72 years after tragedy, USS Indianapolis survivor recalls struggle to survive

The sinking of the USS Indianapolis is still considered the worst disaster in the Navy’s history--even 72 years later.

Ghostly images show a sunken Navy cruiser resting three and half miles below in the Philippine Sea. After years of searching, researchers, headed by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, uncovered a mystery and a symbol of one of the most traumatic episodes in World War II history.

A few weeks ago, Arthur Leenerman of Mohamet, Illinois, got a phone call he never expected to receive in his lifetime--his ship had been found.

The last time he saw his ship, he was 21 years old, he told WGN. It sank on July 30, 1945.

Unknown to Leenerman and most of the crew, the USS Indianapolis had just dropped off components of the atomic bomb that would destroy Hiroshima. They were heading to the Philippines when it happened.

“When I was in the head and the first explosion happened, there was a lot of smoke came back by," Leenerman said. “That was because we had a flash fire up front.”

Two direct hits by a Japanese submarine sank the heavy cruiser.

Leenerman grabbed a life jacket and stepped into total darkness.

“It was kind of pandemonium. It sank in 10 minutes. We didn’t hardly have time to do much of anything," he said.

What followed can only be described as an epic communications mishap. Distress calls went unanswered.

The next day, it was assumed, incorrectly, that the ship had made it to the Philippines. About 300 men were lost with the ship and 880 were left fighting for their lives in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Fewer than 320 of them survived.

Leenerman joined a group in clinging to a net.

“I eventually tied myself to that floater net so if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t float away,” he said.

Floating away meant death. Hundreds of sharks attacked the men.

“The sharks didn’t bother the guys who stayed in a group, but the ones that kind of went off their head, they would disappear and you wouldn’t see them anymore," he said.

For four and a half days, the men endured shark attacks, exposure, no water and no food.

Then came the man survivors call their angel.

Pilot Lt. Wilbur Gwinn spotted them and radioed for help.

It would be another 11 hours before rescue ships arrived.

Peggy Campo’s father, Don McCall, was among the survivors. He passed away last June.

“It seems impossible to believe this happened to these men and that they’re still around to talk about it,” she says. “And they're just so humble. Such a humble group of men.”

Campo carries on his legacy as secretary of the USS Indianapolis Memorial.

Since 1960, survivors have gathered in Indianapolis to renew friendships, honor the dead and heal from an indescribable experience.

“The resting place of the ship is the final resting place of the 880 men who gave their lives for their country on board the Indianapolis,” Campo said.

Of the nearly 1,200 men who were on the ship, 317 survived. Now, only 19 of those survivors are alive to tell their story.

“You just kind of thank the Lord a little bit and feel happy you’re one of the guys who are still left,” Leenerman said.

A recent documentary titled “USS Indianapolis - The LEGACY” by Sara Vladick allowed WGN News to use much of the video.  For more information, visit these links: