tv Oral Histories World War II Veteran Harlan Twible CSPAN August 11, 2020 4:55pm-5:58pm EDT
presidents and the featured historians, visit c-span.org/thepresidents. available in hard cover, paper back and ebook. u.s. navy veteran harlan twible recounts surviving the sinking. the crew had just delivered bomb parts to tinian island. surviving crew members, only 317 out of 1,196, were not rescued were several days. the national world war ii museum recorded this interview. >> i was born in gilbertville, massachusetts, march 10th, 1922. >> you just recently had a birthday too, huh? >> yep.
>> now, did you grow up in gilbertville? >> first 18 years i spent in gilbertville. and i have not spent any time since then. >> is gilbertville where you would consider to be your hometown? >> it would be considered my hometown. and how many brothers and sisters did you have growing up? what was your family size and make up? >> two brothers and one sister. >> and where did you fit in? >> i was number three. >> tell me, before we started recording, we were talking a bit about your family and growing up during the depression years. could you tell me a little bit about that, what life was like for you coming up during that time? >> well, my father was an
irish-american. he immigrated from ireland to the united states to find a better place to live. and he and his family came over here, and i have looked up their papers and found out that they had $600 for the whole family when they emigrated to the united states. my father spent most of his life in the cloth industry -- he was either a loom fixer or a weaver or whatever in his mills. >> you say your father was very education-minded wit ca education-minded when it came to the children. >> yes. i can recall very early age when
my father was going to talk about what was going to happen in the future. he says, now when you get done with college, the following will happen. his ambition was that every one of his children would get the education that he didn't get. >> and all of you did go on to -- >> two doctorates and two master's. >> and you would have been 19 years old, almost 20, when the japanese attacked pearl harbor -- >> correct. >> do you recall where you were, what you were doing when you heard about the attack? >> yes, i was walking through the united aircraft factory in oxford, connecticut, at 4:30 in the afternoon.
>> were you working for united? >> no, this was a sightseeing tour that they had arranged which i wanted to go through on. >> what was your reaction to hearing that news? what was your reaction to hearing about the attack? >> the world war i had already been fought. we knew some of the survivors. and there were very few stories around about war. so, when we heard that the japanese had struck us, we were astounded. >> had you been following what was going on in europe? >> yes, we were very much
interested. of course we did a lot of following in the schools. hitler was a real -- a real horror to all of us. >> now, after high school, you started college on your own, you said, correct? >> right. i -- after graduating from high school, i got a job. and i earned a great sum of -- $100. and i had $75 left to go to college. and i told my dad and mom i was going to go to college, and they didn't resist. they said, okay. but i didn't have the funds. and i went to college on $75.
i survived. i paid the tuition, paid my living expenses. and at the spring of my first year in college, i remember reading in the paper that you could take an exam for the naval academy, and if you won, you got an appointment to the academy. this sounded like heaven to me because this meant free food, free clothe ing and a job after got done. i came in second the first time i took the exam. next time i took the exam, i came in number one. >> and when was it that you took the exam? >> in the spring. >> of which year? do you recall? >> well, the first one was -- let's see.
that would have been -- i really can't tell -- march or april, sometime around there. and it was the same time the next year. >> how old were you at the time? >> i was 19 for the first exam and -- let's see. let's do a little bit of arithmetic here. >> so, you took the first exam before the war started, correct? or before the u.s. got into the war. >> right. >> okay. so, that would have been 1941. and then '42 would have been when you -- >> i took the second exam. and i won. and this was a great thing in my
lifetime really because it -- it showed me that you could do anything if you worked hard enough at it. >> tell me a little bit about life at the naval academy. >> well, the life at the naval academy -- it was kind of severe in those days. the years of the academy was awfully rough, very strict, very demanding. and of course i'll never forget the men swearing us in saying, shake hands to the right of you and to the left of you, one of you won't be here next fall. so, he was telling us it was going to be tough, get ready for it.
