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Monday, March 31, 2008

USS INDIANAPOLIS - Survivors Story

PUBLISHED: Saturday, March 29, 2008
Indianapolis survivor shares story




By Frank DeFrank
Macomb Daily Staff Writer



Richard Thelen, 81, a survivor of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the worst naval disaster in U.S. history, makes a point with students at Kennedy Middle School in St. Clair Shores. The Indianapolis was torpedoed in the Pacific Ocean days after delivering to a South Pacific island the atomic bomb that would end the war just days later. The Indianapolis was served by a crew of nearly 1,200 sailors. Only 317 survived.
Macomb Daily photo by David Dalton

Paul Melton, an eighth-grader at Kennedy Middle School in St. Clair Shores, holds a fascination for World War II. When the History Channel broadcasts a program that chronicles an event of 60-plus years ago, Paul is as likely to be tuned in as most kids are to be playing video games.After Friday, he'll view those programs in a whole new light.
Paul was one of dozens of Kennedy students on hand to hear the real-life story of Richard Thelen, one of just 317 sailors who survived the July 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

"It's pretty exciting," Paul said.

The eighth-graders were assigned to read the book "Left for Dead," one of several about the Indianapolis. Just days after it delivered components for the first atomic bomb that would end the war, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.

As a follow-up to the assignment, teachers recruited Thelen, a Lansing resident, to visit the school and tell his story.

"He is living history," said Jennifer Mackewich, language arts teacher. "These kids are so excited, especially the boys."

Thelen was an 18-year-old sailor making his first voyage aboard the Indianapolis in July 1945. Crew members didn't know what they delivered to the South Pacific island of Tinian, but the round-the-clock Marine guards told them it was something important.

"We didn't know it until after we dropped the bomb," Thelen said. "Then they told us."

After leaving Tinian, the first part of its mission completed, the

Indianapolis set sail for the Philippines. But shortly after midnight July 30, the ship was torpedoed in the Philippine Sea. The Indianapolis sank in 12 minutes.

Of nearly 1,200 men on board, 300 went down with the ship. The other 900 were left floating in shark-infested waters with no lifeboats and most without food or water.

"The sharks would go through at night and bounce around like Ping-Pong balls," Thelen said. "I saw six to eight men taken by sharks."

Unbeknownst to the sailors, nobody knew the Indianapolis was missing. So nobody was looking for them. For four days the men bobbed in the ocean, stretched out two miles wide and 18 miles long.

One by one, they succumbed to wounds, exposure, madness from drinking salt water and the loss of hope.

"They'd take their life jackets off and say they're going down below deck to get a drink of water," Thelen said.

Thelen, too, thought of letting himself slip below the surface to end his agony. But every time he did, the vision of his father's face appeared before his eyes.

"I'd see my dad's face," he told the students. "He brought me home."

For five nights and four days the crew of the Indianapolis clung to life. Finally, on the morning of the fifth day, a passing plane caught a glimpse of an oil slick.

"They (the crew of the plane) didn't know who we were, what ship were we off or where we were from," Thelen said.

Only after the survivors were pulled from the sea did the Navy understand: The sinking of the Indianapolis was the worst disaster in U.S. naval history.

Of the 900 sailors who went into the water, just 316 survived.

Now 81, Thelen is one of the few survivors of the Indianapolis still around to tell the story. He carved out a good life for himself, working as a truck driver for more than 40 years and raising six children. Two years ago, he married Esther, his second wife, who accompanies Thelen now when he visits schools, service clubs and other groups to tell his story.

Why did he survive when so many of his shipmates perished?

"I have no idea," Thelen said.

Meanwhile, Paul Melton will watch those World War II documentaries with a new appreciation for the men and women whose stories are chronicled.

"I don't think I would have made it," Paul said. "I'll see (World War II) a lot differently. I have a lot of respect (for veterans). But this just boosts your respect that much more."

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