What it was like to survive the infamous sinking of the USS Indianapolis 75 years ago

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In late July of 1945 Harold Bray first saw the ship that was the USS Indianapolis. Like many others, he was in awe when first gazing at the famous Portland-class heavy cruiser. However, he was guessing as much as a kid with all C’s on a Scantron sheet when wondering what the ship contained as its secret cargo.

After the ship left Mare Island on July 16, 1945, it went to Hunters Point in San Francisco. While there Bray saw the cargo unloaded, which would turn out to be the parts of Little Boy, the first nuclear weapon ever used in combat.

Before reaching a U.S. Army Air Force Base on the island of Tinian for more training Bray was off on the ship, sailing at a speed record of ?74 1/2 hours from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, an average speed of 33 mph, a new record.

It would take much longer for Bray to come back.

On July 30, Japanese submarine I-58, captained by Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, fired two torpedoes which struck the Indianapolis on its starboard side, one in the bow and one amidships. Approximately 300 of the 1,195 sailors died during the explosion. The rest of the sailors jumped ship, only to land in the Philippine Sea which was full of not only salt water, but massive amounts of oil and sharks.

Only 316 sailors would survive three and half days in the sea. Of those 316, only eight are still alive.

Harold Bray is the youngest, having just turned 93 last month. He’s thought about the incident for 75 years.

Starting the voyage

The Portland-class heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA 35) underway in Pearl Harbor in 1937.

The Portland-class heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA 35) underway in Pearl Harbor in 1937.

For nearly four years Bray wanted nothing more than to enlist in the U.S. Navy. The man from Northern Michigan was only 14 when World War II began, so he had to wait until 1944 to be enrolled in boot camp and until early 1945 before he was enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

“The Navy was going to be my life no matter what,” the Benician said when asked if he ever thought what his life would have been had he not made the voyage. “I was getting trained for anything and that was my first time away from home. Every once in a while the memories spring to the surface again. With it being 75 years I think about it a lot.”

Like many, Bray had his guesses about what the cargo was on the Indianapolis, but the secret was bigger than those of Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids and the recipe for Coca Cola all rolled into one. In fact, even the ship’s commander Charles B. McVay III, didn’t know what the cargo was. But Bray was just excited to be going away from home for the first time in his life.

“The ship was looking good. Some new paint, new guns. It was a very exciting time for this country boy,” Bray said in the book, “Only 317 survived” (later to be corrected to 316). “Everything was hush-hush and secret. A crate was loaded and put in the port hanger. There was a lot of speculation of what was in it, but we were all proven wrong.”

After delivering the parts of Little Boy to the island of Tinian, the Indianapolis subsequently departed for the Philippines as the sailors would report training duty. The ship never made it.

Abandoning ship

In the early hours of July 30, Bray decided to spend the evening topside as it was very warm. With his blanket and pillow he began to sleep under a one-gun turret (8 inch gun). He doesn’t remember hearing an explosion, but he sure felt it. His co-sailor, who he called “Frenchy” told Bray, “You better go, she’s going down.”

“At first I couldn’t believe it was going down, how could something so beautiful sink? I got to the fantail and I saw three guys leaning up against the bulkhead,” Bray told the Times-Herald this week. “I started thinking, I better get off this thing. I grabbed the lifeline and ran down the side of the ship to get away from the screws.That’s when I jumped a good 40 feet. I hit the water and a lot of oil right away. It was so thick, there was no getting around it.”

In 12 minutes, or the time of a quarter in a basketball game or a drive without traffic from Vallejo to American Canyon, the Indianapolis had sunk. It would not be found for another 72 years.

“With the moon being really bright that night, you could still see people jumping off the ship,” Bray told this Times-Herald reporter in 2014. “It was like ants coming off a stick.”

Surviving for three and half days

An artist's depiction of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis

An artist's depiction of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis

When Bray jumped into the water, he only had his dungarees on. That being said, he was not cold right away when he hit the water, he was hot. This was because of the oil.

