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FERRIER FILES: Survivor of worst shark attack in U.S. history shares terrifying details

FOX 17 News

One of the last survivors of the worst naval disaster in U.S. history is speaking with FOX 17 News’ Dennis Ferrier in this latest edition of “Secrets of Middle Tennessee.”

The last survivor aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis Ed Harrell, of Trigg County, Kentucky explained what was going through his head during the deadly shark attack in 1945 that killed hundreds of men.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis delivered the components of the atomic bomb with more than 1,000 men on board, including young marine Harrell, who was just off the farm in Trigg County, Kentucky.

The ship was on its way to the Philippines when two Japanese torpedoes sunk it on July 27, 1945.

Harrell saw men burning alive, men sinking trapped in their bunks – turned into tombs. He heard cries and shouts in the dark.

“Kind of like an echo, ‘abandon ship, abandon ship,’” Harrell said. “I go over and grab a rail in the blackness of the night. There is a time when you pray life is over, life is over. But something came to mind. I knew, I knew a voice, I’m getting word, I’m thinking scripture, ‘I will never leave you or forsake your peace, don't be afraid. Thank you, Lord thank you, Lord. I’m going to make it. I don't want to die,’” said Harrell.

And with that end, Harrell leapt into the oily blackness. It’s believed about 900 of the 1,200 men made it into the water -- but that water was full of oil and the men were covered in it, some of them going blind.

It was about to get even worse. All the noise, commotion, thrashing and blood brought sharks. Oceanic white tip man-eating sharks.

“Seeing your buddies swimming… then gutted apart. Every little bit you would hear a blood curdling scream, you would look out and see fins, fins, the body goes under and like a fish cork, it comes to the surface,” Harrell said. “From that moment, its sharks, sharks, sharks. You dare not go and check on someone. Later you would check and find the bottom torso is gone or he is disemboweled. Now we are losing men… every little bit.”

The men who drank saltwater got saltwater poisoning. They went mad. Others died of dehydration after throwing up the oil they swallowed getting into the water. By day four, nearly 600 more men died and the men who were alive were sinking.

Their Kapok jackets lost their buoyancy after days in the water.

“We are swimming, it’s not floating, 6 to 8 foot swells… It’s much easier to die than it is to live, all you have to do to die is quit swimming, quit swimming,” Harrell said.

But then on day five, a U.S.S. plane flying overhead had a loose antenna that the pilot had to open the hatch doors to fix.

He saw the sun hit the oil on the clothing and he could see flashes of oil from that distance.

When he got down lower he said there were debris and boys everywhere, scattered over 25 miles.

When Harrell came home he was still terrified. He could not tell anyone what happened until one day a family friend forced the troubled young man to tell it all. He barely got the story out.

“I saw telling it helped me, it was cathartic, I needed it, desperately needed it,” Harrell said.

Now 94 years old, Harrell has told his story about 500 times. He is the last living marine from the U.S.S Indianapolis.

His life has been a model of devotion. He is a chaplain and he has been married to his wife Ola for 71 years. He praises God constantly and he has kept all of his promises.

The one thing he has never done, is return to the ocean. Not even a toe in the water at the beach, those five days were enough for a lifetime.


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