U.S. Navy veteran John Hufton witnessed the reality of World War II up close. It’s only recently that he has started to talk about the stark horror of one particular rescue mission at sea. A week before the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, he and his crewmates would be responsible for helping survivors of a sunken ship – and that experience remains seared into his memory to this day.
“The USS Indianapolis was a beautiful ship,” he recently told members of the Hire Heroes USA team in North Carolina.
Hufton was aboard another ship when the news first came in – but, initially, no one knew the Indianapolis had been hit by a Japanese submarine. With two shots, the Japanese had effectively downed communications aboard the heavy cruiser and, within 12 minutes, the ship was sinking with its bow pointing straight toward the bottom of the ocean.
It was past midnight on July 30, 1945. The unescorted warship had recently completed a secret mission and was headed to the Philippines, from Guam.
Almost 1,200 men were aboard the Indianapolis that fated day. Some 300 of them never made it past the pull of the waves on the sinking ship. The men that remained – about 800 Sailors and Marines, some of them injured – struggled for their lives, clinging to flimsy pieces of debris. Wearing nothing but their underwear, they were exposed to the elements and were miles away from any land.
Four days after the Indianapolis sank, they were still stranded in the Pacific when a Navy seaplane from an island about 100 miles away happened upon them; men waved their arms to attract the pilot’s attention. By then, sharks had already begun to pick them off, one-by-one. Only a few hundred were still alive.
That seaplane was able to secure more than 50 men, getting them out of the choppy ocean. Before long, another plane arrived with pontoons and life preservers. A pilot radioed for nearby ships to come help, and that’s when Hufton’s ship went to assist with the rescue of the remaining Indianapolis crew.
The next morning at daybreak, when they arrived, he describes it as a grim scene. Sharks had surrounded what was left. The water was strewn with bloodied bodies and men clinging to thin sheets of cork in the freezing water. Several destroyers had arrived to rescue these remaining survivors.
“The first man we picked up was sitting on the side of a life craft,” he recalls, adding that, when they picked him up, the man told them there had been six or seven other survivors there, too, “but the slats were gone and sharks had eaten every one of them.”
“I think he had five or six dog tags,” Hufton says.
That survivor would go on to tell John that the Indianapolis had delivered something to Tinian, one of three islands in the Northern Marianas, about 1,500 miles from Japan. “I don’t know what we delivered,” the weary, dehydrated man told them back then. They would learn later that the USS Indianapolis had taken strategic, crucial cargo to Tinian that would end the war: components for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
Amid his recollections of that long, difficult rescue mission, John Hufton shared another story – something that he couldn’t talk about for years. They had been patrolling for more survivors when they spotted a young man sitting atop a piece of floating cork.
“The cork was flat and this is already the fifth day now that they had been out there, and he was just sitting there,” he recalls, as clear as if it had happened yesterday.
Just as they got close to him, he says, “I heard the awfulest hollering I had ever heard in my life, and a shark was raring up and trying to get his left leg. I suspect that he had seen a lot of them get eaten.”
What was worse, was what they discovered when trying to remove that survivor from the makeshift raft.
Hufton and a fellow crewmate had each grabbed the man by an arm, but they quickly discovered that his flesh had completely separated from the bone. “It just tormented him to death. We had to keep pulling him because we knew what was down below. I signaled the ship… told them we had a man that could not stand to be touched, he was in such bad shape.”
As he reflects back on his military career, today, John says he might not have had the life experiences he did without the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
That was the day everything changed, as he remembers – and he remembers that day very clearly, even 75 years later.
It was a Sunday. He and his father, mother, brother, and sisters were returning home from church. Along the way, they heard the stunning, terrifying words of a newscaster on the car radio: Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
In northeastern North Carolina, an area without phones and electricity – not even indoor bathrooms – the family remained glued to their battery-powered radio. It was their only source of information about the war.
He speaks of that being a time in history when patriotism was the defining factor of American life. “Patriotism was an important part,” he says proudly.
John, who hails from a family of farmers, was sworn into the U.S. Navy in June of 1944. Years later, patriotism again spoke to his heart, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
Throughout it all, he would keep careful track of everything in his diary, which – today – serves as reminder of a time when military service and patriotism were conflated as equally important – when everyone felt it was their duty to be part of serving their country.
These days, he is one of only two men left from his initial crew, which held annual gatherings for years.
What was it that shaped his military service that he can share with generations today?
“Giving all you can for those who have given all they can for you” – he said.
Before choking up, John told us he “appreciates the country we live in and the blessings we receive each day,” adding, “We’ve got so much to be thankful for.”
Interview and Blog contribution from Hire Heroes USA’s Johnathan Severs and Yesenia Craft. Johnathan is a U.S. Army veteran. Yesenia is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.