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TOPIC: Article about Survivor Ed Brown
Apr 25, 2008
Article about Survivor Ed Brown
Ed Brown sits in his Santa Maria, Calif., home recently with a collection of USS Indianapolis memorabilia. Brown, who grew up in Sioux Falls, survived the sinking of the ship - and 110 hours floating in the Pacific - during World War II.
(Photo by submitted photo)
ABOUT THE USS INDIANAPOLIS
The USS Indianapolis was a heavy cruiser that became the flagship of Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance commanding the U.S. 5th Fleet in the South Pacific during World War II.
After delivering the components for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, it was on its way back to the Philippines when it was hit by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine just after midnight on July 30, 1945.
It sank in 12 minutes. Almost 900 men went into the water. The survivors wouldn't be found for 41/4 days.
Of 1,196 crew members who had sailed from Guam, 321 survived the torpedoing and long ordeal at sea. Of 81 officers, 67 died, as did 808 sailors and Marines who were part of the enlisted crew.
Four more died in military hospitals within a week of their rescue. Of the nearly 900 men who died, officials said it's probable that 200 were victims of shark attack, an average of 50 men a day.
The ship's captain, Charles B. McVay III, survived, but later became the only Navy captain of World War II to be court-martialed for losing his ship.
The Navy criticized him for steaming straight instead of performing a defensive zigzag in enemy waters. He died by suicide in 1968 and eventually was exonerated in 2001.
Sailor survivor: 'I never thought about giving up'
South Dakota native spent 110 hours in shark-infested water
By Steve Young
Published: August 19, 2007
A man floats in the Pacific Ocean for 110 hours, surrounded by sharks, driven to delirium by the blistering sun and by the cold, black night, haunted by empty life jackets once filled with survivors.
How does he come through all of that? How does he live when hundreds in the water with him do not? And how is it that this one man grows old now when the slow torture of time in the ocean drove so many other young men to choose eternity instead?
Sixty-two years after Sioux Falls native Ed Brown survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, he is still looking for those answers.
"I'm hoping in the hereafter that I will be able to look back and see the path I took, see all the different twists and turns," Brown says from his home in Santa Maria, Calif. "Then maybe I'll know why it was that I was saved and didn't die. I had cancer twice, too. So I say to myself, 'What in the hell are you doing here? What are you supposed to be doing?' "
They are not easy questions for a man who grew up on Sioux Falls' north side and went on to survive the worst single at-sea loss of life in the history of the U.S. Navy.
The story of the USS Indianapolis resurfaced again this month when the Discovery Channel aired "Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever," about the heavy cruiser's sinking and the shark attacks its crew endured.
It was just weeks before the end of World War II - early on July 30, 1945 - when the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese sub as it chugged unescorted toward the Philippines after delivering the components for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima.
The ship sank in 12 minutes. Three hundred of its 1,196 crew members went to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean with it. Nine hundred sailors and Marines were plunged into the ocean, a few making their way into lifeboats, most bobbing in the water with only life jackets.
In a series of miscommunications, the Navy didn't even realize the ship was missing. By the time an American pilot looking for Japanese subs stumbled upon them 41/4 days later, only 321 crewmen were still alive.
An anti-aircraft gunner, Brown was sitting on the platform of his gun mount, putting his shoes on, when the torpedoes hit. Flames shot 300 feet in the air. He thought the aviation fuel or a gun magazine had exploded. It didn't take long to realize the ship was beginning to list and turn.
They were sinking. Seventy feet above the ocean's surface, Brown prepared to jump. His buddy, Danny Spencer, told him to stop, that he was going to kill himself. What other choice did they have, Brown said?
He leaped feet first, bounced on his rear end off the armor plating on the ship's bottom and into the water, swimming furiously until he was at least 200 yards away.
"It was eerie," he says. "The moon came out, lit up the whole sky. The ship's nose went into the water. The propellers were still turning. And then it was gone, and the clouds came in, and it was pitch black again."
Lost at sea
At least two other South Dakotans went down with the ship. One, 22-year-old Ensign Telford Frank Morgan of Warner, worked in the radar room. He probably was sleeping when one of the two torpedoes detonated near his quarters, his brother, Ron Morgan of Warner, says.
"All indications were that he was killed right away," his brother says.
Ron Morgan was about 10 years old the day they got the news back home. The boy often spent his days riding back and forth to the Warner elevator from the grain fields with area farmers. That day, however, he came out of the house and found his father sitting alone on the stoop.
"I said, 'What happened? Did it rain too much and the farmers can't combine today?' " Ron Morgan, 71, recalls. "That's when he told me about my brother. It was awfully sad."
