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Sailors on modern-day USS Indianapolis get history lesson

New PBS documentary tells tale of 1945 torpedoing of ship that delivered the A-bomb to Tinian

At Mayport Naval Station in Florida, survivors of USS Indianapolis (CA 35) met with the crew of the Freedom-class littoral combat ship USS Indianapolis (LCS 17) Jan. 7 to screen a documentary, “USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter."

The Vulcan’s Productions documentary shares the discovery of the once-lost, Portland-class heavy cruiser Indianapolis, or “Indy”, by Research Vessel Petrel, owned by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen.

“This film is important for tying the crew to the Indianapolis because it gives them a sense of history,” said Commander Colin Kane, commanding officer of modern Indianapolis. “I really hope that it drives this home because it will bring to the forefront the sacrifices that these sailors made back in World War II.”

Before viewing the documentary, survivors of the Indianapolis shared their experiences surrounding the events of the attack, in 1945.

“He was all messed up,” said Harold Bray, a veteran who recounted his efforts to help a fellow crew member during the attack. “His lip’s all blistered, he was floating around. I grabbed him and pulled him in. I tried to tie him to the raft, but I guess I didn’t get a good knot on him. He just disappeared.”

Marines and sailors were adrift at sea for nearly five days without food or potable water. Many were injured, covered in thick oil from the damaged ship, or taken by sharks.

“I never thought about dying out there,” said Bray. “I was 18 years old. Who dies at 18?”

The documentary chronicles Indianapolis’ victories, missions, attacks and the life of a few of her crew members after the war.

“This shows their fate and that they had not been forgotten,” said Culinary Specialist 1st Class Cesar A. Torres, now assigned to the Indianapolis. “It inspires me to be a better sailor.”

A Facebook Live Q&A session following the screening featured film director Kirk Wolfinger, retired Naval Captain Bill Toti, RV Petrel expedition leader Robert Kraft and retired Admiral Sam Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

“In 18 years of service I’ve never been assigned to a ship with this kind of connection,” said Torres. “It keeps me in tune with the casualties who kept up their efforts until their last breath.”

The Indianapolis was tasked with delivering parts for the atomic bomb “Little Boy” set to drop on Hiroshima. The mission was so secret that crew members did not know what they were guarding.

“This brings us back to the importance of our mission,” said Kane. “If they didn’t complete their mission, World War II could’ve ended differently.”

The wreckage, which had been missing for 72 years, was discovered 18,000 feet under the Philippine Sea.

Indianapolis is the Navy’s worst loss of life at sea with 880 of its 1,196 crew members perishing after the initial torpedo attack and during the time marines and sailors spent floating in the ocean waiting to be rescued.

“It’s much easier to die, believe me, than it is to live,” said Edgar Harrell. “You’ve got to fight to live. But all you’ve got to do to expire is just give up. Let your head drop in the water. And I saw that so, so many times.”

The documentary was shared with the surviving crew members of Indianapolis and crew members assigned to the next Indianapolis as a gesture of good will, before its official premiere on PBS, Jan. 8, 2019.

USS Indianapolis (LCS 17) is the fourth ship with this namesake in the Navy and will be homeported in Naval Station Mayport upon her commissioning.

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