Source: Sherman Publications

USS Indianapolis survivor to address Rotary

by CJ Carnacchio

August 10, 2011

As stories go, this one’s got it all – the atomic bomb, a mighty battleship sunk by an enemy torpedo, hundreds of survivors clinging to life in shark-infested waters.

But it’s not some fictional Hollywood summer blockbuster, it’s the true story of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), which was sunk by the Imperial Japanese Navy during the last days of World War II.

Clawson resident John T. Heller, one of only 317 to survive the U.S. Navy’s worst tragedy at sea, will recount his harrowing experience for members of the Rotary Club of Oxford and anyone else who would like to attend the group’s Tuesday, Aug. 23 meeting at the Oxford Hills Golf and Country Club (300 E. Drahner Rd.)

He was invited to speak by Oxford Rotarian Jim Tichenor, who met Heller in an elevator while at a medical facility in Troy. “I think his story needs to be told,” he said. “This guy has lived through a crisis. He’s a hero. He was called upon to be a hero whether he liked it or not.”

For those not familiar with the story of the USS Indianapolis, the heavy cruiser was on its way back to the Philippines after delivering components for the atomic bomb when shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945, it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.

At the time, the ship was carrying 1,197 sailors and Marines. It sunk in about 12 minutes. About 900 men survived the sinking, some in lifeboats, many bobbing in the water wearing life-jackets.

Distress signals were sent via radio, but they were either not received, went unnoticed or ignored.

No search and rescue mission was launched and the men just floated in the open ocean for almost five days. During that time, many either drowned, died of exposure or thirst, or were attacked by sharks. Of the approximately 900 men who survived the actual sinking, only 317 were still alive when they were finally spotted by accident on Aug. 2.

Heller, along with the other survivors, recounted their extraordinary experiences in their own words in a book entitled “Only 317 Survived!,” published in 2002.

Tichenor believes Heller’s story is something that should be heard by as many folks as possible. “We need to understand what people have gone through to protect our nation,” he said. “I think we’ve lost touch with the reality that there are people amongst us everyday who were a part of history. Here’s our opportunity to listen to someone like that.”

Those interested in attending the Rotary Club of Oxford’s Aug. 23 luncheon, which begins at 12 noon, and hearing Heller speak are asked to please call Bernie Hung at (248) 804-1597 and RSVP by Aug. 16. Lunch will be provided at a cost of $10 per person.