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USS Indianapolis was sunk 66 years agoPosted Thursday, July 28, 2011, at 8:19 AM
The tragedy could not have been surpassed by any Greek or Shakespearian masterpiece.
The stage for the huge production was the vast Pacific Ocean, the actors consisted of more than a thousand U.S. Navy Seamen and Marines, the scenes covered a hundred miles of open sea with men helplessly drifting on any floating device they could grasp.
The anniversary of that event will soon be remembered by the few living who survived the catastrophic disaster of the sinking of the cruiser ship USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945 shortly before the end of World War II.
SIC Signalman Adrian Rehner was one of the seamen aboard that ship when it was blasted by a two torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine. The ship sank in 12 minutes.
He was also one of the 317 who survived after floating in the ocean for five days suffering under blazing daytime heat, shivering during cold night temperatures, experiencing salt-water hallucinations, fighting off sharks, enduring hypothermia and dehydration and even observing cannibalism.
Adding to the trauma, during the explosion, Rehner suffered a blow to the head that sliced off a portion of his scalp.
"The salt water burned fiercely," noted Adrian's brother, Robert Pataconi- Rehner. "He could hardly stand it."
In addition to the pain, sharks preyed on those who had been wounded and bleeding.
In the book "Only 317 Survived," survivor Sherman Booth from Arizona said the sharks looked like a bunch of minnows in a lake feeding on a piece of bread.
That final curtain for the USS Indianapolis began in the early summer of 1945 after it was repaired at Mare Island, Calif., following a hit from a kamikaze pilot.
Charles Butler McVay, III, the ship's captain, received orders that the Indianapolis would be participating in an extremely classified project ordered by President Harry Truman.
As the ship prepared for the assignment, McVay watched as two items were loaded onto the ship. One was an enormous wooden crate and the other a black canister. They were guarded by armed Marines day and night.
After McVay sailed into open sea, he was allowed to open his orders and learn he was to deliver the two items to Tinian Island. The crew was unaware that the ship was carrying components for the atomic bomb, dubbed "Little Boy."
It was on the ship's return as it sailed -- unescorted -- toward the Philippine Islands that it received a hit by torpedoes.
Robert noted that Adrian, like most of the survivors, seldom spoke of his five-day experience in the water.
It wasn't until later years and after the survivors' first reunion in 1960 in Indianapolis that some of the men could openly voice their experiences and feeling about their trip to hell.
Cozell Smith from Oklahoma described their ordeal in the survivor's book:
"Many sailors had no life jackets, and they were climbing on top of each other. If a man was in a life jacket, three or four men would be trying to climb on top of him. It was like rats swimming in a bathtub with no way out and nothing to cling to. I was surrounded by screaming and panic. The ocean was a swirling pit of blood and oil. My buddies' screams were blood curdling as they gasped and died in agony."
Smith went on to say that during the five days in the water sharks attacked men next to him pulling them under, and if a shark took a piece of a body, they would be back for the rest.
"We tried to stay away from the burned and anyone who was bleeding realizing it was a sure invitation for a shark attack," noted Smith.
It was on Thursday, Aug. 2 that a Navy pilot, Lt. Chuck Gwinn, spotted the survivors and radioed for help.
Adrian Marks, a young lawyer from Indiana who was a pilot stationed on Tinian heard Gwinn's message, and without proper clearance, he and his crew took off looking for the reported survivors.
It was a dangerous attempt, but he landed his plane safely on the Pacific's swelling waves to pick up survivors whose eyes were matted shut with oil and bodies covered with salt water sores.
While circling prior to landing, he saw at least 60 men grabbed by sharks and disappear.
Ships also rushed to the scene. Rehner was picked up by the USS Ringness and transported to a hospital in the Philippines.
Rehner noted to a friend in Bloomfield that he was very young at the time of the accident and thought his life was saved by some of the older men who tried to protect him.
When he and the rest of the survivors from the Indianapolis were discharged, there was no such diagnosis as post traumatic stress syndrome. Rehner, like the rest who had most of their lives yet to live, were expected to get jobs and carry on with their lives. That's exactly what Rehner did.
He studied drama in London with such famous actors as Lawrence Olivier and Richard Burton and then went on to become a professor of drama while acting in many stage plays.
Rehner was teaching at Wilson College in Chicago when he made the decision to come to Southern Indiana with his brother Robert and Frank Hayashida to open a summer theatre, which is now in its 52nd year. He lived in Bloomfield until his death in July of 1981.
The only Indianapolis seaman who was on the ship was Jim O'Donnell who returned and became an Indianapolis firefighter. (Rehner entered the Navy in Illinois.)
In 2002 during the survivor's reunion, Bart Peterson, who was then mayor of Indianapolis, spoke at a ceremony honoring O'Donnell.
"They chose Indianapolis as their place to unite," said Peterson, "to gather, to celebrate, to mourn. And for that I'm grateful. As the ship was once the pride of the United States Navy, its sailors remain the pride of this city. Their legacy lives on not just every July, but every day."
The memorial to the men of the USS Indianapolis stands prominently along the Downtown Canal Walk in Indianapolis.
The survivors meet every other year in Indianapolis for a reunion. As of 2010, there were 52 living survivors.
Some of the details in the above column were taken from Doug Stanton's book, "In Harm's Way," and the survivor's own stories, "Only 317 Lived."
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