INDIANAPOLIS — The few are getting fewer, but Arthur Leenerman will be at an event this week memorializing the worst open-sea disaster in U.S. naval history, the loss of hundreds of sailors at sea at the end of World War II.
The Sibley native, now 95, will attend a reunion — 74 years later — of USS Indianapolis survivors.
On July 30, 1945, in the midnight hour, a Japanese sub fired six torpedoes at the huge ship.
Two of them hit. One ignited an ammunition magazine, killing most of the officers.
In 12 minutes, the ship was 3 miles deep in the Philippine Sea.
About 300 men went down with the ship. The other 900 were left floating without food or supplies and without the Navy knowing they were missing, because the mission was top secret — hauling an atomic bomb to the island of Tinian, where a bomber could pick it up.
During the ordeal, Leenerman found a potato in the water, his only food for days.
“If somebody died, you took their life jacket for someone else,” he recalled recently.
Four days later, when they were found, two-thirds had died of dehydration, wounds and shark attacks. Only 316 men survived.
He’s formed bonds with USS Indianapolis survivors that he didn’t know on the ship. The reunion is set for Thursday to Sunday in Indianapolis.
“The memorial service on Saturday morning is a solemn remembrance of all who served on the Indianapolis, the 879 who perished in the sinking and the survivors who have passed since 1945,” said Peggy McCall Campo, secretary of the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization.
Her father, Don McCall, 92, of Champaign, died two years ago. The USS Indianapolis veteran earned eight battle stars, including action at Tarawa, Marshall Islands, Philippine Sea, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
“We honor the service and sacrifice of all the men — a total crew of 1,195,” Campo said.
Leenerman said the reunions are moving experiences for him. It’s a bittersweet time.
“I’m happy that all the veterans are getting recognition,” he said.
Most recently, a Congressional Gold Medal for the survivors was signed into law. It will be presented later this year.
According to the law, it was awarded collectively to the crew of the USS Indianapolis, in recognition of their perseverance, bravery and service to the United States.
“We have received other medals,” Leenerman noted.
Over the years, Leenerman and Mr. McCall became close friends.
Now, with the passage of time, there are only 12 survivors left, Campo said.
He has hopes for a great reunion. Eight are registered for this weekend’s events. There were only five last year, Campo noted.
Leenerman, who now lives in Mahomet, is going with son Greg to the four-day event. Campo will attend with family.
Leenerman was working a radar watch on the USS Indianapolis.
“They sent me to radar school in the hills of Pearl Harbor for a week,” Leenerman said. “I spent two years on that ship. I’d never been on a big ship and never out of Illinois.”
Leenerman has had a long and productive life, working 34 years with the phone company.
“It was a great company to work for,” he said. “People don’t stay with companies like that anymore.”