A Survivor's Story
"...my firm belief, shared by all of us who survived, is that he was wrongly court-martialed. We believe there were many mistakes which contributed to the sinking, but they were not made by Captain McVay."
From statement submitted at September 1999 Senate hearing
by Woody James, USS Indianapolis survivor
I got out of my blanket and started to roll out from underneath the turret and the other torpedo hit. Another Yankee Doodle deal, all over the place. I started to walk forward to see what I could see and what I seen was about sixty-foot of the bow chopped off, completely gone. Within a minute and a half, maybe two minutes at the most the bow is starting to do down. It filled up with water that fast. Everything was open below deck and the water just flooded in and we were still under way, just scoopin water. Complete chaos, total and complete chaos all over the whole ship. Screams like you couldn't believe and nobody knew what was goin on. The word got passed down, "ABANDON SHIP"! It was maybe five minutes and we were really down in the water so we proceeded to abandon ship.
Jim Newhall and I went over the side holding hands. I got tangled up in the life line long side the ship. I got untangled and surfaced. I'm all alone so I swam out away from the ship, probably fifty yards, maybe one hundred yards, I don't know. I flipped over on my back and looked back and about two thirds of the ship was in the water, bow first and leanin to the right, the propellers were still turning. In the silhouette of the sinking ship I could see guys jumpin off the fantail like crazy. I went over the side with a life jacket. I pulled it off and gave it to one of the younger officers that was screamin his head off that he didn't have one.
Anyway, there I am layin on my back lookin at that and no life jacket. I don't hear anybody around me any place so I'm just kind of floatin and relaxin when low and behold, a potato crate floats by. Potatoes were packaged in wooded crates then. It was just an empty potato crate, made a good buoyancy to hold on to. Works as good as a life jacket I guess. Then pretty soon I heard some voices. I yelled and who answers me, my buddy Jim Newhall. So I swam over to where he was and there was quite a group of them. It's chaos and everybody talkin and a lot of the guys were wounded, burned and we were trying to do the best we could.
In Woody's Words
Woody Eugene James was born Nov. 13 1922 in Gilbertown, AL. He joined the Navy Sept. 11, 1942. In June of 1943 he was assigned to USS Indianapolis, 1st division.
Sunday, the 29th of July was a quiet day. The sea was runnin' five or six feet waves, just a beautiful day out. Didn't do too much, read a book, did a little tinkerin' as usual. Had the 8:00 to 12:00 watch and just got off at midnight. A guy relieved me about a quarter to twelve. I went down through the galley and had a cup of coffee. Then went to my compartment and got a blanket off my bed and went back up on deck. I slept under the overhang on the first turret. My battle station was inside it so in case general quarters sounded, I slept underneath it. Just got laid down good, using my shoes for a pillow as usual and the first torpedo hit. I was up and down between the deck and the overhang of the turret like Yankee Doodle Dandy. And, I wondered, "what in the hell is goin on?"
The next morning we kind of counted heads the best we could. There was about 150 people in the group. We were scattered around quite a bit. Well this isn't too bad, we thought, we'll be picked up today. They knew we were out here after all we were due in the Philippines this morning at 11:00 so when we don't show they'll know. If they didn't get a message off, but we're sure they got a message off, they'll still know where we are so no sweat, we'll be picked up before the days over.
So the day passed, night came and it was cold. IT WAS COLD. The next morning the sun come up and warmed things up and then it got unbearably hot so you start praying for the sun to go down so you can cool off again.
When the sharks showed up, in fact they showed up the afternoon before but I don't know of anybody being bit. Maybe one on the second day but we just know we'll be picked up today. They've got it all organized by now, they'll be out here pretty soon and get us, we all thought. The day wore on and the sharks were around. Come night time and nobody showed up. We had another night of cold, prayin' for the sun to come up. What a long night.
The sun finally did rise and it got warmed up again. Some of the guys been drinkin salt water by now, and they were goin bezerk. They'd tell you big stories about the Indianapolis is not sunk, its' just right there under the surface. I was just down there and had a drink of water out of the drinkin fountain and the Geedunk is still open. The geedunk bein the commissary where you buy ice cream, cigarettes, candy, what have you, "it's still open" they'd tell ya. "Come on we'll go get a drink of water", and then 3 or 4 guys would believe this story and go with them.
The day wore on and the sharks were around, hundreds of them. You'd hear guys scream, especially late in the afternoon. Seemed like the sharks were the worst late in the afternoon than they were during the day. Then they fed at night too. Everything would be quiet and then you'd hear somebody scream and you knew a shark had got him.
