As 65th anniversary approaches, USS Indianapolis survivors recount horrors
A car passed Art Leenerman's car, raced ahead, then pulled over.
The driver got out and saluted as Leenerman passed.
Stenciled on the back of Leenerman's car is the USS Indianapolis, the ship Leenerman was on when it went down from enemy fire in 1945.
Leenerman, and a dwindling number of his fellow survivors, are still a bit uneasy with the notion they did anything heroic by surviving days in the open Pacific, surrounded by sharks and deprived of food and water, in the waning days of a world war.
"We're survivors," said Leenerman's friend, Don McCall. "We don't like to be called hero. The heroes are still out there."
July 30 marks the 65th anniversary of the worst open-sea disaster in U.S. Navy history.
The USS Indianapolis was struck by Japanese torpedoes as she made her way, unescorted, through the South Pacific Ocean to the Philippine Islands for training. Although the men aboard didn't know it, the ship had just delivered components for the atomic bomb that would bring a swift end to World War II.
In 13 minutes, the ship was swallowed.
Of the almost 1,200 men aboard, some 900 went into the water. Their plight unknown to anyone, they spent a harrowing four-plus days afloat before being spotted by chance by an American pilot. Only 317 survived, many having died in the hours and minutes before rescuers could reach them.
Don McCall, 85, of Champaign, Art Leenerman, 86, of Mahomet, and Earl Riggins, 85, of Oakland are among the living survivors, believed to number 57 or 58. Of that number, 26 are expected to attend a reunion in Indianapolis this weekend.
Mustered out at a time when post-traumatic stress disorder wasn't even in the mental health lexicon, the survivors were thrust back into the real world, where few of them talked of the experience with anyone for years. Their reunions have provided the needed relief from the horrors they experienced. Maturity has allowed most to open up.
"Amongst ourselves we talk and people ask questions. It gets more vague as we get older," said Riggins. "When we hash things over among ourselves, some will recall things that somebody else didn't know. We just visit and have a good time."
Don McCall was 35 when the first reunion of the USS Indianapolis survivors was held in 1960 in Indianapolis. He didn't want to go, mainly because he didn't know anybody.
"A ship is like a city," Leenerman explained. "You only know the guys in your division."
McCall was born in Mansfield and grew up in north Champaign in what could charitably be called humble surroundings. His dad died when he was 10, leaving his mother and three siblings with little. He recalled taking off for days at a time, stealing food from farmers to fill his belly. His mother later remarried and had two more children.
Leenerman, of Sibley, was the oldest of four. His dad had a job through the Depression with the Shell pipeline but it was hardly a prosperous life. Leenerman said working on his uncles' farms toughened him.
Riggins was also from Champaign, the oldest of three boys. His dad worked at the University of Illinois. Although he and McCall were in Champaign High School at the same time, they didn't know each other.
McCall and Leenerman also didn't know each other in 1943, the year they were drafted, trained and stepped onto the 11-year-old ship. Their friendship with each other and Riggins, who had gotten on the ship for his first experience at sea just three months before its sinking, was forged at reunions decades later.
McCall's late wife Rita persuaded him to go to the first reunion. He let her know in no uncertain terms that if he was uncomfortable, they were out of there.
That was then. It's different for the men now, although details of what they endured still don't come out easily.
"If you had asked me questions in the early 1960s, you probably wouldn't have heard much," said Riggins.
One thing all three agree on: They love their reunions and the special way the city of Indianapolis has treated them over the years. Initially, they met every five years. The reunions have become more frequent as their numbers have diminished.
Leenerman doesn't think all 317 were ever at one reunion together.
Their families have always been part of the reunions. Later, families of those lost were invited.
McCall has made a lifelong friend out of the daughter of a buddy who came to a reunion, appealing for any tidbit of information about the father she lost when she was only a year old. He was happy to fill in a blank in her life.
"We got the bonus of getting to come back and live our lives and they didn't," McCall said.
Having finished his watch as an "air-sea lookout" around midnight Sunday, July 29, 1945, McCall pulled out a blanket he kept stashed near his gun mount to sleep on deck that hot night.
