There are some stories that cause our jaws to drop, inspire us, or leave us feeling differently than before we hear it. Some we read, others we see on television or a movie theater, but in my opinion, the best stories are told directly from the person who lived and experienced them.
Richard Thelen told his story, of surviving the USS Indianapolis sinking, to an audience on Sunday, April 12th, at the National Military History Center Collector’s Show.
Thelen is from Lansing, Michigan, and enlisted in the Navy in 1944, when he was just 17 years old. He chose the Navy because he enjoyed being around water.
Shortly after enlistment and training, Thelen was in a row of sailors and they counted off in “ones” and “twos”. Thelen counted a “two” and that meant he was off to the USS Indianapolis.
Once the ship was assail, they headed to Tinian Island. Thelen recalls the ship going top speed (and setting a record), but no one knew what the ship was actually delivering. Later on they discovered it was the components of the first operational atomic bomb.
Four days after the delivery, about a quarter past midnight on July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was hit by two torpedoes. They were fired by a Japanese submarine.
Thelen said the 610 ft. long ship sank in 12 minutes. “I didn’t jump off the ship, the ship left me,” he joked.
Out of the 1,197 men on the ship, 900 made in into the water. Thelen stated they were enduring 8-10 foot swells and covered in diesel fuel that Monday.
Tuesday, and until they were rescued on Friday morning, the men encountered sharks. Thelen recalled floating in “sleep mode” and being awoken by a shark poking his kapok life jacket. He said, “I am lucky that one never attacked me, but I haven’t figured out why.”
Others weren’t so lucky. Thelen mentioned the rest of the week, the sharks would come and go, taking some men under that strayed away from the group. Other men could not resist drinking the salt water from extreme dehydration, and would only survive three to four hours after swallowing. Not only would the salt water affect their physical health, but their mental and psychological as well. The life jackets the men wore became heavier everyday, since they were only designed to be good for 72 hours.
By chance, the 317 men left surviving were found. Thelen said he had spent 104 hours in the water with his life jacket. When he was rescued, his legs were so weak that he collapsed when he attempted to stand. “I was a strong kid, so I bounced back in a hurry. But mentally, it took 15 years to recover.”
Thelen went on to finish high-school and was honorably discharged from the Navy. He ended up being a truck driver for more than 40 years, and also raised six children.
Richard Thelen is now 88 years old and resides in Lansing, MI. He continues to spread this incredible piece of oral history to audiences, with his family next to him. They are equally as captured by Thelen’s story, and calls him their hero.
Check out more photos of Richard Thelen this weekend here.
Also, make sure to check out our website, dekalbcvb.org, for upcoming events!