INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - The USS Indianapolis led a storied career before sinking to the floor of the Pacific Ocean on the morning of July 30, 1945.
In the years ahead of World War II, the light cruiser turned heavy cruiser was a ship of state for President Franklin Roosevelt and later a flag ship for U.S. Navy Admiral Raymond Spruance. It earned ten battle stars in the war and delivered the atomic bomb parts that ended the fighting, but its fate was to become the worst maritime tragedy in U.S. military history.
It was just after midnight, a few days after stopping at Tinian to drop off the bomb the Enola Gay would later drop on Hiroshima, that the Indianapolis sailed into the sights of the Japanese submarine I-58. Two torpedoes sank the ship that stretched over two football fields long.
Minutes later, the Indianapolis was on its way to the bottom of the Philippine Sea where it would rest undiscovered until this past Saturday, when a research mission financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen located the wreckage more than 18,000 below the surface, the ship’s “35” identification painted on the hull visible to underwater cameras located on a submersible vehicle.
“That’s it, Paul. We’ve got it. The Indy,” an unidentified voice on the recovery ship radioed to Allen from the Northern Pacific Ocean.
“That was dad’s house,” said Thomas O’Donnell after he viewed the website that recounted the discovery of the Indianapolis, “and I remember him talking to a guy one time about, ‘It’s a terrible thing to be in the middle of nowhere and watch your house go away,’ and that’s exactly what happened to him because that ship went down in 12 minutes.”
Jimmy O’Donnell was one of five Indianapolis men to serve on the USS Indianapolis.
108 hours after the sinking, he was the only local man to be pulled out of the water alive along with 316 other men.
More than 800 other sailors and marines died to drowning, injuries, exposure and shark attacks.
“When I read that paper about what had happened to them and fighting all the sharks and in the water five days, I pretty well knew that they had a pretty bad experience,” said Mary Alice O’Donnell who married Jimmy 14 months before he shipped out. “He never talked about it. The only time he talked about the experience was when they wanted to raise money to build the monument on the canal.”
The fundraising drive to build the USS Indianapolis Memorial on the downtown canal just south of St. Clair Street came only after survivors and families met for decades in reunions intended to renew old acquaintances and heal old wounds.
“They talked about it, the ship, just like you would talk about your own home,” said Thomas who attended the first reunion as a nine-year-old in 1960. “They knew exactly when they were, where they were, he always talked about being on the back, he was asleep, he had just gotten off duty, he was asleep under the back gun turret.”
O’Donnell said his father recalled an explosion as the first torpedo hit the ship and then remembered diving into the ocean.
“They were oil soaked, they had submersion from being in the water for so long,” O’Donnell said of the four-and-a-half days the sailors floated lost at sea. “He said they definitely couldn’t have made another 24 hours.”
The story of the USS Indianapolis and its victims and survivors remained as hidden as the wreckage itself over the years, gaining first worldwide attention in the 1975 movie “Jaws” as Captain Quint, played by Robert Shaw, told the tale to his partners in the hunt for the great white killer shark.
O’Donnell recalled watching that movie and thinking, “Hey, that’s my dad’s ship.”
The Indianapolis’ secret mission and radio silence made discovery of its sinking and its last know location a mystery solved only by a search plane several days later and the Research Vessel Petrel which found the wreckage two days ago aided by the recent discovery of the 1945 log entry of a passing ship that fixed the doomed cruiser’s last whereabouts.
“It's just very exciting. I think it's wonderful. I think it's very necessary as a closure...especially for the lost-at-sea families,” said Mary Alice, widowed for the past three years. “I think the country should know about the sacrifices that were made for the freedom we have today.”
Jimmy O’Donnell returned home in early 1946 and began a 35-year-long career with the Indianapolis Fire Department and that resulted in the rescue of at least two children from house fires and literally being first on the scene calling for help during the tragic Indiana State Fair Coliseum fire in 1963.
“He went to six o’clock mass every morning so I’m pretty sure he made a deal with somebody while he was out there,” said his son Tommy. “Immediately, 18-, 19-, 20- years-old, goes into World War II, gets his ship shot out from under him, spends 108 hours in the water, my dad never saw anything but tough but survived that and be a civil human being, my dad was one tough guy.”
O’Donnell, who spent years as an electrician and union leader, wiped away tears as he stood before the statue of his father, portrayed as a young sailor, outside the City Market in downtown Indianapolis.
“Me and my brothers and my sister wouldn’t even be here if my dad didn’t make it back,” said O’Donnell. “He was my father and my hero.”