Surviving a Nightmare

According to the Smithsonian, The USS Indianapolis was a massive, 623-foot Portland-class heavy cruiser for the U.S. Navy during World War II. It sank in 12 minutes.

Adrift somewhere between Guam and the Philippines in shark-infested waters over the ocean’s unforgivably deep Mariana Trench, Richard “Dick” Thelen tread water. Barely clinging to consciousness, a thought crept into his mind that he just couldn’t shake: “I told Dad I would come home.”

A few months back, Thelen spoke to a heedful crowd of students, professors, journalists, and Cleveland community members in a John Carroll University campus conference room. To say the audience was captivated by his story would be a gross understatement. The back legs of each occupied seat refused to touch the floor from the moment Thelen began speaking. Thelen stood tall at the podium from which he spoke. The 89-year-old WW II Navy veteran, dressed in a blue-collared shirt and a US Navy baseball cap, had surely told of surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, July 1945, plenty of times before.

“We were in the water five days before being rescued. Only 317 of us survived.” said Thelen, clearing his throat. The simultaneous gasp from listeners in attendance was so apparent, it almost seemed to have come from the room itself. Sensing the tension, Thelen calmly eased the crowd saying, “That was 79 years ago; and I’m still looking for my wallet.” 

The USS Indianapolis was moving a bit slower than it should’ve the night it sank, according to Thelen. Nonethless, the zig-zag motion in which it steered was nothing out of the ordinary. The only issue: the ship was unescorted. Without warning, two torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine struck the ship’s underbelly, nearly splitting the heavy cruiser in half. Of the 1,197 crewmen aboard, just over 800 survived the blasts to land in the pitch-black waters below; and, as Thelen stated, only 317 survived what would turn out to be the traumatic five-day ordeal. Clinging to debris, life-rafts, and each other, the navy-men drifted over four miles from the initial wreckage. On top of that, the two main groupings of men afloat drifted nearly two miles apart from each other with smaller groups scattered in-between. Thelen described his account in detail, explaining what it was like to battle the changing currents, powerful waves, and shark frenzies during his fight for survival.

“Was there ever a point you thought you wouldn’t make it?” asked Stan Elad, a junior at JCU studying communications. “Sure, plenty of times.” replied Thelen, “But I kept thinking back to the promise I made my father. I told Dad I would come home.”

Thelen, along with other survivors of the wreckage went on to win a Purple Heart for their incredible resiliency, which he eventually gave to his grandchildren. Of everything he experienced through his incredible triumph, Thelen said his greatest accomplishment was teaching his kids how to swim.

“I’m pretty proud of that.”

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