>> and did -- did it end up being as tough as you were expecting it to be? >> academically, i think it was -- it was as tough as i thought it was going to be. as far as discipline was concerned, i didn't realize that discipline could be that severe. >> and what did you specialize in at the academy? >> engineer, electrical engineering. >> did you make any life long friends while you were at the academy? >> oh, yeah, a lot of them. i can't recall all of them. my roommate, bill ogle, he passed away about 20 years ago,
i guess, maybe 15 years ago. pokey shantwell, he went on and became a captain of the navy. and he died several years ago. i could name a lot of them if i just sat down and thought about it. >> and when you -- when you took the exam to get into the academy, were you doing so with the intention of making the navy your career? >> oh, i thought it was the greatest opportunity in the world. full-time job after you graduated and a job until you wanted to get out. >> when did you graduate from the academy? >> in 1945. >> and did you do -- i know -- didn't you have to do a
mid-shipment tour aboard a ship? >> well, we had summer cruises every year. >> that's it. >> and that was to train us in the physical aspects of commanding a ship. so, it was a very good training. >> and when you -- once you graduate, you're commissioned in insen, correct. where are you assigned? where are you sent immediately after graduation? >> the u.s.s indianapolis. only 12 of us, as i recall, were assigned to capital ships at
that time time. and both of us were assigned to the indianapolis. but the man, my compatriot that was supposed to report there had his orders changed so i was the only one that went into active duty as far as i know on the indianapolis. >> were you able to go home on leave after graduation, or did you go straight -- >> 30 days. >> your parents must have been proud to see their son. >> well, they were. and because i was thrilled to death, my girlfriend all of this time, we were going to get married and we got married on june 14th. >> while you were home on leave. >> yes. she was 21 and i was 23.
port. >> was it san francisco? >> no, what's the other one? >> san diego? >> no. well, it was near san diego. see, i can't remember the name of it, but it's in san diego. >> coronado, maybe? >> no, one more. >> in any case, it was there that i reported aboard ship, and unbeknownst to me, our ship had been chosen to carry the first atomic bomb to the pacific. >> so, you knew absolutely nothing about the -- >> no, we saw these sailors
coming up the deck, up the dock, and slung between them on a pole was this thing. and i said, they must have had a lot of damage in the pacific, a lot of people hurt. i said, it looks like a radium flask to me. when it came time for the court of inquiriers as to who knew what, they said hensen would know what it was. he said it was a radium flask. >> what was your first impression of the indianapolis when you first reported? >> beautiful ship. i had been on several ships before that, but that was a
beautiful ship. >> can you kind of describe her a little bit for me? >> well, you had your command division and then you had the secondary division. and i was in secondary. sky when the ship the bomb blew up, blew off the bow of the ship, and the ship began to sink. and the officer woodny said he was going to go down to see what the orders were going to be from the chief executive officer,
from the executive officer, who was red flynn. and he went down and never came back. i then went down the ship and went down the ladder and i reported to red flynn and he said go after and bring the men together and make them stay together. and i did that. and then finally, i knew that was an impossibility, and i gave the order to abandon ship. and 325 men came off with me. and out of the 325, 151 survived. >> what were you doing when the torpedos hit? >> well, when you're on watch,
you're always observing. you're observing the sea to see what -- if there's an enemy approaching or there was any real reason for caution. we did not see the enemy. it was cloudy. we couldn't see them. visibility was almost nil. >> just prior to the ship being sunk, when y'all stopped at tinian to deliver the parts, what -- >> when we stopped where? >> when y'all stopped at tinian -- >> oh, yeah, okay. >> -- did you see the components being removed from the ship? >> oh, yeah, i had to be the decoy who unloaded it.
there was no big action on board the ship, but on the dock, there were admirals and everything, everything you can -- everything was of importance on the island of tinian was there to greet the -- well, we later found out was the bomb. >> were you able to go ashore while you were on tinian? >> no. as i recall, we took off to visit -- to join the fleet. >> so, you were on watch the night of the 29th or morning of the 30th. >> right, a quarter to 12:00,
the torpedo -- as i recall, it was a quarter to 12:00 when the torpedo hit -- torpedos hit, not one. one took out the bow and started the immediate sinking of the ship. >> were you aware that the ship had sopped zigzagging? >> was i aware what? >> were you aware that the ship had stopped zigzagging? >> well, yes, of course i was aware. everybody on the ship knew what the ship was doing. and we had stopped the zigzag because -- and we had slowed the ship down. >> did that concern you at all? >> no, it didn't. i'm not absolutely positive that we stopped all zigzagging.
