By Bill Derby, Publisher
Seaman Second Class James Wesley Smith was interred at Mountain Home National Cemetery on Monday, May 10. Smith was the seventh remaining survivor from the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the Philippine Sea during WWII. He will be sorely missed by his family and his community.
Prior to his passing, Smith relayed his harrowing experience to the News & Neighbor. The headline in the Aug. 15, 1945, edition of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle reads, “SURRENDER OF JAPANESE HAILS END OF WORLD WAR.”
Lower down the front page in a small news story another headline reads, “Indianapolis, Heavy Cruiser Lost Off Guam.” The Indianapolis was returning from a top-secret mission delivering the first atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” to Tinian Island. It was from Tinian Island that the B-29 Enola Gay took off before dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, helping bring the Pacific War to a quick end. The short story in the Press-Chronicle noted all 1,196 men were casualties in the sinking by enemy action. Much more information was held in secret.
The Indianapolis was a large ship at 610 feet long. It sank in 12 minutes taking 300 seamen down and dumping the remaining sailors into the shark infested Pacific. The sinking of the ship was the worst single Navy loss of the war. Of the total 1,196 sailors, 896 men were able to abandon ship. Of that number only 317 survived their harrowing ordeal. Smith was one of those survivors.
Many people may remember the scene in the movie Jaws when Quint, the grizzled boat captain played by Robert Shaw, tells his story as an Indianapolis survivor of floating in the water with sharks killing many of the men. James Smith’s story is no less harrowing.
Smith, a longtime Chef with Piccadilly Restaurants, had a number of books and memorabilia saved from his many survivor reunions and was happy to share his story, but when you looked into his eyes, you could see the nightmare of remembrance was still there. The years have not dulled his memory of those 90 hours floating in the Pacific Ocean with dying men while sharks circled just below the surface.
James was born in Pontotoc, Miss. And was drafted into the Army while still a senior in high school. He decided to join the Navy. He was assigned to the Indianapolis in December 1943, his duty station for 19 months. During his service he received seven battle stars with the Indianapolis, seeing action in the famous “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” where the Navy task force severely damaged the Japanese Navy sinking three aircraft carriers, two destroyers and two tankers. More importantly 550 to 645 Japanese planes were downed. The Japanese Navy would not recover from these losses. The famous ship also played an important role providing covering fire for the Marines landing on Iwo Jima.
James Smith’s story as taken from a book dedicated to the survivors of the Indianapolis says, “My job was manning the 5-inch guns during action. Just after midnight on 30 July 1945 I was asleep in my bunk when the first torpedo hit. I thought we were having an air raid. The lights had been knocked out and I rushed to my gun on the number two deck.
“We were struck again. The first torpedo hit near the bow and with the engines still pushing us along at a good clip, the ship quickly filled with water. She was sinking fast. By the time I got to my gun position the ship was listing badly and about ready to turn over. Several of us tried to get a raft off. I put on a life jacket and just walked off the ship into the water.
“I swam as fast as I could because I knew it would suck me down when it completely went under. The moon was so bright you could see the ship quickly slide beneath the surface. I was alone and no one around me. I started to swim and soon came to a group of men. Fuel oil from the ship was everywhere and I was covered with it. Oil was up my nose and in my mouth. You couldn’t recognize anyone because they were covered in oil too.
“I made it through the first night because I knew we would be rescued the next morning. However, the sun came up and went down the first day with no rescue. Things started to get worse. We watched our friends slowly die right in front of our eyes. Some were so badly injured that they couldn’t survive without medical attention. When the sun went down the water became very chilly. We huddled together to keep warm, shivering in the cold dark water. We wished for the sun to come up.
“I prayed quietly for God to protect me. When the sun came up it was torture again from the heat. The oil actually protected our skin from the burning sun but it was almost unbearable.
“The second day was just like the first…nowhere to go, nothing to eat or drink, but our group was getting smaller. Since the water was crystal clear and you were so thirsty some of the men started drinking saltwater. They would get sick, become delirious and see things that weren’t there. Some guys in our group thought they saw a hotel underneath in the water and started swimming down toward safety, water and food. They never came back.
“We next heard someone yell, ‘Shark!’ I would raise my legs up as far as I could, hold my breath and pray that I would not get bitten. We floated around just knowing we would be found,” Smith explained.
Another survivor in the book said that of all the hardships, perhaps the most unthinkable were the sharks. Hundreds of them began to circle the men the first day they were in the water. At first, the sharks attacked those who were either dead or separated from the group. Then the sharks got bolder and randomly attacked people in the larger clusters.
Survivor Lyle M. Pasket said in his report, “It seemed like the sharks were smart. They stayed outside the perimeter most of the time. When these fellows hallucinated and swam away we tried hauling them back into a group, but that was taxing our strength. So we just had to let them go. They would never come back; but we could hear them scream and you know the sharks got them.”
James Smith continued, “I hadn’t slept for 90 plus hours and after that long you get into a daze. I was afraid to sleep in the water for fear of not waking up. I tried to catch small fish that were swimming around me, but I couldn’t catch them,” he explained.
Smith and the other survivors endured five nights and four days of torture in the ocean, mental and physical. Smith said, “Finally, an angel flew over and spotted us. (On Aug. 2, a PV-1 Ventura light bomber flown by Lt. Wilbur Gwinn and Lt. Warren Colwell spotted the men adrift while on a routine patrol and dropped a raft, water and flotation.) He was on routine patrol and was having antenna trouble. By the grace of God he spotted us. We all yelled and waved as he came down for a closer look. A PBY Catalina seaplane piloted by Lt. Adrian Marks came in later that afternoon and landed on the water, against orders. I tried to get on one of the rafts that was dropped but a marine would not let me on. So I swam over to the seaplane and was the first one on. They gave me a small cup of orange juice and I passed out. After that I don’t remember a thing until I found myself on a Navy ship in a bunk. I heard them shooting which woke me up. They had to sink the Catalina since it had been damaged by so many men hanging onto the wings.” Smith said.
“I found myself on the Cecil J. Doyle, a ship that had come to our rescue. The floating PBY showed a light in order for the ship to quickly pick us up. We then sailed to Guam on a hospital ship and spent a few weeks recovering and then back home to San Diego, California,” Smith finished.
Smith was brought back to the United States to recover and was honorably discharged on March 21, 1946. His passion in life was to share his extraordinary story of survival with others. Despite the trauma he experienced, those who knew him said Smith always had a smile on his face.