SALT LAKE CITY — Retired Marine Sgt. Edgar Harrell is, at heart, a small-town boy from western Kentucky who has a story to tell.
Not just any story, but one filled with history, violence, tragedy and courage, along with a fair amount of luck and faith. He is one of the last survivors plucked from the sea after their ship, the USS Indianapolis, sunk after being struck by Japanese torpedoes in the Pacific Ocean just days before the end of World War II.
It was the largest loss of life from a single ship in U.S. Navy history.
In the days leading up to the historic incident, the USS Indianapolis completed a top-secret mission to deliver parts of “Little Boy” — the code name for the first nuclear weapon ever used in combat — to the U.S. military installation on the island of Tinian, one of the principal islands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Upon completion of the mission, the ship left for the Philippines on a training assignment.
The USS Indianapolis was attacked just after midnight on July 30, 1945, struck by two Japanese torpedoes halfway between Guam and Leyte as Harrell and his mates slept.
“I made my (bunk) underneath the barrels of the No. 1 turret and that first torpedo cut the bow of the ship off,” Harrell told the invitation-only audience of about 100 people. “When I say cut it off, if you could visualize that long sleek bow — about 30 feet of that is cut off and it’s two-and-a-half decks deep.”
He said the ship began taking on huge amounts of water, sinking the giant vessel in about 12 minutes. Of the 1,196 men aboard, almost 900 sailors and Marines were plunged into the water. Many drowned almost immediately, while others were attacked by sharks or died from injuries sustained in the initial attack, he said.
Five days later, 317 men who had survived the sharks, hypothermia, severe dehydration and salt-water hallucinations were miraculously spotted and rescued by a passing U.S. military aircraft. The atomic bomb Little Boy was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
Harrell said he was able to survive the violence and chaos at sea in part due to his faith.
“There’s times when you pray and there’s times when you pray, and I’m pleading with the Lord, ‘I don’t want to die. I have a certain brunette back home, mom and dad, six younger brothers, an older and younger sister. I don’t want to die,’” he said. His prayers were answered, and despite suffering from various ailments that required eight months of recovery, he was able to make it home to his family and “that certain brunette” — Ola Mae, to whom he was married for 71 years. She died in March 2019.
Harrell struggled emotionally and psychologically upon his return home, but was eventually able to carve out a life in the window and glass business. He said he is grateful for the opportunity to share his story so that others can appreciate the efforts of those in military service.
“I speak all over the country, and I want people to see and realize and know that service men have made it possible for us to be where we are in America today,” he said.
He added that even after many decades, the memory of his experience is just as vivid as the day it happened.
“Even at 95 years old, I can tell the story and I can see it and I can feel it. The story is real, it’s still with me,” Harrell said. “But I look up and just thank the Lord that he saw fit to allow me to survive to tell the story of the greatest tragedy at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy.”
Marine Sgt. Aaron Sandoval was among those in the audience at the private gathering in the offices of Goldman Sachs in downtown Salt Lake City. He was deeply impacted by Harrell’s story of heroism.
“It’s a very extraordinary story of how he was able to find a way to survive and find a way to use each other and cope with what was going on,” said Sandoval, who is assigned to Charlie Company 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion stationed at Camp Williams in Bluffdale. “It’s that courage and being able to push on and be resilient. To be that resilient of a person, to be able to push forward — it’s very extraordinary. I give him good respect.”
Sandoval noted that Marines are taught in boot camp to “look to your left and your right” in times of struggle, but sometimes there is no one there to provide a lift or support, so it’s incumbent upon each individual to rise to the occasion when the situation calls for it.
“You really dig in deep and you find your inner self. And that’s what he did and he was able to really push through so many people could survive,” Sandoval said. “An ordinary man would not be able to do (what he did).”