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USS Indianapolis Story

March 29, 2015

Pastor John Mark Turner relates Christian leadership principles through the USS Indianapolis story of 1945. When a sovereign God is in control miracles never stop!

USS Indianapolis Story

On July 30, 1945, the U.S. aircraft carrier Indianapolis was struck by two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine.  The subsequent explosions obliterated the ship’s front end, and tons of water rushed in. Bulkheads crumpled under the force. The ship, tilting heavily on its right side, began to nosedive into the ocean.  Some 300 of the 1,196 crewmen went down with the ship. With few lifeboats and many without lifejackets, the remainder of the crew were set adrift awaiting rescue.  Fuel oil gushing out from the ship’s ruptured tanks coated the sea and the men, causing many of them to become violently ill. 

          For the next four and a half days, the men of the Indianapolis would know terror, thirst, hunger and despair on a scale almost beyond imagination.  The thirst and dehydration were unimaginable, one survivor recounted. Tongues swelled, lips split open, and salt caked their eyes and faces as the briny ocean water dried in the sun. In desperation, some men drank the salty water, and those who resisted the impulse soon saw what happened to the brains of those who relented. It took only about an hour, Harrell said, before the hallucinations began for those men. Some claimed that the Indianapolis was submerged but still operational just beneath the surface and that there were water fountains and ice cream available on the second deck.  Many of them dived down to the ocean depths, never to return.  Sharks began to attack the dead and wounded, and the cries of the men rang out in the air.  The entire scene was one of chaos and misery.

          As the sailors of the Indianapolis continued their tortuous four-day quest for survival, one of them saw what he described as a “strong big light from heaven, out of a cloud…and I thought it was angels coming.” Actually, it was the spotlight of a rescue ship.  Survivors began to be loaded aboard.  Of the 880 that survived the sinking, only 321 men came out of the water alive; 317 ultimately survived. They suffered from starvation, exposure to the elements, hypothermia, dehydration, and dementia—but they had escaped with their lives.

          Several life lessons in particular stand out as one reflects upon the ordeal of those involved in the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.  First of all, their training made all the difference for those who survived.  One sailor spoke of the torment of being immersed in water and yet being unable to drink.  Though his body cried out for just one swallow of water, he refused to give in, because he held fast to the training he had received as a sailor.  He rejected his overwhelming desire to drink the toxic seawater and held on the truths he had been taught.  Holding on to the absolute truths of God’s Word is a necessity for surviving in a world in which one cannot even trust his own depraved heart.  According to Proverbs 16:25, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”

          Secondly, one must accept the fact that he is a finite, dependent creature who desperately needs the mercy and grace of a personal Creator.  One of the survivors, Marine Cpl. Edgar Harrell, hung onto the ship’s left-side railing as it sank into the depths. Terrified, he realized he might not survive. As a sense of “utter helplessness” came upon him, Harrell said he cried out to God for help: “I often say, ‘There are times when you pray and there are times when you pray,’ ” Harrell, 89, said in a recent telephone interview about the horrors the Indy’s crew faced when the ship sunk. “I don’t know what all I promised the Lord, but I knew to whom I was speaking.”  The most important prayer a man can utter is the prayer for salvation from sin.  God sent His only begotten Son to rescue us from our sinful condition, and He stands ready to forgive those who turn to Him in faith and repentance.  As Romans 10:13 tells us, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

          Last of all, the leadership displayed by many of those men in that moment of crisis resulted in many others making it home to their families.  There were men who urged others not to drink the ocean water and to stay together in a group.  Some of those who ignored this advice were never seen again.   According to one survivor, "That first morning, we had sharks." Those who became separated from the group would be taken by them.  "And then you hear a blood-curdling scream," a survivor recalled. "And then the body would go under, and then that life vest popped back up." One sailor, already wounded, was in danger of disappearing amidst the fins all around him.  But one man risked his own life to pull the man back into the safety of the group.  This is the kind of leadership that matters most in this world.  It is a combination of courage and compassion that is best exemplified in our Lord Jesus Christ: “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).”

          Years later, the nightmarish ordeal of the U.S.S. Indianapolis touches a chord with those who find themselves in life’s treacherous waters, surrounded by the sharks.  It also provides lasting instruction.  For those who are willing learn its lessons, and put their trust in God who is sovereign over all, there is not only survival for oneself—but a chance to play a life-giving role in the survival of others.


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