Earlier this week, National Home residents and staff were honored to have WWII Veteran and USS Indianapolis survivor Richard Thelen speak at our Veterans Day Program. Mr. Thelen, who is 89 and still lives on his own, drives, cooks and cleans, recounted his experience on that fateful day in July of 1945.
Mr. Thelen told us of how he had joined the Navy at 17 to avoid being drafted into the Army. He was trained as a firefighter, and his job was to be present with an extinguisher whenever someone was welding. Before they were given their assignments, the young sailors were lined up, and they went down the line “1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2”. The ones went to the USS Arkansas, and the twos went to the USS Indianapolis.
The Indianapolis was a Portland-class heavy cruiser of the United States Navy that ran a secret mission in 1945 delivering the materials for the atomic bomb, Little Boy, to the island of Tinian in the Pacific. This would be the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima bringing the war to a swift end. After making this drop, the cruiser made a stop in Guam and continued on to Leyte in the Philippians. It was during this voyage that they were detected and torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.
Twelve short minutes was all it took for the Indianapolis to sink -- very little time for the 1,196 men on board to respond. Three hundred men went down with the ship, while the remaining 896 were left to the elements, without food or water, for four days. Only 317 survived.
On the night of the attack, Sunday, July 30, he was just lying down to sleep as the first torpedo hit the nose of the ship. He and a group of fellow soldiers were able to cut down some floatation devices and life jackets before diving off of the ship as it sank. He says he still remember the first taste of salt water and diesel fuel in his mouth. He spent four days and five nights in the ocean, with no food, no water and no shelter from the 100-degree temperatures and the beating sun. He said some men began to get desperate and drank the sea water, which killed them in a matter of a few hours. Later, as the swells calmed down, the sharks moved in.
Mr Thelen did not share many details regarding his time in the ocean. Perhaps those memories are still too difficult to share. But he did speak about his rescue. They were discovered on Thursday by a plane conducting a routine patrol flight. The pilot dropped rafts and other gear into the ocean for the survivors. Mr. Thelen and three other men began swimming towards a raft together. Two died from exhaustion along the way, and the third was picked off by a shark. When Thelen reached the raft, he was too weak to pull himself aboard. The others in the raft tried to help but were also too weak, so he spent another night in the water. Fortunately, the USS Doyle arrived on Friday at daybreak to pick up the survivors.
After Mr. Thelen's remarks, the program concluded with a musical performance of Tim McGraw's “If You’re Reading This”.
If you're reading this
My mama's sitting there
Looks like I only got a one-way ticket over here
I sure wish I could give you one more kiss
And war was just a game we played when we were kids
Well, I'm laying down my gun
I'm hanging up my boots
I'm up here with God
And we're both watching over you
So lay me down
In that open field out on the edge of town
And know my soul is where my mama always prayed that it would go
If you're reading this, I'm already home
If you're reading this
Halfway around the world
I won't be there to see the birth of our little girl
I hope she looks like you
I hope she fights like me
She stands up for the innocent and the weak
I'm laying down my gun
Hanging up my boots
Tell dad, I don't regret that I've followed in his shoes