Robert Gause spilled his harrowing memories inside churches and lecture halls. Deliriousness. Hunger. Sharks.
He peppered his testimony with humor, but raw emotion seeped through.
Mr. Gause survived the worst disaster in U.S. naval history: the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945. The ship transported parts of the atomic bomb to the island of Tinian in the Philippine Sea. Days later, it was sunk by Japanese torpedoes.
Out of 1,196 men, only a few hundred survived. The story was referenced in the movie Jaws.
Again and again, he recalled the serendipitous events that sustained him while the sea swallowed his fellow sailors. It was hauntingly hard to discuss, but he promised God he would try.
Mr. Gause, 88, died Wednesday (June 18, 2008) after suffering a string of health problems.
Quartermaster 1st Class Robert Gause normally bunked mid ship next to a fuel tank and a powder magazine. But a case of the boils had him sleeping on the deck for fresh air.
The first torpedo sailed through his quarters, killing most of his roommates below.
The blast propelled Mr. Gause through the air, wedging him into a steel rail. A second blast shook him free.
He gave a life vest to the ship's captain and grabbed two more before abandoning ship, which sank in minutes. He recalled it in the book, In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors.
"I jumped and I swam. I looked back and the ship stood right on end, and there must have been 300 sailors standin' on the fantail, and it just went under.
"And they drifted off like a bunch of flies."
• • •
He floated for 109 hours.
He let another sailor choose one of his lifesavers — a Mae West vest or an inner tube. The sailor took the inner tube, which deflated after two days.
Mr. Gause, then 25, was raised with religion, but nothing serious. He had married Norma Neal Gause, who later became a Bible instructor and vocal Christian. But back then, she was an atheist.
In the water, he joined a circle of men to pray.
The captain said their fate was bleak. No land for 200 miles. No food or water.
A friend attached an extra life jacket backwards to Mr. Gause, so if he went insane, he wouldn't know how to take it off. He got delirious, asking his wife for lemonade.
Sharks dragged friends beneath the surface and gnawed off limbs. He flipped one friend to find his lower body missing, just like in fictional Capt. Quint's famous speech from Jaws.
After days, he was ready to give up. He talked to God one last time: "I know you answer prayers, but you've got to get on the ball."
He felt something beneath his feet. A rock, a sandbar, maybe. God's hands, he said. He rested.
A passing plane spotted the sailors soon after.
"This event that he lived through was a hugely transformative," said Doug Stanton, author of In Harm's Way. "It shaped the rest of his life and the rest of the life of those survivors. They basically stared into the abyss, saw the end of their lives and then stepped back."
• • •
His life thereafter was idyllic. He made sure of it.
He had four children. He ran a lumber business, did home appraisals and founded a bank in Tarpon Springs. He built his kids an in-ground pool. They had a trampoline and horses. For a long time, they had no idea of his trauma.
"It helps you determine that you want to leave a legacy," said his son Garrett Gause, 52. "You've been given another chance. I think when you're in the water with nothing to do but try and survive that long, you probably think about a lot of things that some people never take the time to dwell on."
He never watched TV shows about the Indianapolis. The memories were enough to keep him awake at night.
He remained a devout Christian for the rest of his life.
Once, he picked up a hitchhiker. The man pulled a knife. Mr. Gause slammed on the gas, threatening to roll the car and kill them. He told the hitchhiker how he found faith in the sea.
If he died, he knew where he was going.
The hitchhiker calmed down. They prayed together. Mr. Gause gave him money and sent him away.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.