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Survivor of WWII naval tragedy tells his tale



Heller
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Clawson resident and U.S. Navy veteran John Heller tells the story of how he survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during the last days of World War II. He spoke Tuesday before the Rotary Club of Oxford and its many guests. Photo by CJC. (click for larger version)
August 24, 2011 - Sixty-six years ago John Heller survived the U.S. Navy's worst tragedy at sea.

The frightful memories of what he experienced during and after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35) on July 30, 1945 continue to haunt the Navy veteran to this day as he suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One of the ways he deals with it is to tell his story to as many people who will listen.

"My mother took me to a psychiatrist when I got home," Heller said. "He said all through your life, I want you to go ahead and (talk). If anybody wants you to talk, talk. He said it's the best thing in the world for you. And it is."

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"There's too many World War II veterans that don't talk," he added.

Talk is exactly what Heller did Tuesday afternoon as the World War II veteran addressed the Rotary Club of Oxford and its numerous guests at Oxford Hills.

Heller was one of only 317 servicemen (out of 1,197 sailors and Marines) to survive when a submarine from the Imperial Japanese Navy sunk the heavy cruiser. He was only 17 years old at the time.

The ship was on its way to the Philippines after delivering components for the atomic bomb, known as "Little Boy," to Tinian Island in the Marianas. It was Little Boy that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on Aug. 6, 1945.

Prior to the submarine attack, which took place after midnight July 30, Heller had been on the ship's bridge.

"I was a helmsman," he said. "I never steered a ship in my life, but they had me on as a helmsman."

Heller recalled he was steering the ship on a zigzag course, but the captain, Charles B. McVay III, told the officer of the deck to resume a regular straight course.

At 8 p.m., Heller was relieved. He got something to eat and later went to sleep on the deck near the ship's 8-inch guns.

It was the attack that woke him.

A Japanese submarine fired two torpedoes at the USS Indianapolis.

"The first one hit directly underneath me where the aviation gasoline and the powder for the big guns were. So, it blew off 20 feet of the bow right away," Heller said. "I didn't know what to do. I hopped down and burnt the bottom of my feet."

Heller recalled grabbing a life-jacket, the ship listing to one side and him landing in the water.

"There were a lot of guys already in the water yelling and screaming, 'I don't have a (life) jacket,'" he said. "I looked out into the distance and the ship was going along. The (gun) turrets were in the water. That's how bad it was listing."

With flames shooting out of it, Heller watched as the ship eventually rolled over

"Then it went straight up and went straight down. We were sunk in about 12 minutes," he said.

It was at that point in his speech that Heller got choked up and paused for a moment. "From then on in, it was all dark and you could hear guys screaming and hollering," he said.

About 900 men initially survived the sinking, some in rubber rafts, many bobbed in the water wearing life-jackets or clung to floating debris. Many were badly burned.

For almost five days, the survivors floated in the ocean. Many either drowned, died of exposure, thirst or from drinking saltwater, or were attacked by sharks.

"(The sharks would) brush by you, then go and grab somebody else. I guess I was a little bit too small for them," Heller said. "It's something you don't forget."

Of the 61 or 62 men who were in Heller's group, only 18 were left when the rescue efforts began on Aug. 2 after a plane accidentally spotted them while on routine patrol. One of those 18 in Heller's group was dead, but they didn't know it until he was brought aboard a ship.

When a member of the audience asked him how he managed to stay alive for so many days, Heller replied, "Lucky."

Heller credited a "big Marine" with having the "guts" to take the life-jackets off the dead bodies and use them to create a "float ring" to give the survivors "a little more buoyancy."

"Those old kapoks (life-jackets) were only good for about 72 hours. After that, you sunk down deeper in the water," he explained.

Following his rescue, Heller spent three months in a hospital on Guam, where he received the Purple Heart.

Eventually, he was subpoenaed to testify in Captain McVay's court-martial in December 1945. The captain was accused of "suffering a vessel to be hazarded through negligence" because the ship was steaming in a straight path instead of performing a defensive zigzag in enemy waters.

"They wanted my side of the story," Heller said.

Heller said even though the commander of the Japanese submarine testified that it "wouldn't have made any difference" whether the Indianapolis was on a zigzag or straight course, McVay was found guilty. He was the only Navy captain of WWII court-martialed for losing his ship.

McVay was allowed to remain in the Navy. He retired in 1949 with the rank of rear admiral, but the stigma remained and family members said he never got over it. In 1968, McVay shot himself to death with his Navy pistol.

The 2000 U.S. Congress approved a resolution clearing McVay's name, then in July 2001, the Secretary of the Navy ordered McVay to be exonerated of wrongdoing in the loss of the Indianapolis.

Those who wish to learn more about the sinking of the Indianapolis are encouraged to purchase the book, "Only 317 Survived!"

First published in 2002, it features the 317 survivors telling their harrowing stories in their own words. It was put out by the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization.

"They've sold thousands of these books," Heller said. "It's still in print, but there's not too many places that have them."

18 in Heller's group was dead, but they didn't know it until he was brought aboard a ship.

"It's something you don't forget," he said.

When a member of the audience asked him how he managed to staye alive for so many days, Heller replied, "Lucky."

Heller credited a "big Marine" with having the "guts" to take the lifejackets off the dead bodies and use them to create a "float ring" to give the survivors "a little more buoyancy."

"Those old kapoks (lifejackets) were only good for about 72 hours. After that, you sunk down deeper in the water," he explained.

Following his rescue, Heller spent three months in a hospital on Guam, where he received the Purple Heart.

Eventually, he was subpoenaed to testify in the Captain McVay's court-martial in December 1945. The captain was accused of "suffering a vessel to be hazarded through neglience" because the ship was steaming straight instead of performing a defensive zigzag in enemy waters.

"They wanted my side of the story," Heller said.

Heller said even though the commander of the Japanese submarine testified that it "wouldn't have made any difference" whether the Indianapolis was on a zigzag or straight course, McVay was found guilty. He was the only Navy captain of WWII court-martialed for losing his ship.

McVay was allowed to remain in the Navy. He retired in 1949 with the rank of rear admiral, but the stigma remained and family members said he never got over it. In 1968, McVay shot himself to death with his Navy pistol.

The 2000 U.S. Congress approved a resolution clearing McVay's name, then in July 2001, the Secretary of the Navy ordered McVay to be exonerated of wrongdoing in the loss of the Indianapolis.

Those who wish to learn more about the sinking of the Indianapolis are encouraged to purchase the book, "Only 317 Survived!"

First published in 2002, it features the 317 survivors telling their harrowing stories in their own words. It was put out by the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization.

"They've sold thousands of these books," Heller said. "It's still in print, but there's not too many places that have them."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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