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Newspaper article about Survivor William Sharp
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Tales of terror and courage

Veterans visit Landrum for Veterans Day, and a chilling tale of survival is heard.

Photos by MAGGIE FITZROY/StaffWilliam Sharp, a World War II veteran and survivor of the bombing by the Japanese of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, shakes the hand of Landrum Middle School guidance counselor Summer Mitchell Friday during a Veterans Day program.

Sharks surrounded William Sharp as he floated in a life vest in the Philippine Sea.

As night turned into day and then into night again, Sharp saw sharks attack and kill many of the hundreds of men who floated with him.

Their ship, the cruiser USS Indianapolis, had sunk after the Japanese torpedoed it in the last days of World War II.

After almost five days floating at sea with no source of rescue in sight, "I drifted off by myself," Sharp, 81, told Landrum Middle School students Friday during a Veteran's Day ceremony.

"I knew I was going to die," Sharp told his young audience.

"I had seen so many sharks, so many other men die."

Sharp was the first of 16 guest speakers to visit Landrum for an all-day program coordinated by social studies teacher Traci Wurstner, which featured veterans from various branches of the armed services.

Students went to the auditorium during their social studies classes to listen to a panel of speakers that included Navy veteran Lt. Col. Pat Faunt, now active with the Civil Air Patrol; retired Army National Guard 1st Sgt. Charles Vincent; Sandra Vincent, who has 35 years of service with veterans affairs; Army Spc. 4 Ronnie Lester, who served in Vietnam and is now the school's resource officer; retired Air Force Lt. Col. Paula Roderick; Air Force Lt. Col. John Roderick and Marine Corps Capt. Richard Boryszewski, also a Vietnam veteran.

Sharp joined the Navy at 18, in 1943.

As the first speaker, he captured the students' attention with an account of terror and courage that he endured when he was only a few years older than his audience.

Shortly after midnight July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis sank in 12 minutes after a Japanese submarine torpedoed it.

About 300 of the approximately 1,200 men on board went down with the ship.

About 900 others were left floating in the shark-infested waters with few lifeboats and no food or water. By the time they were discovered and rescued, only 316 were still alive.

Seaman Sharp was asleep on a cot in the mess hall when the torpedo hit.

With the power knocked out, and "everything happening so fast," he found himself in the water after the ship listed to the right.

In the darkness, he said he couldn't see or hear anything but the waves and voices.

In the morning light, after he saw sharks, he remembered what he'd been taught during boot camp - to stay as still as possible so they would think he was dead.

He credits following that advice, "and God," with keeping him alive.

"The sea was rough at times, stormy at times. One day I remember it was as clear as glass," he said.

A doctor who was in the group said The Lord's Prayer, and while not religious at that time, Sharp said he began "to debate" with himself about where he would go after he died.

He'd never robbed a bank, killed anyone or went to jail.

"Maybe the Lord will show pity on me," he told himself.

After the fourth day, Sharp grew delirious from lack of food and water and began to hallucinate.

He saw glasses of cold water float up in front of him.

"I could hear ice tinkling in the glasses," he said. "I reached out for it but it would always slip away."

So tired and sleepy that he knew he wouldn't last much longer, Sharp went to sleep in his life jacket until he heard a buzzing noise.

A "PPY Catalina Elephant" sea plane landed on the water and the survivors climbed aboard the wings until rescue ships came and took them to a hospital ship, which took them to a hospital in Guam.

"I could tell you a lot more," Sharp said after the bell rang Friday at Landrum.

The students gave him a standing ovation.

Afterward, teacher Laura Fleet wiped tears from her eyes as she thanked Sharp for telling his story.

He went on to become a Baptist pastor of six churches in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, then later taught school before going into sales.

Now retired, he gives speeches about his Indianapolis experience and created a DVD about it called Destiny and Disaster.

Parent volunteer Eve Janocko bought one for the school.

"I think it's fantastic," she said of Sharp's visit.

"I think it's fantastic the children heard this history lesson from someone who lived through it."

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