of Tinian on July 26.
Fast forward to a few minutes after midnight on July 30 when a torpedo hit. He was tossed into the air. Then another hit. Dick had been asleep, using rumpled up clothes for a pillow in his bunk below deck. He got knocked around. A lot. One torpedo hit midship, where gasoline and powder were housed, causing an explosion.
He said he always gets asked about jumping off the ship. His response? He didn't leave the ship, the ship left him. Since it sunk so quickly, he swam away from the ship.
Why three life jackets? Life jackets were made from milkweed and were not designed to last a long time (72 hours). He began with one and then accumulated two more as the days went on. See this link about the important role Michigan had in providing milkweed pods for WWII.
Dick was not in a life raft, but he was floating next to one. The benefit of that? Men in the raft were terribly sunburned with no where to hide from the sun. He could at least put what remained of his clothing on his head, while the rest of his body remained protected underwater.
Those who gulped saltwater got terribly sick, almost going mad.
At first, the men who went in the water faced 11-12 foot wake, but as the week went on, the water went calm.
Sharks came close to Dick. Why he wasn't plucked out of the water? He doesn't know.
He shared many incidences like this...call it chance, call it fate... but they were moments where things lined up oddly, for good and for bad. One example of this was the way they were torpedoed. Since it was night, the submarine was able to spot the ship because the Indianapolis sat between the submarine and a bright moon; this alignment gave it perfect sight of the ship. Had the submarine surfaced on the other side of the ship, or the moon been not as bright, it would've been harder for the ship to have been spotted.
Being rescued after multiple days without food, water, and soaking in saltwater left damage. He couldn't eat for 2 days, he said, and at that point it was simply a little alcohol, juice, and coffee.
There's so much more to his story not shared here: the story of his captain, the fight for a proper memorial, movies and documentaries.
Dick mentioned an upcoming National Geographic Special coming out this spring about this story. We look forward to seeing it and we hope you do too. As with any veteran, if you have a chance, thank them for their service and stand in awe of their accomplishments.
Westphalia Historical Society Blog