It didn't ever get any cooler in the daytime. In fact, Newhall asked me, he said, "James, do you think it's' any hotter in hell than it is here?" I said, "I don't know, Jim, but if it is, I ain't goin'."
We were hungry, thirsty, no water, no food, no sleep, getting dehydrated, water logged and more of the guys were goin bezerk. There was fights goin on so Jim and I decided to heck with this, we'll get away from this bunch before we get hurt. So he and I kind of drifted off by ourselves. We tied our life jackets together so we'd stay together. Jim was in pretty good shape to begin with, but he was burned like crazy. His hand was burned, he couldn't hold on to anything, couldn't touch anything.
Then the next day arrived. By this time I would have give my front seat in heaven and walked the rotten log all the way through hell for just one cool drink of water. My mouth was so dry it was like cotton. How I got up enough nerve to take a mouth full of salt water and rinse my mouth out and spit it out I don't know but I did. Did it a couple of times before the mornin' was over. That's probably why I ended up with salt-water ulcers in my throat. When we got picked up my throat was bigger than my head.
Anyway, we're out there in the sun prayin' for it to go down again, then low and behold there's a plane. Course there had been planes everyday since day one. They were real high and some of the floaters had mirrors that tried to attract them, but nothing. Anyway, this one showed up and flew by and we thought, "Oh hell, he didn't see us either. He's gone." Then we seen him turn and come back and we knew we had been spotted. What a relief that was.
So he did, he came back and flew over us. It was a little PV1 Ventura. It was out on submarine patrol and he spotted us. He radioed back to his base and instead of sending some help out, the Navy sent one plane out. One PBY that came out and circled and radioed back to the base that there was a bunch of people in the water and he needed more assistance and more survival gear. The pilot ended up landin' in the water and picked up a lot of guys, the single guys, one or two guys that were together so the afternoon went on. Late in the afternoon before dark there was another PBY on the scene. He dropped his survival gear and he dropped a little three-man rubber raft. Jim and I tried to swim to it. He made it but I didn't. I was just so wore out from holding him up and hangin' on to him all day and the night before, I just couldn't make it but he did. About the time he got on it there was two other guys so there is three of them total in it and that's all it was made for, three.
Anyway, the other direction there was two guys in the water and the two guys in the raft told Jim, "we'll go over there and pick those two up". Jim said, "No, we're goin' go pick Woody up then we'll go get those two guys." They said "Nope, we're goin' to do it the other way." The raft contained those little aluminum oars that come in two pieces and Jim put one of them together and threw the other one over board. "Okay you guys, I don't want to be mean but we're goin' over to get Woody and you guys are goin' to do the paddling by hand. If you don't things, are goin' to happen with this oar that you ain't agoin' to like." So they came over and picked me up and that's how I owe Jim Newhall my life. If it had not been for that I wouldn't be here tellin' this story.
So they picked me up, then we went and got the other two guys. Now there's six of us on this raft. It's getting pretty crowded but we run onto three other guys and we picked them up. Now there's nine of us on this little raft. It's just about dark and figure we'll make it through the night one way or another. About midnight, a little bit before there was a light shining off of the bottom of the cloud and we knew then we were saved. That was the spotlight of the Cecil Doyle. The Navy is on the scene. There's a ship comin'. You can't believe how happy we were, guys screamin and yellin, "We're saved, We're saved."
Morning of the 5th Day
The Doyle arrived on the scene and started pickin survivors out of the water a little after midnight. It was daylight the next morning that he came along side us in our little raft. Boy, what a happy day that was to get my feet on the deck again.
We got on deck and saluted the officer of the day and asked permission to come aboard, which was Navy tradition. All I had on was my boatson pipe hanging around my neck on a lanyard and I pulled it off and gave it to one of these guys. Why? I don't know, just happy to give anything I owned for bein' rescued, I guess. Anyway, they gave me one spoonful of sweetened water and assigned a guy to me to get me cleaned up because we were all covered with oil. Had been oily for a day, which was a blessing. Had we not had the oil on us like we did, the sun would have really ruined us. It was a good thing we had the oil on.
So I went to the shower and got cleaned up as best as I could. I asked the guy, "Is this fresh water shower or salt water?" He said, "Fresh water." I turned my head up to it and opened my mouth and I tried to drink that shower dry. Got off what we could, junk off of me and they gave us clothes, dungarees of course, and found us a bed. All the crew was just the nicest people in the world. They gave up their beds and everything. I went to sleep laying on my back.