i think we did -- i know we slowed down to 22 knots and probably stopped the zigzagging pretty much. we didn't zigzag as i recall going out. i can't recall now. it's been a long time, 70 years. >> so, when the torpedo hit, there's a big flash? >> oh, yeah. you knew we had been hit. >> did y'all know it was a torpedo, or did you suspect you had hit a mine? >> well, at first i had no reason for knowing it was a torpedo. i was on the ladder coming down from sky aft. then the second one hit.
we knew we were in trouble. >> so, you gathered 325 men at the end of the ship, you said? >> i didn't gather them. i told them to hang on to anything they could hang on to including the lifelines. and then when it was -- the tilt became too great to even hang on, i gave the order to abandon ship. and nobody abandoned. i said -- then i yelled, follow me. and the bodies came in so fast it was unbelievable. and we swam away from the ship. and then we looked back and the ship went down. >> you saw the ship go down? >> yes. we saw it go down.
it was only about maybe 50, 60 yards from us. i don't know how many yards. it's hard for me to remember it this long, this date. but we could see the image of the ship going under. >> what's going through your mind when you look back and see your home? i mean, even though you had only been aboard the ship for a few weeks -- >> well, my -- i had been at the naval academy and trained -- they trained their officers well. and my first thought was there was -- were there any senior officers around. and there were no senior officers, so i took command. and to be honest, the sailors didn't really want anybody to tell them what to do. and then the -- then gunnar
horner who was the real hero of my group, you heard what the officer said, do what he wants you to do. so, they all did, and they started -- i started then at that point to have them tied to the life nets that were in the water. and my group of 325 were pretty well tied up. >> how did you determine that there were 325 men in your group? >> counted. count off. everything you do in the navy is count off. the 151 i got from the people on board shore. but the 325 was counting off and
we counted off 325. >> and you said you had the guys tied -- >> tie yourselves to the rope. we had four of them in the water. we tied the four rope nuts together and the men tied the rope nut or get inside the rope nut, whatever they wanted to do i wanted to be attached. >> did y'all have any life rafts or lifeboats? >> we had three rafts, but there were so many cruelly injured people. we put them in the life rafts. and as i recall, i don't think there were any people that were in the life rafts that weren't
hurt real bad. >> and you yourself had been wounded. >> pardon me? >> you had also been wounded, correct? >> oh, yeah. but by the grace of god, i had a big wound in my side from shrapnel. and i bled a lot, but it didn't take on a knot -- it healed itself in about, i don't know, a certain length of time with no blood flow. >> when y'all got into the water that first night, what was some of the problems y'all faced? >> disorder, fright, wounds. i would say that was all we had.
there wasn't any fighting. there wasn't any turmoil that i -- but everybody was scared to death. these were all 18- and 19-year-old kids. >> yeah, i mean, you're leading or in command of a group of 325 guys and you're what? 23? >> 23. but i was well-trained. the naval academy was fabulous. >> were y'all confident that you would be picked up fairly quickly? >> no. no, that was a big problem that we had was to try to keep the men thinking that they would be saved. but there was no way on god's green earth that i knew we were going to be saved. in fact, when we were saved, the
water had -- my life jacket had become so sodden with water that was almost up to my lip when i was in the sea. so, i was about, i would say maybe 10 or 15 hours from being -- i would go under. i would presume all but a few would go under. >> ythey're not designed to las very long. >> it's supposed to last 90 hours and ours lasted for four days and five nights.
>> the following morning, so the morning of the first day is when the sharks showed up, correct? >> right. >> what was your first indication that this was going to be a problem? >> they grabbed some of our people who had broken free from the net. i also noticed that everybody tied to the net sharks didn't attack. so, every time the attacks were coming in, we would kick and scream and do things that we thought would drive the sharks away and they did drive them away. the sharks only picked -- as far as i could see, the sharks only picked off to eat or to kill, whatever, people who were by themselves, in other words, no protection around them.
