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An Honor Flight with 25 veterans — 20 of them World War II veterans — stopped at the National D-Day Memorial recently during an Honor Flight from Tennessee to Washington D. C. to visit the memorials there, including the World War II Memorial.
According to Edie Lowry, who was in charge of the trip, they knew they would be able to visit that memorial in spite of the government shutdown because they had received a permit to go there. She said that was possible because an Honor Flight from Mississippi “got the ball rolling” by pushing aside the barriers that blocked access to the memorial.
The group of World War II veterans included James Smith. Smith was one of the men who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Most of the crew got off the ship before it went down, but most those men died because of the long delay in picking up the survivors. Some died from exposure. Smith said some were killed because they were hallucinating and thought there were Japanese among them and started fighting. Some were eaten by sharks.
“The guys the sharks got just disappeared,” Smith said.
Smith said that, during the time they were floating in the sea, there were “sharks everywhere.”
“They [the sharks] didn’t want any of me,” he commented.
The Indianapolis was steaming by itself, unescorted, on its way from Guam to the Philippines when it was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-58 a little after midnight on July 30, 1945.
“They wouldn’t give us no escort,” Smith said, adding that they were steaming along a route where another ship had been torpedoed a few days before.
Smith was a Seaman Second Class, a rating that no longer exists in the Navy. His battle station was on one of the ship’s 5”/38 gun mounts. But, the ship was not at general quarters and Smith was asleep in his bunk when the Japanese torpedoes struck the ship. That woke him up but he didn’t know it was a submarine attack.
“I thought we were having an air raid,” he said. “I didn’t know we had been hit.”
Smith quickly dressed and rushed to his battle station, but nobody else was there.
He joined some men trying to get a life raft loose but the ship was sinking too fast. The ship was rolling over when he walked down the side of the ship and into the water, then swimming as fast as he could to put some distance between him and the ship. He was worried about getting sucked down with the ship when it sank.
“Not too far from the ship, I turned around and saw the moon and the tail-end of my ship going down,” Smith said.
He said the ship sank in 12 minutes.
Smith, who had donned a lifejacket before leaving the ship, spent the next 90 hours floating in the Pacific Ocean, along with the others who escaped the ship, for 90 hours without food or water. Smith said he “didn’t sleep a wink” the entire time.
During the time they were in the water, they saw planes fly over. These were American bombers headed for Japan and they were up too high to see the men in the water below
The men were discovered by accident because the Navy wasn’t looking for them at the time. Smith said that, when the Indianapolis didn’t arrive at its destination on schedule, it was assumed that the ship had gotten orders to go somewhere else.
Once they were discovered, ships quickly converged on them. Some of the ships picked up the living while others picked up floating debris and corpses.
Only 317 men survived. Today, there are 38 left.
“We’re getting old, we are all dying fast,” Smith commented.
Another of the World War II veterans was Frank Dorman he was a 1st. Lieutenant and the navigator on a B-24 when it was shot down. He had flown 24 missions when the four-engine bomber was too badly damaged by antiaircraft fire to make it back to the base. They didn’t have to bail out, however, and they weren’t captured by the Germans. The pilot was able to make it to a Swedish controlled island and make a normal landing. Sweden was neutral, so the crew was interned. Dorman said the Swedes treated them well and didn’t keep them long before sending them home.
“They didn’t want to feed us,” he commented.
Katherine Pucott was a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) stationed in England doing a clerical job. She recalled seeing planes returning, on D-Day, with battle damage. She and the others with her went to their knees and prayed.