‘I never really gave up’
I could imagine L.D. Cox as the gregarious 19-year-old who helped deliver the first atomic bomb across the Pacific. “Don’t shoot!” he said in mock surrender as he made his way across the drill field at Fishburne Military School on a sunny late-March afternoon, passing a cannon that was going to be fired a little later in honor of Cox and fellow crewmembers from the USS Indianapolis.
Nine hundred from the 1,196-man crew lost their lives in a July 1945 torpedo attack on the ship that had just delivered the A-bomb used to level Hiroshima. Sixty-four years later, a handful of those pulled out of the water after the controversial five-day delay between the sinking and their sighting still get together regularly to catch up with men closer than brothers and share their stories.
“When we first got hit, I was around by my bunk,” said Sam Lopez, a West Virginia native who was in town for the local events at Fishburne and at Blue Ridge Community College. “I just had got off of watch from 8 to 12. I’m standing by my bunk, four or five of us, and all at once we hear two thumps. And one of the guys says, What was that? Oh, we got hit again with kamikaze. I said, No, something else happened. We’re too far from land for a kamikaze.”
Cox was on the bridge when the first torpedo hit. “I went up and just took over the phones about six minutes after midnight, and this explosion hit. Threw me up in the air about five feet. I came down on the steel deck and started to get up, and looked up and there was a fire and debris and all kinds of stuff flying up from the water. And we were 81 feet above the water line, so it was a tremendous explosion,” said Cox, of Comanche, Texas.
“Guys were scrambling down and all that,” Lopez picked up the story. “We unrolled the cargo nets. Most all the sailors carried a sheet knife. We cut them, rolled them out. Took our blue jeans off and tied them together. Next thing we know, look up, and the tops were off above our head. The ship was going down.
“After things settled in the water, we counted. One guy’d go one, another guy’d go two. I remember the count was around 142. Out of the bunch, about 17 of us survived,” Lopez said.
It was an accident the men were even seen. “We got a message at 2 in the afternoon, 1400 hours, and we proceeeded to this latitude and longitude for unknown objects in the water,” said L. Peter Wren of Richmond, one of the rescuers who has written a book on the Indianapolis tragedy, We Were There. “When we got there, there was no ship on the scene, no radar bounces off, nothing. The only thing we saw was a cloud on the water, and a cloud shouldn’t be on the water,” said Wren, who was in the Valley for the local events with Cox, Lopez and other Indianapolis survivors.
“I came across a floater net with these men. It’s like going into a barn where the cattle are lowing,” Wren said, “lowing” being another word for “mooing,” I’ve since learned. “I cut the motors, and we listened, and the waves, and the lowing like cattle. And I’m calling out, Who are you? What ship are you from? And some sailor comes back to me, Just like a dumbass officer, asking dumbass questions. I said, They’re our boys,” Wren said.
“Men were dying from sharks and hypothermia and all,” Cox said. “Really, it was the last night or last day – very few people would have been alive. I was in a kapok life preserver. It was supposed to last 72 hours, and it lasted over a hundred. It was just – my chin and nose could just barely stay above water it was so waterlogged.”
I asked Cox if he ever gave up hope that he was going to make it out of the water alive. “Never did. I always thought if it was going to be two picked up, I was going to be one of them. And I continued thinking that,” Cox said.
“I will admit that I was beginning to wonder – when your life preserver is giving out, and nobody has found you or seen you, why, it’s pretty hopeless. But I really never gave up,” Cox said.
– Story by Chris Graham