INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Jimmy O’Donnell never liked to talk about what happened to him in the waters of the Northern Pacific Ocean in the closing days of World War II after his ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine.
“Mostly he talked about the folks that didn’t survive and the sacrifices that they made,” remembered his daughter Mary Snyder. “And freedom doesn’t come cheap, and everybody was fighting for the better good, and something good came from it, and that is what he wanted people to understand.”
It wasn’t until a fundraising campaign was launched to build a memorial to the USS Indianapolis on the downtown canal in the 1990s that O’Donnell’s story started to leak out.
“He never really talked about it. He didn’t really start talking about it until he started raising money to build the monument,” said Mary O’Donnell who was married to the ex-sailor for 70 years. “He always said the heroes were the ones who were left out there.”
“Out there” was somewhere along a zigzag path the Indianapolis was sailing on July 30, 1945. They were on a secret mission to deliver atomic bomb parts to an airbase on Tinian when a pair of torpedoes sunk the ship.
More than 1,100 men went into the water.
108 hours later, 317 came out.
Jimmy O’Donnell was the only one of those sailors who actually called Indianapolis his home.
“There were 41 guys from Indiana, six of them were from Indianapolis, ten of them made it, and dad was the only one who made it from Indianapolis,” said his son, Tom O’Donnell.
It wasn’t until actor Robert Shaw, in the role of Captain Quint in the 1975 blockbuster film “Jaws”, told the story of the USS Indianapolis on screen that many Americans came to realize the heroics and sacrifice attached to the ship.
“We were all familiar at that point,” said O’Donnell’s daughter. “We knew the history, but it was just interesting that it kind of brought the story to light. It kind of started things.”
Indianapolis embraced its seagoing namesake and sailor sons, hosting a memorial every summer to mark the sinking and the courage to survive.
Barely a dozen sailors are still alive today.
O’Donnell died six years ago this week.
A modest monument dedicated to a modest man stood at the corner of the City Market on Whistler Plaza for nine years until $6,000 was raised to move the statue and its pedestal 60 feet to the north on this past New Year’s Day with enough light to view it at night and a plaque to tell the story of O’Donnell’s service and survival.
“It’s a great way to remember my dad, and it’s a great way for school kids and city folks to kind of memorialize the Indianapolis and the sacrifice the gentlemen made that were in World War II,” said his daughter Mary.
O’Donnell’s wife didn’t know for two weeks whether her husband survived the sinking.
A few months after he returned to Indianapolis, O’Donnell joined the fire department where he served for decades in firehouses all across the city.
The City Market and the Indianapolis Professional Firefighters Union Local 416 led the way in raising the money so that Barth Electric and Stone Spectrum could complete a memorial fit for a hero.
“He used to get up early to go to church before he went to the firehouse or wherever he was going to work. I think he made a plan with somebody when he was out there,” said Tom. “He was a great guy, 35 years on the fire department and public service, that’s how he was wired.”
Tom looked up at the statue that portrays a fresh faced kid from the Hoosier Heartland, a sailor’s cap perched on his head, in its new and more prominent location.
“He always stands tall to me.”