>> could you see or hear any of the other groups of guys that were -- >> none. >> so, as far as you knew -- >> i didn't know there was any other group. >> y'all were the -- as far as you knew, y'all were the only survivors. >> right. >> you -- at some point, you even set up a shark watch, correct? >> right. >> and what did you have the men doing? >> whenever they saw a shark to yell shark and start screaming. and i don't know whether it was effective or not. the sharks didn't like it, so they would leave us. but the sharks were in -- they attacked in groups. >> you had human beings aren't
designed to outmaneuver sharks in the water. >> no. no. there's no way you could. >> you also had to deal with wounded men dying. how did you deal with that? >> pardon me? >> you also had to deal with some of the men who were wounded dying. how did you handle that? how did you deal with that? >> well, they had been in rafts or something. we had taken care of them. and when they died, i just cut them loose from the group and let them float out to sea. i didn't want the bodies around. >> do you think that would have more of an effect on the men in the group, the survivors in the group? >> right. i am sure they were glad to see the bodies go. >> did y'all have any kind of
supplies at all as far as medic medical goes or food? >> i can't recall -- no food. i can't recall if there was any water flasks or not. there were a couple, but i don't think there were in our group. they were in another group. >> and you had -- y'all were floating in a big oil slick, correct? >> pardon me? >> y'all were floating in a big oil slick, right? >> yeah. that was by blessing because it stopped us from getting sun burned. i had everybody smear themselves with oil, and they did. and it stopped them from dying of sun burn. >> i've actually read that the oil, the fuel oil, also may have contributed to keeping the sharks away. >> oh, i -- i would suspect.
i don't know. i'm not that much of a shark expert. but they didn't -- they never attacked the group. they only attacked single people. the single people wouldn't have an oil slick with them. >> how did you keep the guys from -- y'all didn't have fresh water. how did you keep the guys from drinking salt water? >> well, i just told them what would happen. you know, i have no recollection of anybody resisting the fact that i told them don't drink the salt water. >> after the first day, once you start getting into days two and
three, how are you keeping your group under control? >> oh, they were all so scared at that point and feeble. anybody who could command would have been able to command them. strangely enough, i had several officers in this group of people that stayed with me, and i never knew it until after we got out of the sea. >> these were guys who were higher in rank than you? >> pardon me? >> these were officers who were higher in rank than you? >> yes, i would say that most of them are higher in rank. one of them, lieutenant redmaine game up to me, and i said dick, you take over.
and he held up his hands and said, i can't, i'm so burned. so, i said tie yourself next to me on the net, and i'll take care of you. and dick remained -- he went in and out of rationality through all the time. he remembered that i had told him what to do. and he told his family, and to this day i get letters from his family thanking me for saving -- dick's dead now by the way. -- for saving dick's life. and i didn't save it. he just did what i told him. >> i guess especially by the third day after having been floating out in the heat or in the sunlight for that long with no food, no water, that you
probably had quite a few guys who were going in and out of -- >> sanity? >> yeah. >> yeah, but we -- we saved all we could. you know, if we spotted somebody who was starting to go under or go -- lose his senses, we would try to take care of him. and if they fought, there wasn't nothing we could do to stop the fighting. and when i say fighting, they might not like the idea of somebody telling them what to do. you know, they're out of their heads. >> what was your biggest fear during those few days you were
in the water, the four days you were in the water? >> pardon me? >> what was your biggest fear while you were in the water? >> my fear was really for the men, not for myself. i never felt for myself. i never feared for myself the whole time. i had -- i was too busy. i didn't go to sleep, i don't think, in the five days -- five nights, rather. my biggest concern always was the people that we could save, that we saved them. there were some we couldn't save. they were just blown apart.
