'Out of the Depths': WWII veteran, survivor of sinking of USS Indianapolis hopes his story will inspire faith in God

By Erica Palmer

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, May 26 2014 12:25 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, May 27 2014 1:00 p.m. MDT

On a summer day in July 1945, the USS Indianapolis delivered components for two atomic bombs to a U.S. Army base in the Pacific Ocean.

Just days before the bombs would be used to help end World War II, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. It sank in 12 minutes, taking about 300 American officers and crew members with it and leaving around 880 to fend for themselves in the deep Pacific.

Edgar Harrell, a Marine who was on board the USS Indianapolis, was one of only 317 to survive.

The now 90-year-old Kentucky native recently published a book, "Out of the Depths" (Bethany House, $16.99), describing his experience in what he called the "greatest tragedy at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy."

Harrell attributed his survival entirely to "the good Lord."

"I look up to heaven today and just say, 'Thank you, Lord,’ ” he said in an interview with the Deseret News. "Without the providence and higher power, I never would have made it."

Harrell, who currently lives in Tennessee, remembers the night very clearly. He and his fellow soldiers were sleeping on the open deck because it was too hot to sleep in the cabin.

About 14 minutes after midnight, Japanese Capt. Mochitsura Hashimoto fired torpedoes, and they struck the USS Indianapolis. The first one hit the front of the ship and cut the bow off entirely.

"We could see the ship was doomed," Harrell said. "You could hear the bowheads breaking."

He said the captain gave word to abandon ship, and Harrell grabbed a life jacket and jumped into the dark blue ocean.

From the water, he watched the ship turn up on its nose and then disappear into the Pacific.

Harrell said the survivors grouped together the best they could with only life jackets to keep their heads above water. He ended up in a group of about 80 men floating in the ocean.

He knew SOS signals had been sent out before the ship sank, and he expected to be rescued shortly.

"I was wondering if somehow I could endure, not realizing that we were going to be out there for four and a half days," he said.

Somehow, the SOS signals were either not picked up or not responded to. The surviving 880 men spent the next 4½ days fighting for their lives against the unrelenting Pacific Ocean without food, water or life rafts. They faced salt water exposure, dehydration, shark attacks, hallucinations and extreme hunger, thirst and fatigue. Harrell said the water they were swimming in included a mixture of oil and blood.

"Nearly at the point of losing hope, you see a buddy who had been attacked by a shark (and) who is maybe disemboweled, and you think if that's maybe not going to be you soon," he said.

But he said his faith in the Lord and thoughts of his family kept him going.

"I believe that it was the power of God that gave me hope," he said. "I had accepted the Lord as my own personal help and Savior and felt that somehow, some way, I had prayed that I don't want to die. I had a family back home, a mom and dad and six siblings. And a certain brunette who said she would wait for me."

He said others were praying too.

"Everyone was pouring their heart out to the Lord whether they knew him or not," he said. "There was no atheist out there. Everyone prayed."

But by the third day, Harrell had no idea where the other survivors had drifted off to, and only 17 of the 80 men that had been grouped together with him were still alive. He watched many simply give up hope.

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