McCall's decision to stay on deck likely saved his life and made living the rest of it, at times, a challenge.
Even before the sinking, the Indianapolis had been in several major battles. Sitting in a swivel chair on deck, McCall watched through binoculars as soldiers were mowed down by gunfire on the tiny Pacific islands they were trying to win. Those sights have been fodder for his nightmares ever since.
Not long after he unfurled his blanket, the first torpedo hit.
"I thought a boiler blew up," he said. When the second hit less than a minute later, "I realized something bad had happened."
Both torpedoes hit on the side from which he'd been watching.
"I hadn't seen any submarines surface. It was so pitch black."
He made his way to the life jackets and began throwing them in the water. Training dictated he was to throw the preserver in first and go in after it. Fearing he might not get one in the water, McCall put his on, then jumped about 70 feet.
"I thought my legs were going to come off. Salt water and oil went through my nose and stomach. I gagged and upchucked. It was really horrible," he said.
The flash fire that followed the torpedo strikes burned many men. They saw mates with flesh falling from their limbs.
Leenerman was in the bathroom when the torpedoes hit. He had just gotten off his radar duty shift minutes before.
"I didn't see anything. We didn't have sonar," he said of the more modern technology that might have detected an encroaching submarine.
Noticing smoke, he got out of the john, rushed to put on a life jacket, then went to his general quarters station. By that time, the ship was listing badly. "I scooted down the side and jumped off the bilge keel. We didn't hardly have to jump," he said of his entry into the gooey black salt water.
"The oil was thick as molasses," said Leenerman, who also vomited.
The oil that made the men unrecognizable to each other later offered a protective coating from the scorching sun.
The water initially felt like bathwater, Leenerman said. Later, he described it as warm during the day and cold at night.
Riggins was also sleeping on the deck – the captain was liberal about that due to the heat, he said – when the torpedoes hit. A blow to the head disoriented him. One of the 39 Marines aboard, Riggins' first thought was to get his rifle. When it became apparent he wouldn't get below to his compartment, he grabbed a life jacket and a friend who was scared to death of the water. They jumped in together.
"When we hit the water, we got the life jackets tied on," he said.
A good swimmer, Riggins said he swam as hard and as fast as he could avoid being sucked under with the vessel.
"I looked back after several strokes and the ship was standing virtually straight up in the water," Riggins said.
He was able to join a fairly large group – he can't remember if it was 80 or 180 when they counted off later – that tried to stick together for the duration of their ordeal. He knows that a life raft he had enjoyed for the first several hours in the water was eventually commandeered by an officer.
The first torpedo struck about 12:05 a.m. on Monday, July 30.; the second, less than a minute later.
It wasn't until about 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 2, – more than 83 hours later – that Navy pilot Lt. Wilbur Gwinn spotted a shiny slick of oil as he tried to assess an antenna problem on his plane. Incredibly, within the slick he made out the blackened faces of Indianapolis sailors who had yet to be missed, even though they were overdue for training on the Philippines.
Gwinn called for help; later that afternoon the first rescue plane, piloted by Lt. Adrian Marks, arrived; ships couldn't get there until later Thursday and Friday.
McCall said he had no idea how long he'd been in the water when his hand hit a whale boat that had been dropped from a B-17 bomber.
"I don't know how I did it but I went over the side in a flash. It had a kit to make water," he said.
After fumbling the mixture his first try, he succeeded at getting drops of potable water across his split tongue and down his cracked throat. He handed the precious liquid to the next man and never got it back.
"I kept scooting back to the back of the boat because I was afraid of them," he said of the others who got in after him. Even now, he can't tolerate anyone behind him.
As if seeing others drown, die from drinking salt water, or being attacked by sharks wasn't hellish enough, hallucinations made some men believe their shipmates were Japanese and turn on them.
For what he felt was his own survival, McCall swam far enough away from his large group during the day so that he could see it then came close enough at dark to hear voices. There were several groups of survivors spread out. At rescue, it was learned, some were more than 100 miles from where the ship had gone down.
