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Vivid memories haunt survivors of USS Indianapolis sinking

Navy veterans James Jarvis, left, and Wilmer Jacoby pose for a photo before a meeting of the World War II and Korean War Roundtable at the Fairlawn Kiwanis Community Center on Aug. 23, 2012, in Fairlawn, Ohio. Jarvis survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and Jacoby was aboard one of the rescue ships.

FAIRLAWN, Ohio — One of the old sailors remembers the feel of barnacles on his feet as he slid into the sea and the horrifying brush with sharks as they swam below him as he floated in the water for four days.

The other can still see the head of his best friend disappear in a wave as the man tried to swim toward land.

Two surviving members of the crew of the USS Indianapolis were given a hero’s welcome recently as they spoke before a standing-room-only crowd to tell their stories at a World War II and Korean War Roundtable.

Navy veterans Albert “Al” Morris, 87, of Akron, and James “Jim” Jarvis, 90, of Lake Township, answered questions before an audience largely made up of WWII, Korean, Vietnam and Cold War veterans and members of their families.

A Japanese submarine torpedo sank the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945, while it was sailing from Guam to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. Only 316 sailors from a crew of 1,196 survived the initial strike and the harrowing days of dehydration and shark attacks that followed.

Jarvis and Morris said they believe there are only 42 Indianapolis sailors still alive.

Nearly 70 years later, Jarvis vividly recalls the five nights and four days he spent in the Philippine Sea after the cruiser sank within minutes of the attack.

“You think of it every day — several times,” he said. “It is not something you forget easily.”

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Jarvis, a native of Weston, W.Va., joined the Navy in 1944. He worked as an aviation metalsmith aboard the USS Indianapolis.

The night the ship was torpedoed, Jarvis had been sleeping in a port hangar, where the SC-1 Seahawk seaplanes he and his comrades worked on were kept.

“I didn’t hear any explosion or nothing,” he said.

On the contrary, what he noticed was that a loud fan that ran all the time had stopped buzzing.

“It got real quiet,” he said.

He grabbed a life jacket and headed for the well deck.

“We knew we were in trouble,” he said.

The ship already was starting to list, or lean over, he said.

“It wasn’t coming back,” he said of the realization that the ship was sinking.

Soon, as water came across the well deck, he and hundreds of others slid down the side of the ship. About 900 men who survived the torpedo blast went into the sea.

Jarvis said he swam as fast as he could.

“You get in the water and you hear a sinking ship will suck you down,” he said.

Morris, a retired Roadway Express truck driver, was on a watch shift when the torpedo hit just after midnight. After trying to help others, he simply walked off the cruiser that by then was on its side.

As he slid into the water, he felt the barnacles that encrusted the now-exposed underside of the Indianapolis. Then he felt nothing and splashed into the water.

Morris, who operated a 5-inch gun on the ship, had turned 20 years old only two days earlier.

While in the water, the nearsighted Jarvis lost his glasses. It made it hard to see much. In fact, he said, he doesn’t think he saw the ship actually sink.

“It might have been a good thing,” Jarvis said.

The Indianapolis, a Portland Class cruiser, four days earlier had delivered to the Island of Tinian the atomic bomb that later would be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

Jarvis, a Goodyear Aerospace retiree, said he didn’t encounter any sharks while in the water — maybe one dolphin — but there were other serious threats to his life and the group of about 150 other sailors in the water near him.

They had no food or water the entire time they were waiting to be rescued.

“A lot of guys were losing it,” Jarvis said of sailors who were becoming delirious in the hot Pacific sun and in the saltwater. “They were starting to imagine things.”

Jarvis decided to swim about 50 feet away from the main group to better protect himself.

On the third day Jarvis was in the sea, his best friend came up with an idea.

Roy L. Hopper swam up to Jarvis and said he was going to try swimming to the Philippines, a trek of several hundred miles.

“I couldn’t talk him out of it,” Jarvis said.

His final glimpse of Hopper — even with his poor vision — remains etched in Jarvis’ memory.

“The last thing I saw was his head sticking out of a wave.”

Morris said he saw the fins of sharks in the water and felt them on his feet. To this day, sharks on television bother him.

For many years, Morris said, bad dreams were a constant reminder of the ordeal.

Jarvis said he and other sailors knew the ship was carrying something, but they were unaware the Indianapolis had such historically important cargo.

He and others in his division worked and slept in the plane hangar. Inside the same hangar was a large wooden box, about 12 feet long, 4 feet high and 4 feet wide. It was labeled “radio gear” and under 24-hour guard by U.S. Marines.

“I slept 10 feet from it,” Jarvis said. “I walked on the box a lot.”

It wasn’t until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima — Aug. 6, 1945 — and Jarvis was aboard a hospital ship heading to Guam that he and other rescued sailors learned their ship had delivered the bomb.

He is proud to have been part of that mission.

“It saved millions of lives on both sides,” Jarvis said.

He said the worst injury he suffered came from prolonged time in the sea: saltwater ulcers on his knees. He had ripped off a piece of his pants leg and placed it on his head for protection from the beating sun.

Survivors’ bodies also were covered with the ship’s oil floating on the surface of the sea, which offered some protection from the elements, Jarvis said.

He said he never suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and never has had nightmares or other related problems. But he thinks every day, more than once, about the endless hours in the sea, about the sinking of his ship, the men who survived with him and the men, like Hopper, who died.

“That’s the way war is,” he said. “You kill them or they kill you.”

Copley Township resident Robert Schumann, 87, who was on the destroyer the USS Helm, said that when his ship arrived on the scene of the Indianapolis, all the crew found were bodies in the water.

“Just hundreds of bodies floating around,” he said.

Schumann, who along with six brothers served during the war, listened to the two men speak at the Fairlawn meeting and said he was happy to meet survivors.

“I’m glad you made it home,” he said to Jarvis and Morris, his voice shaking with emotion.
 

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