MOUNT CARMEL — USS Indiana- polis survivor James Smith told the Times News last year on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the ship’s sinking that his goal was to be the last surviving member of that crew.
“I want to be the last survivor, and I want to shake hands with the president,” Smith said.
Sadly, he fell short of that goal, passing away Wednesday at the age of 96 as one of only seven remaining survivors of the July 30, 1945 incident.
Smith, who resided in Mount Carmel, will be buried in the VA cemetery at Mountain Home on Monday.
“Stuck floating in the water”
Smith was one of 1,195 sailors on the USS Indianapolis, which had just delivered key components of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb to the South Pacific island of Tinian in July 1945. Shortly after midnight on July 30, two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine struck the ship’s starboard side.
Smith, who was second seaman and operated a five-inch gun during combat, told the Times News during a July 2020 interview he was asleep in his bunk when the torpedoes hit.
“There were no lights on, so I went to my gun on the number two by the hangar deck. The ship was already turning over, so several of us tried to get a raft off.”
The raft was stuck, so he went back to his bunk, put on his life jacket, got a drink of water, and upon returning to the deck, literally walked straight into the water. He believed that last-second drink of water probably saved his life.
It’s been reported that about 300 men went down with the Indianapolis. The others got only a handful of life rafts into the water. Most of the other nearly 900 sailors — many of whom were badly injured — were stuck floating in the water.
The ship went down in 12 minutes, and Smith found himself alone in the Pacific, covered in oil, with oil in his mouth and up his nose. Eventually, he located some shipmates, including a doctor who was doing his best to help the wounded, and they tried to stay together.
Waiting for rescue
What they didn’t know was the ship was running radio silent, and no distress signal had been sent.
“I made it through the first night because I knew we would be rescued the next morning,” Smith said.
He added, “But the sun came up and went down, and we were watching our friends slowly die in front of our eyes. When the sun went down, it was freezing cold and we wanted the sun to come back up. When the sun came up, we were wishing for the sun to go back down because it was so hot.”
He doesn’t remember actually seeing shark fins, but there were always little fish swimming around that he would try to catch for a bite to eat, but he was unsuccessful.
Occasionally someone would yell, “Shark,” and he would raise up his legs as far as he could, hold his breath, and “pray that I wouldn’t get bitten.”
As the days passed, many of his shipmates began to succumb to hunger, thirst, and the extreme heat and cold. Some eventually died from injuries. Others would become delirious and see an island that wasn’t there and try to swim for it, never to be seen again.Some members of the group he was in became convinced there was a hotel beneath them and disappeared underwater.
After 3½ days, the survivors were spotted by a patrol plane.
Smith was fortunate to be among the first sailors pulled out of the water and onto the seaplane. He had been awake for more than 90 hours straight.
“I was afraid to go to sleep because I might not wake up again,” he said.
Once on board the plane, he was given a small cup of orange juice, which he drank, and then passed out. He woke up days later in the hospital.
“Everybody Loved Him”
A native of northern Mississippi, Smith was a retired chef for the Piccadilly Cafeteria chain. He transferred to the Kingsport restaurant from Memphis in 1975.
Smith’s daughter, Andrea Van Dyke, told the Times News on Friday he’d been in good health and high spirits until about two weeks prior to his death on Wednesday.
That’s when he suffered a health setback. The Fri- day evening before he died he went to sleep and never regained consciousness.
“He stopped taking medication, and he just didn’t want to be here anymore,” Van Dyke said. “I guess he was tired. He said he wanted to go see his mom again.”
He was preceded in death by one son. Smith had two living sons and three daughters, including Van Dyke. He also had 14 grandchildren and 41 great-grandchildren. A great-great granddaughter was recently born.
“He was with me for the past 25 years, and it’s kind of difficult to look into his room and he’s not there,” Van Dyke said. “He was always smiling and he loved to talk about his ship. He liked to meet new people and tell them about it. He was a good dad and a wonderful man, and everybody loved him. Everybody he met became his friend.”
She added, “He’s going to be missed so much. I had something most people don’t have. I had 45 years with my dad, and a lot of people don’t get that.”
“It ended the war.”
Smith regularly attended USS Indianapolis survivor reunions until about 10 years ago when his health made travel difficult.
He was the last survivor of the crewmen that he knew personally.
Last year a big ceremony was planned to recognize the 75th anniversary of the sinking, but it was limited to ZOOM and YouTube coverage due to the pandemic.
Of the 1,195 men who were on board the USS Indianapolis when it sank, only 316 were rescued. When asked how he managed to survive that horrific ordeal on the open sea, Smith pointed straight up in the air.
“It was God,” he said.
And what did he think when he found out his ship had delivered a nuclear bomb to Tinian?
“I’m proud of it,” Smith said. “It ended the war.”