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USS Indianapolis survivor to share historic tale

By Staff | Feb 23, 2009

On July 30, 1945, 880 sailors were thrust into the waters of the Philippine Sea.
They were left to fend for themselves, battling the elements, bloodthirsty sharks and their own sanity, waiting four days before being rescued by their naval brethren.
Only 317 survived.
The story of the USS Indianapolis is well-known. Equal parts tragedy and pure horror, most of the survivors have since died, causing first person accounts of the fateful day to dwindle with each passing moment.
The Uncommon Friends Foundation of Lee County wants that story to be heard, so it has invited survivor Harlan Twible, 87, to be part of its Legacy Speakers Series in March.
“I never really talk about what went on in the water because people do things they are not responsible for when they lose their minds,” Twible said on the phone from Sarasota. “But they were all honorable and good men.”
As an ensign, Twible was responsible for the lives of the 325 men he ordered into the water after he told them abandon ship. Of the 325 men, 151 came out alive, giving Twible the greatest survival rate.
He is proud of the lives he helped save, but is still deeply affected by the ones he could not.
The allure of death became stronger than the will to live, Twible said. Wounded men were dragged away by sharks, and some floated off by themselves in hopes of being drowned, or taken.
“I tried to keep as many of those people alive as I could. Nobody knew if we were going to be saved or not,” he said. “My only thoughts hour to hour were how to keep these men sane and keep up their will to live. The will to die got stronger as the days went on … everyone was wounded one way or the other.”
The USS Indianapolis holds a unique place in naval and American history. Though no one on board knew it at the time, the ship was delivering “Little Boy,” the nuclear bomb that would eventually be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
On its return trip was when the USS Indianapolis was struck by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine, though Twible said the attack was not related to the original mission.
According to Twible, the political fallout from the incident was far-reaching, still causing debate among historians and officers today. Blame was shuffled among many parties, though it was placed eventually on the USS Indianapolis’ captain, Butler McVay.
“(The debate) is still carried on by people who have never fought in any way, who have never done anything important in their lives … A lot of heads should have fallen and someone did have to fall,” Twible said.
“We made a hell of a lot of mistakes,” he added.
The Uncommon Friends Foundation’s Arlene Roth said the presentation fits perfectly into the Legacy Speakers Series’ theme, which focuses on integrity and ethics. Twible follows Tom Brokaw, the series’ inaugural speaker.
“We want to carry on the legacy of the Uncommon Friends and the character traits of the group … responsibility, leadership, adventure and ethical standards,” Roth said. “Harlan Twible is a hero in his own right. You have to hear his amazing story of leadership and heroship.”
Twible’s talk focuses on the event in its entirety, from the original mission to deliver the bomb to the post-incident debate.
He travels often to high schools and colleges to share his story, but has never thought of trying to pen a memoir for the public. Instead Twible hopes to pass on his experiences to his children and select audiences, like the Uncommon Friends Foundation.
For him, the truth of that day died with the men who perished, and is now slipping away as those who survived are passing on.
“If they didn’t believe in God when they went into the water, everybody did when they came out … I believe it was meant to be,” Twible said.