David Driscoll of Lead, a lieutenant junior grade, also was aboard, probably working his shift as a communications officer, his sister, Jo Dougherty of Sioux Falls, says.
Driscoll had gone to Mass and communion earlier, the family learned - a fact that always comforted their mother, his sister says.
"They say the last words out of the communications office were, 'My God, let's get out of here,' " Dougherty says. "That was probably him."
Driscoll was 28 when he died, an accomplished pianist who had studied music at Harvard and UCLA, his sister says.
As the ship sank, 900 men went into the water, in bunches and in singles, to drift for 41/4 days in an area that covered 100 square miles. Brown was part of a group of 366 who hooked their life jackets together as they counted off. By the end of their ordeal, only 66 still would be alive.
A long way from home
In those equatorial waters of the South Pacific, the 19-year-old South Dakotan found himself a long way from his prairie roots.
Brown was one of seven children. His father, George, was a building supplies salesman. The family lived on North Duluth Avenue, three blocks from St. Joseph Cathedral.
Brown grew up catching bluegills and crappies with a cane pole and a bobber on his grandfather's bridge over by Cherry Rock Park.
His gang used to hang around Canary Field near East 10th Street and wait for foul balls to sail into the parking lot. Once they snagged a baseball, they retreated to Covell Lake for their own games, often taping the ball with electrical tape to make it last as long as they could.
In high school, Brown played tackle and end in football for Nusier Salem at Cathedral High. His younger brother, Dan, was the better athlete, eventually playing for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 1955 Orange Bowl.
On his 18th birthday - Oct. 16, 1943 - Ed Brown got his draft notice. With the help of the nuns at Cathedral, he managed to defer it to Jan. 17, 1944, so he could get in all the academic requirements to graduate. That January evening, after playing in his last high school basketball game, he boarded a train for Idaho and rode off to World War II.
Two months later, he was steaming toward the South Pacific and major invasions in places called Okinawa, Guam and Pelileu. In fact, they were invading Saipan when he got his high school graduation notice. "Obviously," he says, "I couldn't go."
Eventually, the USS Indianapolis ended up in San Francisco, docked at Hunters Point, when they got word they were taking a large and secret crate on board for transfer to Tinian in the Northern Marianas Islands.
All liberty was canceled because they were sailing the next day. But Brown and his buddy, Chuck Bruneau, had made plans to meet two girls at a dance hall. So wearing dungarees over their navy blues, the two slipped off the ship that evening.
The next morning, around 5 a.m., the gangplank was being raised, and the Indianapolis was preparing to pull away when Brown came running, his hand waving wildly, to the ship.
"I've given a lot of talks over the years," Brown says. "People always say, 'What if you had been caught?' My response was, 'I'd probably have gotten court-martialed and would have missed the swimming party.' "
If only, he says, he had been so lucky.
'Give me land'
In the water after the explosion, the 900 survivors thought help would come soon. Radio operators on board insisted they had sent distress signals to the Navy of its fate and position. But the messages were not received or went unnoticed as military officials prepared to drop the bombs.
No one missed the Indianapolis.
Initially, Brown and others in his group were swimming in a large oil slick. The smell was putrid, sickening, he says. But it likely saved their lives, coating their skin from the searing rays of the sun.
At first, their hours were filled with idle conversations, Brown says.
"Picture yourself with a handful of people in a swimming pool," he says. "You're there for hours and hours, then you run out of conversation. Then we're just kind of loafing around, doing a lot of nothing."
At one point, his buddy Danny Spencer asked what he was thinking.
Brown replied: " 'Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above. Don't fence me in.' You know, Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters sang it. We started singing it. Then I got hit in the mouth by a breaker and was choking. That was it."
In his book, "In Harm's Way," author Doug Stanton describes how, 36 hours into their ordeal, the survivors began encountering mako, tiger, blue and other sharks.
The predators fed on the deceased and the wounded, Stanton wrote. The glassy sea would erupt with screams of men being attacked. Others would be pulled under the water, their life vests shooting back to the surface empty, the straps in shreds. Stanton estimated at least 200 of the men were victims of shark attack.
"The sea was a bloody mess of bits of clothes and drowning men with arms and legs sheared off," Stanton wrote, based on his interviews with survivors. The "patterns of attacks in low-light conditions, particularly at twilight and in the dawn hours, soon established itself as the rhythm of the men's days: the sharks would attack in the morning, then cruise the wounded and the dying all day, feeding again at night on the living."
