Michigan veteran one of a dozen Indianapolis survivors alive

By: Alex Szwarc | C&G Newspapers | Published August 6, 2019

 Only 18 years old when the USS Indianapolis sunk in World War II, now 92-year-old Richard Thelen, of Lansing, is one of a dozen USS Indianapolis survivors alive. He is seen at right in August 1945 recovering in a Peleliu hospital.

Only 18 years old when the USS Indianapolis sunk in World War II, now 92-year-old Richard Thelen, of Lansing, is one of a dozen USS Indianapolis survivors alive. He is seen at right in August 1945 recovering in a Peleliu hospital.

Photo provided by Richard Thelen

 USS Indianapolis survivor Richard Thelen, second from left, is pictured with his granddaugher Kelliann, son David, and great-grandson Keegan at the USS Indianapolis Survivors Reunion in July.

USS Indianapolis survivor Richard Thelen, second from left, is pictured with his granddaugher Kelliann, son David, and great-grandson Keegan at the USS Indianapolis Survivors Reunion in July.

Photo provided by All Things USS Indianapolis CA-35 on Facebook

LANSING — Richard Thelen’s first voyage out to international waters was quite memorable, to say the least.

Of the 1,196 men aboard the USS Indianapolis at the time of its sinking on July 30, 1945, during World War II, only 316 survived. Today, 12 are alive — Thelen is one of them.

The 92-year-old Lansing resident is the lone Michigan survivor living. He attended the USS Indianapolis Survivors Reunion July 18-21 in Indianapolis. C & G Newspapers caught up with Thelen at his home earlier this year for an exclusive interview.

 

Joining the Navy, boarding the Indianapolis
Born in Lansing, Thelen joined the Navy in December 1944 at the age of 17. He was assigned to the Indianapolis in May 1945 while it was docked at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, northeast of San Francisco.

On July 16, the ship set sail for Tinian Island with key components of the first atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” the first nuclear weapon ever used in combat. The Indianapolis arrived in Tinian July 26.

When asked if he noticed anything different about the unknown shipment onboard, Thelen said, “Old-timers tell me that you go full board for the first 10 to 15 hours to make sure everything is working right. We kept it up for nine days, just as fast as that ship could go.”

Indianapolis set a speed record of ​74 and a half hours, with an average speed of 29 knots, or 33 mph from the U.S. to Tinian Island, which still stands today.

“I understand the captain was told there was reason to hurry, because every hour you lose, it lengthens the war one hour,” Thelen said.

He recalls seeing guards stationed where the bomb was stored, in the middle section of the ship on the seaplane hangar.

On July 28, the Indianapolis left Guam for Leyte, a Philippine island.

“Everything seemed fine when we left. Nobody knew of any threats,” Thelen said.

 

Moment of impact
Thelen went to sleep at 11:50 p.m. July 29 on the top deck of the ship. It blew up a few minutes after midnight and sunk in the Philippine Sea after it was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58.

Its sinking resulted in the greatest single loss of life at sea, from a single ship, in the history of the U.S Navy.

“I was sleeping when it blew up. I went flying in the air, but I don’t know if I went 2 feet or 20 feet,” he said.

The second torpedo struck the quarterdeck of the ship, which sank less than 12 minutes later.

“The quarterdeck was engulfed in flames, so nobody crossed it,” he said. “Somebody was saying we weren’t going to get out, so there were life vests by the 8-inch guns, and some guy had a knife and cut them down. We threw four of five of them off. By that time, the starboard side was lifting pretty good.”

By the time he got a life jacket, Thelen said, the ship was lifted so much that he couldn’t stand up. Instead, he started to slide.

“So many people ask me where I was on the ship when I jumped off. I didn’t jump off the ship, the ship left me,” Thelen said.

 

Time in the water
By the time the Indianapolis sunk, roughly 300 of the 1,196 men went down with it, leaving the survivors in shark-infested and diesel fuel saturated salt water.

On July 31, Thelen remembers the waters calming down, and sharks appearing.

“I was covered with oil and twice, a shark came up and poked me with his nose in my life jacket,” he said. “Sharks don’t like the smell of diesel fuel and I was saturated in it. The diesel fuel saved my life.”

Being surrounded by nothing but water, one can imagine the temptation the survivors faced to drink the saltwater, which Thelen said was the greatest challenge.

“I saw guys get real thirsty and start taking their life jackets off saying they were going down below deck to get a cold drink of water,” Thelen said. “If you gulped some saltwater on an empty stomach, your eyeballs pop out a little bit and within an hour or two, you’re totally insane and it would kill them. A lot of them went that way.”

Thelen said he tried persuading other guys to not drink the water, but it didn’t work. He went five days with no food or water.

 

Rescue efforts
As the days passed, Thelen thought there wouldn’t be a rescue.

“Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, they’re not looking for us. Hell, this is where we’re going to die,” he thought.

“On Thursday morning, at 10 or 11, here comes Chuck Gwinn with his airplane and he found us. Gwinn spotted the oil slick and went back to the co-pilot and said he was going back to take another look. The plane came over top of me and I’ll never forget it,” he said with a chuckle.

American pilot Lt. Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn was flying his PV-1 Ventura bomber when he spotted what at first he assumed to be a Japanese submarine disabled in the ocean. Drawing nearer, he realized there were a large number of men floating in the water.

Thelen, along with 95 fellow survivors, were picked up by the USS Doyle while it was still dark out on the morning of Aug. 3. At that point, he was too weak to climb a rope ladder to reach the ship.

He was then taken to a small hospital in Peleliu where he received treatment for a couple of days.

 

Family and community reaction
Thelen’s son David Thelen shared the story of how he learned his father was on the Indianapolis when it sunk.

“Back in ’75, I was a senior in high school and I saw the movie ‘Jaws.’ I came home and my mom was up and asked me what I did tonight,” he said. “I said I saw the movie ‘Jaws’ and they talked about the guys on the USS Indianapolis. She chuckled a little bit, and me being a smart ass 18-year-old said, ‘Mom, what are you chuckling about.’ She said, ‘Talk to your dad about it.’ I said, ‘What the hell does he know about it?’ She said, ‘He was on that ship.’”   

Sara Vladic, one of the world’s leading experts on the Indianapolis and co-author of the 2018 book “Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man,” said that one of the most valuable lessons Indianapolis survivors have taught her is to never give up.

“They would say, time and time again, that things will get tough in life, and days will be hard, but to just keep taking steps forward and you’ll be OK,” she said.

Vladic added that as she’s traveled the country sharing the story with school children, many were captivated by this story.

“Not just the tragedy, but the fact that young people, close to their age, willingly went to war to fight for something greater than themselves,” Vladic said. “Over and over again, kids would tell us that now they finally understood what ‘the cost of freedom’ really meant.

Trevor Larson, assistant curator of interior displays at the Detroit Arsenal of Democracy Museum in Warren, said what stands out about the Indianapolis is, “Anything in the service can end up going from ordinary to extraordinary in an instant.”

“It was after they dropped off the atomic bomb and their mission was to link up with the fleet in Manila,” he said. “What turned out to be a routine link up with the fleet, ended up being five miserable days in the water, all because of a Japanese sub in a supposedly secure area.”

Larson, of Macomb Township, has met Thelen and said his incredible ability to survive is what he took away from their conversation.

Thelen remained in the Navy for one year after the Indy was attacked, stationed at Naval Air Station Grosse Ile. He was discharged in August 1946.

He married JoAnne in 1951. The couple has six children, 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. JoAnne died in 2002.