On 75th anniversary, family remembers survivor of USS Indianapolis sinking
By GARY BROWN | The Repository, Canton, Ohio | Published: July 30, 2020
CANTON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — The 2005 obituary for William F. Ault of Canton noted he was one of the few who survived one of the deadliest losses of life in U.S. Naval history.
"He was a World War II Veteran of the United States Navy, and was aboard the USS Indianapolis when it was sunk in the Pacific Ocean on July 30, 1945," the obit told mourners of Ault, who was born Aug. 25, 1919, and died April 1, 2005, at 85.
"Of the 1197 crew members aboard the ship at the time, he and only 316 of his shipmates were rescued after five days in the water."
When he jumped into the dark and lonely sea on that Sunday night 75 years ago, however, the young seaman second class wondered if he was the sole survivor.
"As soon as I hit the water I started swimming as hard as I could to get away from the ship as I had always heard that the undertow from a sinking ship could pull you under. I swam maybe 50 or 100 yards from the ship and then glanced around to see what was happening," he said in "Those in Peril on the Sea," a book of crew member recollections gathered by L. Peter Wren, an officer on one of the rescue ships, at the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Indianapolis.
"The only part of the ship that was out of the water was the fantail with the four screws (propellers) sticking out of the water," he continued in his recollection. "I started swimming again to get away as far as possible and the next time I looked the ship was gone.
"At that time, as far as I knew, I was the only one left. No one else was near me."
Ault, a graduate of Louisville High School, wasn't the only sailor still alive. He wasn't even the only Stark County seaman to make it into the water, as news accounts later would report.
"At least three men from the Canton area were among the ... crewmen who miraculously survived the sinking of the heavy cruiser Indianapolis July 30, 450 miles off Leyte," according to an account published in The Canton Repository days after the ship went down.
The story lists Seaman William Ault, Seaman Harold Shearer, and Machinist's Mate Gabriel Vincent George as Stark County survivors. The article noted that Electrician's Mate Frank Burkholtz of North Canton was missing, and he later would be recorded as killed in action from the sinking.
Another well-known Stark County survivor, who frequently spoke about the naval tragedy, was Jim Jarvis of Lake Township, who was believed to be the oldest remaining survivor of the sinking when he passed away at 98 on June 6, 2020. Thomas Goff of Jackson Township, previously had been recognized as the oldest survivor when he died at 100 in 2007.
Still, in the darkness and silent water of the Pacific Ocean on July 30, 1945, Ault felt very much alone.
And, neither Ault's parents, Clarence F. and Althea Ault of Louisville, nor his wife and son, Verena and William Jr., received official word of the sinking until a telegram was sent by the Navy on Aug. 13.
Reported in Repository
In part because of the secrecy of the mission of the Indianapolis — she had delivered the atom bomb to the Island of Tinian — news of the ship's sinking was slow to reach most Americans.
The first in-depth reporting by The Canton Repository came in the form of an Associated Press report published on the front page on Aug. 15, 1945.
"Two great explosions flashed out of her slim bow at 12 minutes past midnight," the AP article said. "Flames streaked through her shock-darkened passageways, searing the piled bodies of her crew into shapeless masses. Within 13 minutes she plunged head-first into the sea.
"That was the end of the proud cruiser Indianapolis — torpedoed 450 miles off Leyte July 30 with 883 dead and missing, after she had finished a record speed run from San Francisco to Guam to deliver the first atom bomb to the B-29s. She apparently fell prey to a Japanese submarine."
"For the 500 crewmen and the handful of officers hurled alive into the midnight sea, it was the beginning of a living nightmare."
The numbers of victims and survivors have varied through the years. About 300 men were buried in the Indianapolis. Nearly 900 of the men aboard the ship went into the water. Almost two-thirds were lost.
Although the original list of survivors was 315, and the Navy later increased that number to 316, it now is widely believed that 317 individuals were rescued five days after the sinking.
Sara Vladic, author with Lynn Vincent of the book "Indianapolis" and maker of the documentary "USS Indianapolis: The Legacy," documented that one survivor, Radio Technician Clarence William Donner, had for decades been listed as "lost at sea."