“It stayed with us for the remaining days. It just floated along with us,” Bray said. “It was coming out and a lot of people were just evaporating in it. I don’t know what made me so lucky.”

Bray credits the group in the water for helping save his life.

“At first the group, I’d say there was 85 of us. But the days took their tolls. An officer in our group, I can’t remember his name, really kept us together,” Bray said. “By the end there was just 18 of us left in the group and that’s because we didn’t drink the oil or salt water.”

Although Bray couldn’t remember the officer’s name this past week, in 2014 he did and gave thanks to Dr. Lewis Haynes and sailor Thomas “Pappy” Goff when speaking with the Times-Herald.

“He kept me alive,” Bray said in 2014, fighting back a tear at the memory. “I have to give him a lot of credit. Everyone was drinking the salt water immediately because everyone was so thirsty. He told me ”Don”t drink it. Don”t do it.” I listened to him and that helped save me.”

Bray also had to deal with another enemy — dozens of sharks.

“Then the sharks came,” Bray said in 2014. “I looked down and they were just swarming around us. Their tails would hit me every once in a while. There wasn”t really anywhere to go; we had to deal with them. The sharks seemed to go after the people that had big cuts to them, were naked or just in their skivvies. We lost a lot of good men in those first few days.”

One of Bray’s best friends to this day is co-survivor Dick Thelen, who had to deal with a horrific episode in the water with his friend and co-sailor Robert Terry, described by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic in their New York Times best-selling book, “Indianapolis.”

“Terry’s arms smacked weakly against the swells like toy paddles. He was struggling to stay afloat. Thelen wanted to go back and help, but he was so spent he feared he would drown. But that was okay because Terry was only ten feet away now,” Vincent and Vladic wrote.

“Come on! Come on!,” Thelen yelled, stretching out his arm toward his friend. “You’re gonna make it!”

“The encouragement was no sooner out of Thelen’s mouth than his insides seized. A shark reared out of the water and snatched Terry from sight,” Vladic and Vincent wrote. “Thelen clung to the raft, shaking all the way down to his feet. Certain he would be next, he waited to be eaten. But minutes piled up one upon the other, and death did not come for him. ‘Why them and not me,’ Thelen asked himself in anguish.'”

Rescue

Bray remained optimistic, but what he didn’t know was that no distress signal was sent out before the Indianapolis was sunk. Nobody was looking for them. For whatever reason it was assumed Indianapolis would reach its destination on time, unless reported otherwise. Therefore, their positions were based on predictions and not on reports. On 31 July, when the ship should have arrived at Leyte, Indianapolis was removed from the board in the headquarters of Commander Marianas. She was also recorded as having arrived at Leyte by the headquarters of Commander Philippine Sea Frontier.

So Bray kept holding on, waiting to be saved.

“We would see planes every single day. Every day,” Bray said. “But they weren’t looking for us.”

Finally Bray saw his “Angel”, as a PV-1 Ventura flown by Lieutenant Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn and his copilot, Lieutenant Warren Colwell, and a PBY 2 piloted by Bill Kitchen spotted the men adrift while on a routine patrol flight. Bray would be rescued by the U.S.S. Bassett.

“I can’t describe to you how it felt when the ships started showing up to rescue us,” Bray said, though tears. “We were discovered at night and there was some light shown so they could send down rafts. There were corks and a rope going through them.”

Related: The incredible story of the men who survived a torpedo attack, sinking ship, sharks, and 5 days lost at sea

The rescue, which consisted of a dozen ships as well as two Catalinas, was spread out over 35 miles in the sea.

A few days later the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and soon after, the war was declared over. The New York Times” front page screamed the news in a banner headline: “Japan Surrenders, End of War! Emperor Accepts Allied Rule; M”Arthur Supreme Commander; Our Manpower Curbs Voided.”