Unbeknownst to me I noticed when I was showering that my legs were burned. Both legs were burned in the back, halfway between the thigh and the knee to halfway between the knee and the ankle. I went to sleep and didn't see the doctor. They had one doctor aboard and a couple of quartermen but they had more important things to do than take care of me. There was a lot of people in worst shape than I was but they tried to help. I went to sleep, I don't know how long I slept. I went to sleep with my knees drawed' up in the bed on my back. I waked up and all that burn had matted together and I couldn't straighten my legs so I spent the rest of my time until I got aboard the hospital ship on a stretcher. They wanted to move me around so they put me on a stretcher.
Got aboard the hospital ship and three days later, my legs are still bent and matted together. I remember going aboard the hospital ship. They hoisted us aboard and I was still on the stretcher. The doctor was standing on the deck directing traffic, this one goes to the emergency room and this one goes to the ward and it got to me and he sent me to the emergency room. I got in there and they laid me on the operating table on my stomach and started to give me a shot. I said, "Doc, no shot, it ain't a goin to hurt any worse than it hurts already so if you got something to do, you do it." The doc said, "Do it to you son"?, and the nurse handed me a folded up towel, a wet towel and said, "You better hang on to this." The doctor put one hand on my ankle, one hand on my buttocks and straightened my leg and I thought my head would go through the roof and as weak as I was I just about twisted that towel in too.
Then he did the same thing to the other leg and they picked all of the scab off with tweezers, laid gauze on it and put some kind of ointment on it and it stayed that way. They changed it every few hours and put stuff on it again. This was in the mornin before noon. Then we spent the rest of that day and that night and the next day and the next night aboard the Tranquility. We got into Guam to a Naval Hospital. They transferred us off of the ship over to the hospital. We was there for five weeks or so and they would tweezer my legs and put gauze and ointment on several times. To this day, I don't know what they used on it but I have no scars. On the back of one leg I have a scar that is maybe an inch long. That's the only thing I have from it.
They finally discharged us all from the hospital. They kept us all in the hospital, the whole crew until everybody was able to move out. Then they moved us down to what they call the submarine R & R camp. We thought we'd died and gone to heaven. This is not the Navy. You go to bed when you want and get up when you want. You go over to the kitchen and tell the cook what you want to eat and how you want it fixed, like downtown a café.
Well I was discharged on the 3rd day of December 45 and that was the end of my Navy career. I'm glad. I don't want to do it again but if I had to I would even at my age I would gladly serve my country again.
My granddaddy had a lot of sayings he'd always tell me...
"Son, do right by your fellow man.
Treat him as you'd like to be treated
because your chickens will come home to roost.
You reap what you sow.
Sow good things and you reap good things."
Survivor Woody James left this life on Monday Sept 19, 2005 just shy of his 83rd birthday. He died late in the afternoon in a tragic car accident in Salt Lake City, Utah. Woody was my grandfather, and although this site was built for the entire crew of the Indy, both survivors and the fallen, it was done especially out of love for Woody. He was one great giant of a man, in stature and in action. My grandfather didn't waste a day in his life, and what a life it was. The words that Woody inscribed in a book of mine gives me comfort and seems a fitting goodbye:
"May you have a long and happy life, as I have had. - Love You, Grandpa"
I miss you Grandpa
Buddy At Your Back
Your ship was grand, from stem to stern, your buddy had your back,
no one knew your fates in store the night of the attack.
Twin blasts and fires and hollers, she leaned to starboard fast,
her stern rose high to the moonlit sky before twelve minutes had passed.
Swells rose and fell, oil and fumes, together you prayed and heaved,
but the worse was through, for you and the crew, there'd be ships coming soon you believed.
A welcomed sun arose but left you parched in briny waves,
your flesh and bone drew sharks of war that night and the coming days.
Bewildered screams, they echo now, from dying mates at sea,
you never gave up, though you thought to yourself, all the dead, that will soon be me.
Then overhead, twin rotaries fired, by the fifth day you were saved,
but silence on your buddy seared your soul.
The Navy called for silence from its sailors and marines,
forget about your sunken ship. forget about the screams.
Smile gently to your sweetheart, provide for your wife,
go home and raise a family and live a normal life.
But every hour of daylight brings you closer to the night,
when screams return with vengeance, along with horrid sights.
And wake, you will, and face the day as you have always done,
you Il thank the Lord you walk this earth and strive to have some fun.
Still, on your mind will always be that buddy at your back,
he'd put his arms around you, friend, and he would cut you slack.
By Robert Cantrell