CLEARWATER — Harlan Twible, making his way to a seat at the front of a meeting room at Suncoast Hospice, said he never will forget his last moments aboard the USS Indianapolis.
It was almost 67 years ago to the day.
The ship, a heavy cruiser, just had dropped off a special load to the island base of Tinian.
"There were armed guards," Twible said. "We knew we had something, but we didn't know what."
Twible said he later learned the cargo was "Little Boy" — the first atomic bomb.
But that wasn't even the highlight of the journey.
Steaming out of Guam for gunnery practice, the ship was rocked by a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine. Twible, an ensign, was coming off watch and, though wounded, was able to make it into the water and eventually organized the survivors.
For days, he says, they fought hunger. And thirst. And shark attacks.
"Four days, five nights in the water," he says. "Eight hundred and eighty-eight lost."
It is a difficult story to tell, said Twible, now 90 and a Sarasota resident, but he had come to the hospice to offer it up again, perhaps for the last time.
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Twible was one of about 83,000 veterans who have told their stories to the Veterans History Project. A program of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the project was created in 2000 to record and store oral histories as well as photographs, memoires, illustrations and documents of those who served.
Bob Patrick, a retired Army colonel and the project's director, went to the hospice to talk about the program and inspire others to tell their stories. The event, a fundraiser for Honor Flight of West Central Florida, was put on by that organization and Support the Troops, which sends shipments of items to those serving in Afghanistan.
"It is so important that we preserve the voices and stories of men and women, from all backgrounds," he said. "Everybody's story is important."
Most of the stories belong to those, like Twible, who served in World War II, Patrick said, adding the project was charged with getting recollections of the oldest veterans before they die. The project has about 300 collections from World War I veterans, and stories of veterans from all wars are sought.
On Friday, Patrick received stories collected by WUSF reporter Bobbie O'Brien of retired Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Rex Temple, who created a project to provide school supplies to children in Afghanistan while he was deployed there.
Saturday's event at the hospice, which attracted about 40 veterans, was attended by Congressmen C.W. Bill Young and Gus Bilirakis, both supporters of the Veterans History Project. Bilirakis staffers collect audio and video interviews with veterans when the congressman hands out medals they earned. Young has opened up his office for any veterans who want to tell their stories.
"We lost all of our World War I veterans and never really created an oral history of the important role our military and our individual soldiers played in the victory of World War I," said Young. "We really knew to make sure that, as we start losing our World War II veterans, we don't lose their stories."
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A few months before Twible's ordeal, Jack Griffin experienced his own trial by fire.
A Navy corpsman who enlisted in Tampa and still lives there, Griffin went ashore on Okinawa in March, 1945, to tend to wounded and dying .
"I spent 11 days on the island," he said. "It was horrible."
Griffin, who would go on to be a prominent circuit court judge in Hillsborough County, said it is important for veterans to tell their stories.
"If you don't learn from history," said Griffin, 87, who plans on offering his story to the project, "you will repeat the mistakes."