The sharks arrived on the second day.
"I knew something was wrong when men started screaming," said Harlan M. Twible, who as a young Navy ensign in the summer of '45 found himself adrift with 325 others in the middle of the Philippine Sea. "I looked up and saw sharks. There were hundreds of them, just one big school, coming right at us."
Twible had been aboard the USS Indianapolis less than a month when, on the night of July 29, the heavy cruiser was hit by two torpedoes and sank in less than 12 minutes. Twible and his 1,195 crewmates were on a secret mission delivering the atom bomb to Tinian in the Marianas Islands when they came across the Japanese submarine 10 minutes before midnight.
"By the time I got from sky aft (secondary control) to the deck, it was just a foot out of the water," Twible said. "I yelled "Abandon ship!' but everybody just stood there. So I yelled "Follow me!' and 325 men did."
About 900 men survived the explosion of the torpedo attack, but Twible and his band found themselves separated from the main group. The ranking officer was wounded so Twible reluctantly assumed command.
"It didn't take long to figure out that the sharks were taking the dead and the stragglers," Twible said. "So we formed ourselves into a tight circle and every time the sharks came around, we started kicking and screaming."
If a man was unlucky enough to stray from the group the sharks would quickly drag him under and feed on his appendages.
"After a while you get quite callous about the dead bodies," Twible said. "My job was to take care of the living."
For five days, Twible and his men drifted without food or freshwater, with nothing but cheap Kapok-filled life vests to keep them afloat. The men didn't know no one was looking for them. The ship, because it was under top-secret orders, never was reported overdue. On the morning of the fifth day, a Navy plane on routine patrol spotted the survivors.
"He came in low on a bombing run because he thought we were a Japanese submarine," Twible said. "Then he realized we were people and he dipped his wing."
It took 18 hours for rescue ships to arrive, but Twible maintained discipline and kept his men together. Of Twible's 325 men, 171 survived. For his dedication to duty, Twible was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for Heroism.
"I was recommended by one of the enlisted men," Twible said. "I don't think of myself as a hero, but I feel good that I was able to help some men survive."
In the years that followed, Twible would testify at the trial of the ship's captain, Charles B. McVay III, who was court-martialed and convicted of "hazarding" his ship by not ordering proper evasive maneuvers before it was hit by the torpedoes.
"They needed a scapegoat so they grabbed the lowest guy on the totem pole," Twible said. "It was a kangaroo court."
For 53 years Twible and the other 315 who survived the worst disaster in U.S. Naval history tried to set the record straight.
In 1998, a 12-year-old Florida boy working on a history project persuaded the government to take a second look.
"We think this year a resolution will finally be adopted by both houses of Congress that will exonerate the captain," Twible said. "There was nothing that he could have done differently that would have saved us from that submarine."
Twible ventures out on the ocean now and again. But his feelings toward sharks haven't changed.
"I hate 'em," he said. "They took me through the lab here at Mote Marine and showed me all the sharks, but I still don't see a good reason why they exist."
Twible credits his survival to the quality training he received at the U.S. Naval Academy. "We were taught that the ocean is not a friendly place. I knew going in to it that the ocean could gobble me up. I thank God it didn't."
An Indianapolis survivor speaks out
Sarasota resident Harlan M. Twible will speak about the battle he and hundreds of others fought with sharks on July 30, 1945, when his ship, the USS Indianapolis, was sunk by a Japanese submarine. The lecture begins at 7 p.m. Monday in the Martin-Selby Science Education Center, Mote Marine Laboratory, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. The lecture is free for Mote members, $5 for non-members. Call (941) 388-4441 for information.