Leenerman recalls sinking of USS Indianapolis

For a 17-year old boy, getting ready to graduate high school in Sibley, IL, freedom may be working on his father’s farm or going off to college, but when Pearl Harbor was attacked and boys all over the United States began to get drafted, 17-year old Art Leenerman knew that he, too, would be going to war.

After graduating from high school, Leenerman turned 18 on July 5. He immediately received his draft letter, but decided to work at the Shell pipeline where his father held a job through the Depression.

When Leenerman was finally called to duty in the spring of 1943, he was taken to the Great Lakes Boot Camp. He did so well in training that he was able to serve in the Navy, rather than the army. Leenerman was then taken to San Francisco where 300 of his fellow servicemen were assigned to the USS Indianapolis.

Leenerman said the ship was anchored off the San Francisco Bay, so his crew was taken out to the Indianapolis on whale boats.

“That was a different situation for a kid from the Midwest who had hardly ever been out of Illinois,” he said.

The USS Indianapolis then went to Pearl Harbor where Leenerman was sent to radar school for a couple weeks. When the ship came back to get Leenerman in November of 1943, it took off for its first mission under the leadership of Admiral Spruance, who commanded the 5th Fleet. After nine days at sea, the Indianapolis bombarded Tarawa Atoll and Makin. The ship then returned to Tarawa as support as the United States took control of the Gilbert Islands. The crew also supported as the Marshall Islands were secured.

The Indianapolis went on to play an integral part in liberating Guam, Zyban and Tibia before the Indianapolis joined Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher’s fast carrier task force on 14 February 1945 to destroy Japanese air facilities. The USS Indianapolis then went to the Bonin Islands, to Iwo Jima, then to the Ryukyu Islands before being hit by a Japanese Nakajima Ki-43 fighter, which damaged the ship enough that the USS Indianapolis returned to Mare Island Navy Yard for repairs.

Leenerman said that when the USS Indianapolis was about to take off from Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard in July of 1945, the captain was hesitant to take a package on the ship because officers would not tell him what was in the box. But, after ordering the captain the USS Indianapolis went on to deliver parts and enriched uranium for the atomic bomb that would later be dropped on Hiroshima.

The USS Indianapolis then went to Guam where Leenerman said they were told the Indianapolis did not need an escort to make it to the Philippines. But, just after midnight, right after Leenerman was relieved from duty and using the bathroom, the USS Indianapolis was hit by torpedoes sent by a Japanese submarine.

Leenerman said that as the bow of the was hit, the mess cooks were also taken.

“All of those mess cooks didn’t survive,” he said. “After we got hit, I went and got a life jacket at the General Quarter station, and I told my buddy, ‘If this thing is going to sink, we’d better get off. He and I both scooted down the port side of the ship, then jumped off. I never saw my friend after that.”

Leenerman, along with the other sailors who jumped off the ship, were covered with oil, which Leenerman said made him vomit.

“When you were in the oil, if you were two feet from a friend, you couldn’t tell who they were,” he said.

With only four or five lifeboats that came off the ship, most of the survivors, at that point, held onto floater nets.

“There may have been 100 guys around on here or there, but the swells out there were so big, you didn’t know how many men were there at all,” Leenerman said.

By the time rescue came for the men, the surviving sailors were about 100 miles apart.

Leenerman said he thought a rescue would come a day after the ship sank, but they were out there for 4.5 days and 5 nights. He said he doesn’t remember much after the second day stranded at sea, but he can remember that it was important to stay with the group.

“There were some sharks around,” he said. “What’s amazing is that we were out in the middle of the ocean, and the sharks showed up the first day already. Every day there were a few men who disappeared. The sharks didn’t bother you if you stayed in the group, but if you left the bunch, you usually didn’t see that guy again.”

US Navy command did not know the USS Indianapolis had sunk until Lieutenant Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn and copilot Lieutenant Warren Colwell spotted an oil spill with men on August 2.

Leenerman said he does not remember being rescued, but he did say that if rescue hadn’t come that day, most of the 300 men who were pulled from the water probably wouldn’t have survived because the life jackets, which were designed to last two days were water logged.

Of the 1196 men on board, 880 survived the sinking and only 321 men came out of the water. Ultimately, only 317 survived. Today 23 of those men are still living.

The survivors were taken to a destroyer where the oil was cleaned off of them, then they were stationed in a hospital in Guam until they recovered.

Leenerman said that while they were at the rest camp, they could go through the meal line and take whatever they wanted to eat. He noticed that some men did not take anything.

“But then they came in with a full pie and a full gallon of ice cream, and they ate that,” he said.

While in Guam, Leenerman met up with a friend, who was just a year ahead of him in high school in Sibley. After the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August, the men were shipped home together.

Even though Leenerman lived through the nightmare of being stranded at sea for nearly 5 days, he was not discharged from the Navy when he returned to the United States.

“I didn’t have enough points,” he said.”I complained a little bit and I got shore patrol duty.”

After three years in the Navy, Leenerman was discharged in March of 1946. He now lives in Mahomet, IL.