Naval Historical Center / Associated Press
USS Indianapolis survivors arrive ashore in Guam in August 1945. After the heavy cruiser was sunk by a Japanese torpedo attack, nearly 900 of its crew drifted in the ocean for five days battling thirst, exposure and ravenous sharks. Only 316 crewmen survived.
Nightmare at sea
60 years ago,(+23) the USS Indianapolis suffered unforgettable ordeal
By JOHN W. GONZALEZ
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Sixty years after he narrowly avoided death in the U.S. Navy's worst sea disaster, World War II veteran Loel Dene "L.D." Cox is haunted by a dream.
He's with buddies somewhere — the faces and places change from night to night — and suddenly they disappear.
"I turn around and they're gone. I hunt for them, and I may accidentally find one of them, and I lose him again," he said. "It's that way every night."
The nightmare forces the 79-year-old West Texan to relive an unforgettable ordeal. Cox was among 316 survivors of the sinking of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis between Guam and the Philippines on July 30, 1945.
Of the 1,199 crewmen, about 900 lived through a Japanese submarine attack, but they abandoned ship in shark-infested waters and were left for dead until rescuers arrived almost five days later.
By then, nearly 600 more crewmen had perished. In all, about 880 Indianapolis sailors and Marines lost their lives.
"They don't hardly talk about it in the history books. They talk more about Marilyn Monroe than the Indianapolis and it's a crying shame," Cox said last week.
The retiree from Comanche is among 93 living members of the Indianapolis crew. Sixty of them gathered in the ship's namesake city last week to mark the 60th anniversary of its sinking and the recent exoneration of Capt. Charles Butler McVay III of Navy charges of putting the ship in harm's way.
"We thought it was a travesty — every crew member who survived," said Cox, who in 2000 helped persuade Congress to posthumously clear the captain. McVay survived the sinking but took his own life in 1968.
When survivors put aside memories of their harrowing experiences, they take solace in having accomplished a crucial top-secret mission. Four days before the Indianapolis went to the bottom, the ship delivered the inner workings of the first atomic bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6.
The Indianapolis returned from near Japan to San Francisco after a kamikaze attack off Okinawa on March 31, which killed 13 sailors. After repairs, mysterious crates were put aboard, and with record speed, the ship delivered the bomb components to Tinian Island.
Before that mission, Cox was aboard the ship for two other historic missions. The Indianapolis was the command ship during the assault on Iwo Jima and assisted in the first air raids on Tokyo.
Witnessed captain's actions
Cox's service on the Indianapolis began in late 1944 when he was an 18-year-old sailor fresh out of boot camp. He served as a gunner, crow's nest lookout and mess hall hand before promotion to navigation duty, where he witnessed the captain's controversial actions.
In a postwar court-martial, McVay was accused of failing to promptly order his crew to abandon ship and failing to zigzag, which sometimes allowed ships to dodge torpedoes. McVay was convicted on the second charge, before his record was eventually cleared.
After delivering the uranium and other A-bomb workings to Tinian, the unescorted Indianapolis was en route to the Philippines to join a battleship group when disaster struck. Although the ship zigzagged for part of its final voyage, the captain halted the tactic and went to bed, Cox said.
Assigned as the bridge's liaison with the engine room, Cox had just begun midnight watch when two torpedoes struck.
"In 12 minutes, the thing sank. We didn't have much time to do anything but put our life preservers on and follow the captain down to the next deck. The second time that the fire control man came back and said, 'We've got to abandon ship. The ship is sinking.' The captain said, 'Pass the word to abandon ship,' " Cox said.
Cox grabbed life vests for himself, McVay and others before they scattered.
As the ship started to roll, Cox said he struggled to get to a high point to jump into the sea. He grabbed a gaff hook, swung on it as far as he could and let go only to slam onto the side of the ship before bouncing into oil-covered water.
"I went under, came back up and drank about half the ocean along with a lot of fuel oil and immediately started vomiting. I started swimming as fast as I could to get away from the ship because the downdraft on those things can take you under," he said.
When he last glimpsed the ship, "the stern was sticking straight up and the propellers were still turning in the moonlight. You could still see men jumping off of it," he said.
Easy to give up
Cox's eternity in the water began alone in darkness and swelling seas. He came upon a friend who was badly burned and died soon thereafter. Later, he heard shouts and joined a group of 30 men, 10 of whom would survive, he said.
"I stayed with that group until we were picked up almost five days later," he said.
Aside from life vests, their only advantage was rolled-up netting that served as a tether.
"I never gave up. The men that did, they didn't make it back. And it was easier to give up than it was to stay alive," Cox said.
"On the first day, the sharks began to come. You'd see dozens on the water and you could see them swimming 'round and 'round underneath you," he said.
"Every now and then, one would come up just like a lightning strike and take somebody. One man within three feet of me was taken down by a shark," he said.
There were other perils. Some died after drinking sea water. Hallucinating, others eschewed their life vests and swam to imaginary islands and rescue vessels.
"We had no water and no food. All we had was hope," Cox said. "You lost your hunger the second or third day, but you never lost your thirst."
His group theorized a search would begin when they failed to arrive in port. Many aircraft had passed by, but it was the pilot of an anti-submarine patrol plane — unaware the Indianapolis was missing — who saw an oil slick and had it checked out.
Fortunately for Cox, his life jacket with a 72-hour capacity still wasn't waterlogged when an aircraft finally got near.
"There it was. We yelled and screamed and it kept going. We began to give up. 'That's as close as we'll ever come,' " he remembered thinking.
The despair grew worse when again he heard an aircraft pass them by. Finally, just before dark, another aircraft approached.
"It changed directions, flew right over us and there was a guy waving to us. That's when my hair stood up. Chills came over me. Tears came to my eyes and everybody there. It was the happiest moment of your life because we knew we'd been spotted," he said. "That encouraged everybody to hang on."
A rescue vessel's searchlight later appeared on the horizon.
"We thought it was angels coming," he said. It was the destroyer escort USS Bassett.
Cox returned from the war to complete studies at Texas A&M University in 1948. He married his wife, Sara, in 1949, and they have one son. Cox taught agriculture, sold livestock feed for 31 years and became a bank director and rancher. He has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Despite some bad memories about the Indianapolis, Cox hoped to see his ship again. Five years ago, he was among four survivors who went on the Discovery Channel expedition to search for the sunken wreckage.
"We spent 32 days hunting for our ship. We never did find it but we did drop a memorial stone and a flag," he said.
"I'm thankful to be alive and I believe in God."
U S Legacies Magazine January 2005