"I was lucky to have a concept of anything," asked if he was aware how much time elapsed between the sinking and rescue. He now knows it was "before dark on the end of the fifth day" when he made it into the whale boat.
Unable to move from dehydration, he recalls someone giving him a cigarette. He didn't feel that it was burning his fingers. When helpers tried to shower him the next day, he couldn't bear the "terrific" pain and begged them to stop.
He recalls waking in a hospital in the Philippines, his bleeding arms in restraints to keep him from hurting himself. The scrapes and cuts he and the others endured when they first went in the water were made worse by the salty water and exposure to the sun. He estimates he went from his pre-sinking weight of 110 to 80 pounds.
Leenerman ended up in a raft that was tethered to the aircraft Marks landed in the choppy sea. He has little recall of it, having passed out. Marks would tell him years later: "You were the last guy we picked up because we thought you were dead."
Having lost 20 of his 180 pounds, Leenerman couldn't get in the inflatable raft that had been dropped near him. He had removed his life jacket because it was so saturated it offered no buoyancy. They were designed to work for 72 hours; he'd been in the ocean more than 85.
McCall said as mates died, others took their life jackets. A jacket he tied around his head to protect it from the sun likely saved him from going under.
Riggins isn't sure how, but he and others also got into a raft dropped by a plane. The kit that was supposed to make the water drinkable turned the water yellow. "It was awful. We sipped but spit it back out," he said.
He recalls not having the strength to climb the rope ladder on the side of the Bassett, the ship that rescued him. He had also dropped 20 pounds in the water.
Years later, Riggins would have a chance encounter at a reunion with a rescuer who filled in details that the survivors were too delirious to comprehend. The rescuer knew he had helped a Marine. Of the 39 Marines on the Indianapolis, nine survived.
"I was the only Marine the Bassett picked up. You talk about two old men shedding tears," said Riggins of the beginning of his special friendship with that man.
The news of what had happened to the Indianapolis was not widely known for a long time. The story of the ship's sinking broke on Aug. 14, 1945, the same day President Harry Truman announced Japan's surrender. Both were published the next day but the sinking was overshadowed by the surrender.
McCall, Leenerman and Riggins said they didn't volunteer their tales to co-workers or families for years – a mark of their generation of men.
"We were just doing what we were told," said Riggins.
The men have suffered differently – and quietly – from their enforced departure from the Indianapolis, a home they loved.
McCall was discharged from the Navy in late 1945 and Leenerman in March 1946. Riggins got out of the Marines in July 1946. All of them passed on opportunities for further military service.
They came home and began what Dorothy Riggins calls "wonderfully productive lives."
McCall was a brick mason, having obtained his 50-year card from the local. He worked until about age 68. He and Rita had four children. She died in 1975 after 28 years of marriage. He has nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He outlived his second wife Helen, who died in 2008, and wouldn't mind the company of another lady who needs him.
Leenerman worked for Illinois Bell Telephone in Champaign, doing "a little of everything" from installing phones to office work in his 34 years there before retiring in 1980. He and Ethel met there. They each have a child from previous marriages and four grandchildren.
Riggins and his wife Dorothy, married in 1947, have farmed all their lives in Champaign and Douglas counties. They had three children, one of whom died, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
The men still think about their shared experience often, especially around reunion times.
McCall admits he's had the most trouble dealing with his demons and jokes that he has a standing invitation at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System in Danville to talk.
Despite their health problems, McCall still golfs, Riggins rides a horse when he's not mowing on his 27 acres, and Leenerman deer hunts when he's not spending winters in Florida.
"We haven't been on any cruises," laughed Ethel Leenerman.
Whatever the reason they survived, they are grateful for it.
"We go through the check-out line and the girl says, 'Have a nice day,'" Leenerman said. "I say, 'Every day is a nice day.'"
They sign books written about the ordeal – they estimate more than a dozen have been written – and even get a tiny commission from one. They continue to talk about their experience because they don't want the sacrifices of their slain shipmates to be forgotten.
"It's about the guys who didn't make it. It's more to honor them," McCall said.
Editor's note: Earl Riggins died on Feb. 23, 2011.