Ault recalled the horror in the water in his personal history for Wren's text. He said he quickly heard voices and found a group of comrades, many of whom were ill-dressed for such a disaster.
"When I went overboard, I was wearing a blue denim shirt, dungarees and shoes and socks. Some of the men had only shorts and no shirts, some I think even less," Ault said. "I had no injuries and didn't get sick from swallowing sea water, but some of the men weren't as lucky."
The men tied the few life rafts together, along with a floater net, and those who couldn't get into the rafts hung onto the sides or the net. At one point during Ault's days in the water, his grasp dangerously loosened.
"The second night out I was hanging onto the floater net and dozed off for a short time," he told Wren. "When I woke up there was no one around me. I had let go of the net while I dozed and had floated away from the group. I didn't know which way to swim to rejoin them and I was trying to decide what to do when I heard their voices. It didn't take me long to rejoin them and from that time on, I kept myself tied to the net."
Sharks were the most frightening concern.
"During the day, the sharks would come around and when anyone would see sharks they would yell 'shark' and everybody would kick their feet and try to scare them away," Ault told Wren. "When the sea was clear, you could look down through and see [the sharks] below you."
The oil slick created by the Indianapolis became a safeguard.
"As long as we floated in the oil slick, which would come and go, the sharks wouldn't bother us."
Surviving and salvation
Nights in the sea were better than days, Ault said in his recollection, noting that the sharks didn't seem as worrisome at night and the hot sun was not beating mercilessly on the survivors, who became fewer with each passing day.
Men became delirious, Ault remembered, recalling briefly losing his own grasp on reality. They were "seeing" the ship's mess hall below the water's surface, below deck in their faulty thinking, where there were drinking fountains and pots of coffee.
"I think my only other narrow escape from death came on the last day we were in the water," Ault told Wren. "On this day, one of the men told me he was going below to get a drink and wanted me to go with him. I agreed and he went under the water to go below. I started to follow but when the water went over my head I had enough strength left to realize that there was nothing there but water."
Personal strength, perhaps coupled with prayer, helped Ault survive his days afloat.
"After the initial shock of the sinking had worn off, we were beginning to get grouped together in the water, I made up my mind at that time that if I did lose my life in the water I would be one of the last ones to go. I think this determination was what kept me from losing my sanity."
Recovery and life
Ninety-one-year-old Barbara Baker of North Canton, Ault's younger sister, says her brother's toughness likely led to his survival. He always was a "happy-go-lucky guy," she said, "always funny," but he was "mentally tough."
"He was one of the toughest guys I knew," said his sister.
In his personal history 25 years ago, Ault told Wren, an officer aboard the rescue ship USS Bassett, that he couldn't remember much about his recovery and the rescue of his fellow crewmen. He did recall being pulled onto the rescue ship, covered in oil and exhausted, "I thought my arms would give out before I got on board."
Ault went to work following the war at what was then Timken Roller Bearing Co. He retired as foreman of the melt shop after 43 years.
He and his wife, Verena, who preceded him in death, had three sons, Richard Ault of Canton; Steven Ault of Salt Lake City, Utah; and the late William Ault Jr.
Richard Ault recalls that his father would discuss his time serving in the Navy and his survival, "if you wanted to."
"It wasn't like he didn't want to talk about it," said the son. "But he wasn't one to get in front of people and talk to a group."
Periodically, the elder Ault would attend a reunion of Indianapolis survivors. (This year's event is being held virtually, according to www.ussindianapolis.com.
"What was interesting at the reunions was walking to the different guys, and getting different perspectives," said Richard Ault.
"I remember my dad saying once that before they were picked up, he thought he wouldn't last the rest of the day. He was on his last legs. A lot of them thought that was their last day."
His sister, Barbara, said she was too young at the time of her brother's return after World War II to remember much of what he told their parents about his experience.
Still, she was afforded one glimpse inside his lingering memory of the sinking of the Indianapolis.
"He once told me he never wanted to be on the water again where he could not see the shore," Baker recalled. "He did have a boat on a lake. He and his wife boated a lot, but always within sight of land."
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