Down near the bottom of the page, in an area so small you might think it was a baseball box score, was the small headline “Cruiser Sunk, 1,196 Casualties, Took Atom Comb Cargo to Guam.”

Trial of McVay, working as a police officer in Benicia

In the days that followed the rescue, McVay was the subject of a court-martial, because his ship was sunk by an act of war and many believed the ship was hit because of the captain”s failure to zig-zag the ship. In a bizarre scene, Hashimoto was even brought over to testify in the United States. He said no matter how the ship had maneuvered, he would have caught the Indianapolis. McVay was later exonerated in 2000 thanks to the hard work of Hunter Scott, but by then it was too late. After a years of mental health problems following the disaster, McVay committed suicide in 1968.

After the war, Bray received an honorable discharged from the Navy in 1946 in Illinois. From there he soon moved to Benicia, where he has lived ever since.

Bray would eventually join the Benicia Police Department, where he would work in patrol and narcotics until 1983, when he retired.

In 2014 Bray laughed at the notion of finding himself in the dangerous field of police work after having survived the disaster of a lifetime.

“When I was in the eighth grade, my teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I told her that I wanted to be a police officer,” Bray said. “It was either that or a cross country truck driver.”

Reunion

Around the same time Bray became a police officer, he started going to reunions for the USS Indianapolis in the city of Indianapolis. The first one, in 1960, Bray missed. In 1965, however Bray made the reunion and he hasn’t missed one since, although this year for the 75th anniversary it will be virtual reunion due to COVID-19.

“There is a lot I’m going to miss about not going to reunion,” Bray said. “I’ll miss all the people that have been involved over the years. We don’t talk about the sinking that much when we’re together. But I like to kid around with Dick Thelen, who I went to boot camp with. I tell him that I’m three months younger than him every time I see him to make him laugh.”

One person who has gotten to know Bray well over time is Vladic, who co-wrote the book Indianapolis and spent time with the longtime survivor.

“Every year at this time, it seems the burden that the USS Indianapolis survivors carry is extra heavy. This year, more so than others,” Vladic told the Times-Herald on Saturday. “Not having the reunion to look forward to also seems to make it even harder on many of them. Many count on seeing their shipmates again, to share stories, remember old friends who have since passed, and to reflect on an experience that nobody else on earth, but the survivors, could begin to understand. It’s how they heal, and each year, it feels like a giant family reunion. I imagine it’s extra hard from them reflecting on such a huge milestone year without knowing if and when they’ll see their shipmates again.”

Related: 74 years after its namesake's infamous sinking, the USS Indianapolis is ready for service

There will be a virtual reunion for the survivors from Thursday through Aug. 2 and in the meantime numerous tributes have gone out. On Friday, the city of Indianapolis had a tribute of lights showing on downtown buildings. Bray was sent over 50 letters for his 93rd birthday according to a family member. The back of his truck has an Indianapolis painting on it, and when he first saw it he was moved to tears.

Bray often used to walk into airports where he and his wife, Stephanie, would be showered with a standing ovation.

“It means a lot,” Bray said, through tears. “It means I’ve had a good life. It means people remember.”

Vladic, for one, is grateful she has learned and researched the story for nearly two decades.

“From Harold, I learned a lot about the perspective of the very young men who went aboard Indianapolis and survived. They believed they were just too young to die, and it wasn’t a possibility. We understand that, of course, age wasn’t a discriminating factor in their survival — sailors ranging from the ages 16 to their mid-40’s were lost during those five nights and four days of hell. But what stands out among those who survived, is that they absolutely believed they were going to live. Perhaps their survival could be attributed to many things: a higher power, luck…. sheer stubbornness. I think the lesson we can all learn from these incredible heroes is a simple statement that every single one of them still says often — never give up.

“Also, Harold still wins the title for giving the best hugs,” Vladic said.

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©2020 Times-Herald (Vallejo, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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