and we sort of nursed them as best we could, but we couldn't really do anything better than make them feel good. >> and you stayed awake pretty much the entire time, correct? >> i really believe it. i've looked back so many times, i think i stayed away all the five days. >> you said by the time y'all were rescued, there was only 151 guys left. is that right? >> yeah. >> what -- were just the other 100-and-some-odd guys just that badly wounded that they passed? >> well, i think that the -- we all lost about 25, 30, 40
pounds. i went down from 151 to 129. that's by actual weight, by actual weighing by the way. >> that's a lot of weight to lose in just a couple of days. >> well, you know, you're not brinking any liquid in and liquid is going out. >> and another issue y'all faced was hypothermia. >> right. >> you know, a lot of people don't realize that, you know, you think the balmy south pacific water, it's 85 degrees, but your natural body temperature is, you know, 98.6. >> i think a lot of the people did die of hypothermia. but there was -- there was no way we could tell -- that i
could tell what caused their death. that was my objective. my objective was to keep them alive. >> how were y'all located? how were y'all found? >> an airplane flew over us. i think i -- well, it's in my office. an airplane flew over us and thought we were an enemy, came in a second time to bomb us. and i think it was gunnar -- i'm not sure who it was -- that yelled, that's men in the water. not gunnar horner.
i don't know who it was. but someone yelled, those are men in the water. and they took another pass and notified the navy and the navy came in with the ships 18 hours later. >> so, that was gwen, gwen's plane? gwen was the guy that was captain of the plane that spotted us. >> and they flew over your group? >> yeah. >> chuck gwen. he's the hero of the crowd. >> now, what happened? you said it took 18 hours for the rescue ships to get there once you were located? >> yes. >> what were those last 18 hours in the water like, knowing that you've been sighted? >> well, i -- i think it was quite a bit of joy.
i think that maybe -- i don't know about this because i can only speak for myself personally -- but that said to me whatever i had to do, i had to keep alive because somebody's coming to pick me up. >> at what point did you realize, all right, i'm going to make it through this? >> never thought of it. i only had -- i was endured with this great responsibility they put into you at the naval academy, and my thoughts all the time were my crew. and how do i keep them together, and how do i protect them? >> when you find out that there
were other survivors as well? >> when we got on -- i think it was -- i don't know where it was, but it was after we got on land. >> and tell me about your rescue. how -- which ship picked you up? how did you get out of the water? >> pardon me. >> tell me about your personal rescue. what ship picked you up? how did you get out of the water? >> well, in typical navy tradition, everyone was trained. i made sure everybody in my group was on board ship before i got on. and they carried me out of the
water. i really don't know, to be honest with you, who did the counting the 151 men were left. >> which ship picked you up? >> geez, now i -- i want to say -- i wish i knew. this is what old age has done to me. my memory on these items is scarce. >> is the ryangold or bassett. >> bassett. >> what happened to you after they picked you up? >> they started to feed me water teaspoon by teaspoon.
and i can recall lying in a bunk and taking my naval academy ring off and putting it beside me. they took me away to clean me up a little bit, not to really make me clean, but to scape some of the crud off. and i came back and my ring was still there and i was thrilled to death. my fingers had swollen up so bad that i couldn't stand the pressure of the ring on them. >> how were y'all treated by the sailors aboard the bassett who had picked y'all up? >> oh, they thought we were prize jewels, i guess you would say. they treated us so well. it was unbelievable.
>> i guess you probably -- i'm assuming you passed out after you got aboard ship. if you had been awake for -- >> oh, yeah. as soon as they lay me down in a bunk, i was gone. i can recall that. but i stayed awake all that time. i don't know how long i slept. it must have been a long time. i wasn't interested in food or water. i just was interested in sleep. >> what did you do or what happened to you in the days following your rescue? >> well, i can recall we were
isolated from the rest of the people in the camp that we were brought to. and i don't know what day that was, but we were isolated for a long time. then dick redmaine and i -- and i forget who the other guy was -- we were now beyond the scope of power and we went up and signed out a jeep. i'll never forget that. we signed out a jeep, and we weren't supposed to sign out a jeep. we signed out a jeep and took off and explored the island. we had a hell of a good time. >> and this was on pellu, right? >> yeah, we had a real good time. of course dick was happy.
he was cleaned up. his wounds were cleaned up. >> were y'all ever debriefed at any point? >> were we debriefed? oh, yeah. there was a lot of debriefing. and i don't know -- i don't know why i was chosen to get a medal. i don't know anything about it. nobody asked -- nobody talked to me about it before. a year and a half later, i was called on board the deck of the ship i was on and awarded the medal. am i destroying this? >> nope, nope, nope, i'm fine. that's right. you got a purple heart for your wounds. >> and then i got a navy and marine corps medal for bravery.