Brown says he never experienced any of that. "I saw them circling, but I didn't see anybody attacked by sharks," he says. "I had one that went through my legs that felt like a Santa Fe Super Chief, a streamlined train. But that was it."
Dehydration and despair
He saw plenty of other horrors, however. By day, the sun blistered them to the point of extreme dehydration. At night they shivered from the cold, their body temperatures plummeting in the 85-degree water.
Despair drove many of them to death. They simply removed their life vests and slipped into the depths.
"I told a lot of mothers and wives afterward that that's what happened," Brown says. "Drowning isn't a very bad way to go. You just go to sleep."
Though they were told not to drink the sea water, many succumbed anyway. They were usually dead within hours, Brown says, their bodies unable to process all the salt.
Others snapped as they watched planes pass in the distance. "Why is no one coming?" they kept asking, Brown says. "Where are they?"
"One morning, a sailor swam up to where I was and said, 'Hey, there's an island over there, and the Seabees are drinking beer and they won't let me have any,' " Brown says. "A bunch of guys took off their life jackets and started following this guy. We never see them again."
Stanton wrote that in the early hours of Aug. 2, 1945, some of the survivors started turning on each other, thinking there were Japanese attackers among them. Sailors started stabbing each other with knives.
"Hypothermia, dehydration ... the onset of starvation ... was turning the minds of these boys inside out," Stanton wrote. "In a matter of 10 minutes, an estimated 50 boys were killed. The melee had the intensity of a flash fire."
At one point, Brown says an officer told one of the sailors in his group to take off his life jacket so the officer could put it around his feet for protection against the sharks.
"I told the kid, 'Don't be silly. Keep it on,' " Brown says. "The officer told me, 'I'm going to have you on report.' I said, 'Who in the hell you going to report it to?' "
By the third or fourth day, Brown's eyes barely rested four inches above the water. His body was covered in salt-water sores.
He remembers staring sleepily into the sky late into his ordeal when it suddenly filled with a huge black-and-yellow Western Union telegram. The message was to his parents. It said their son was believed killed in action.
"It covered the whole sky," Brown recalls. "I got rid of that thought quick. I was never going to give up."
It was halfway through the fifth day when Lt. Chuck Gwinn, searching for Japanese subs with his patrol plane, spotted the oil slick and the men in the water. One of the first to respond to Gwinn's call was Lt. Adrian Marks, a 28-year-old Indiana native. It was Marks' plane that landed in the ocean and rescued Brown and 55 others.
"I'm sure within minutes, I'd have been dead," Brown says. "I was dozing off. I don't think I would have woken up. I was exhausted."
Of the 321 men pulled from the water, four died within a week, including Chuck Bruneau, the buddy Brown had snuck out with before they shipped out of San Francisco.
"That was maybe the biggest heartbreak ... for me," Brown says.
'Things like that happen'
Afterward, the ship's captain, Charles B. McVay, became the only Navy captain of World War II court-martialed for losing his ship. He was found guilty of failing to perform a defensive zigzag in enemy waters.
The pain of that tragedy was something McVay couldn't escape. Brown says Christmas, Easter and other holidays would roll around, and his captain would receive letters from mothers and wives that read, "If it hadn't been for you, my son or my husband would be with me for this holiday."
"It weighed down on him," Brown says, so much so that on Nov. 6, 1968, McVay stood on the back porch of his home in Litchfield, Conn., and killed himself with a revolver.
To a man, his crew supported their captain to the end, Brown says. Thirty-two years after McVay's death, in October 2000, Congress passed a resolution exonerating him for the loss of the USS Indianapolis. President Clinton signed the resolution.
For Brown, who attended South Dakota State University for a few years, then ended up as a salesman in California, the ghosts of the Indianapolis haven't been as haunting.
"I don't believe it changed me," he says. "We all realized we were in a war, and things like that happen in war. You lose friends; I accepted that. I witnessed it, and I got through it."
The truth is, if he really sits and thinks about the 110 hours he spent in the ocean, about the searing heat and the cold nights and the friends who disappeared from their life jackets, Brown might not have to wait for the hereafter to find out why he survived.
Having had years to ponder it, he now thinks it has everything to do with his South Dakota upbringing.
"I grew up in a family that was very competitive. And I went to a high school, Cathedral, where we were always the underdogs.
"We always had to fight to the end. Our teachers and coaches always taught us that. We were not allowed to give up. So I never thought about giving up, not in all that time I was floating in that ocean. It's because I played for the underdog, Cathedral High School. That's why I survived."
Aug 24, 2009
I just today received a letter from him, with that exact same account. It also came with a letter from him, and two pictures (one of Ed, and one of the Indy).
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