then i guess -- i think i was first member of my class to get a major medal. and admiral spruance gave me my purple heart. >> were y'all told not to talk about the ship. >> i don't recall to be honest with you whether we were or not. i didn't want to talk about it. i didn't talk about it to anybody including my wife. i didn't want anybody to know what the heck i had been through. it was a horrible experience. i didn't want to share the
rotten experience with them. >> where were you when the war ended? >> well, let's see, where the heck was i? i was in something. >> were y'all still on pellu? >> pardon me? >> were y'all still on pellu? >> yeah, i think we were. i think we were still on pellu when the war ended because it ended after the second bomb, which was, what, 14 days later. so, i would say that, yeah, we were still all in pellu. >> when did you return to the united states?
>> i don't know how long we spent in the hospital, but we spent a long time in the hospital. i would say we probably returned to the states in november. i'm guessing at some of these dates, you know. >> and did you -- when you came back, did you remain in the service for any length of time? >> oh, yeah. sure, i did. i -- i think i got out in '89. i was put on limited duty which really threw my career -- there isn't any career left.
they put me on limited duty. then i asked to be put in the reserve. i didn't want to be on -- i wanted to be either admiral or nothing. and limited duty wouldn't give me that opportunity. so, i was on limited duty for about a year and a half, two years, before i decided this isn't for me. >> now, were you questioned, or did you take part in captain mcvay's court marshall? >> oh, yeah, i was a big -- you see, when the bridge was blown out in secondary con, and i was in secondary con, takes over control of the ship. so, i blew the hat off it.
i said you're trying the wrong man. i wasn't in charge of the ship. i was the only person left in secondary con. and the navy, you know. and of course they -- they -- oh, i don't know what you call it. they took a brief break in the court marshall and they came back and how the hell could he be in command? he was in the water. so, i maintained that all the way through until 19 -- no, until 20 -- senator smith heard
my story. i went to him, finally, i think it was 2000, 2001. and he had a hearing, and i'll never forget senator warner, after we had the hearing, came down, put his arm around my shoulder, he said when i came into this room, i felt one way. going out, i feel another. and i knew that i had won. the captain had been exonerated. >> oh, that's when congress passed the resolution. >> yeah. i think it was 201. i'm not sure. >> most of the survivors thought that mcvay had been railroaded. >> all the -- i think everybody did. >> i mean, he was the only ship captain during the war to be court marshalled for losing his
ship. >> yep. well, there's all kinds of stories around as to why he was court court-martial. >> did you have any trouble after the war with nightmares or what we now know as post traumatic stress? >> well, i can't tell you. 70 years ago, i presume i did but it was nothing i could not handle. i was with my wife and she was a fabulous woman. >> when did you get off active
>> 51 -- 53 was the second time. i was a full lieutenant. >> after you left the service were left active duty, did you have any trouble transitioning back to civilian life? >> no. >> were you able to use your gi bill benefits? and go to school or buy a house? >> yeah, i think i used gi benefits to get my masters degree in chicago. >> and you served during the korean war in intelligence, you
said, in london? >> yes. >> what were some of your duties? >> i was a lineman in the korean war. i cannot tell you what my duties were but i had -- for 27 years i wouldn't say something. >> you wouldn't reveal what you are doing? >> i would not reveal what i was doing. so if it was that important, it was that important. let me tell you this one, it was a very interesting time, fabulous. i could have written books about it. >> it's been more than 27 years. maybe you ought to write a book about it. >> well then i have lost the facts. >> how did --
how did your experiences of the war and you surviving the sinking of the indianapolis affect your life afterwards? >> well first of all, let me talk about my marriage life. i had the most fabulous marriage a man has ever had, could want to ever have. i had 73 years of absolute bliss with my wife and maybe this was all caused by the fact that -- we realized there was more important things in life than just living.
it i don't know what it was but we had a fabulous living life. business wise, what decision could i have ever made that was anywhere near or important as the decision to tell those meant to throw their lives in the water? that was the biggest -- probably, if i would look back in life, maybe that was the biggest decisions i have ever made because i was gambling everybody's life that we were going to win for. >> you mean given the order to abandon ship? >> yes. >> have you watch lectures in
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