World War II vet wants war’s fallen remembered

The first torpedo hit just after midnight.

Cleatus LeBow, a long way from his home in landlocked Abernathy, jumped out of his bunk at the rear of his ship and threw on some clothes before running on deck.

By now the second Japanese torpedo had struck, shearing off the bow of the USS Indianapolis while ensuring the 600-foot-long cruiser would soon rest on the ocean floor.

Returning from delivering parts of the atomic bomb to Tinian island, her orders were to steam ahead to the Philippines and meet up with the USS Idaho to engage in fire exercises before the next battle.

As fate would have it, the Idaho never received the message.

The screams of the injured filled the air as LeBow and his shipmates worked to free a large lifeboat while the Indy listed sharply to starboard. Just as the boat came loose, it slid down and crushed several men, leaving little choice for the survivors but to jump in the cool Pacific waters.

LeBow climbed over the side railing and ran down the side of his ship as she started her final descent. Just as the message to the Idaho didn’t make it, neither did a distress call.

“No one knew we were missing,” LeBow said. “We were out about halfway between Guam and the Philippine Islands, out in the middle of the ocean, and no one knew we were lost or sunk.”

There were almost 1,200 men serving aboard the Indy when she was struck, 900 of whom would make it into the water. Nearly five days without food or water, floating alone and unprotected from hungry sharks, only 316 would be pulled from the ocean alive.

The date was July 30, 1945.

A model of the Indianapolis sits on the mantel of LeBow’s fireplace in his Memphis, Texas, home. Now 85 and one of the few living survivors of the U.S. Navy’s worst disaster at sea, he spends most of his time traveling with his wife to see family and enjoying the slow pace of life in the Panhandle.

He speaks fondly of his time in the Navy, which he drafted into at 19, and of life before the war in Abernathy, where he was raised.

Before the draft he worked at a grocery store, a job he also hoped to get while enlisted.

“I ended up being a fire range control man, which was about as far from a store keeper as you can get,” he said.

LeBow first set foot on the Indianapolis in January of 1944. He was one of 10 men called off cleanup duty at Pearl Harbor to join the crew, where he would experience eight full campaigns.

His main duties were to help generate target information for the operators of the large guns and maintain the complicated scope optics.

In his off time, he was likely to be found playing poker in the fire-control workshop.

The nature of his work allowed him a front-row seat to many of the most memorable battles of the Pacific Theater.

While watching the Marines assault the beaches of Iwo Jima, he said he couldn’t stop tears from streaming down his cheeks as Japanese forces cut the men to pieces with machine-gun fire.

During the battle of Okinawa, he said he remembered watching Japanese civilians jump from an oceanside cliff to their deaths rather than surrender to the American forces.

One family — a mother and her young son — left a particularly strong impression.

“There’s a few things I wish I could forget, but I never will forget that,” he said.

The Indianapolis’ final mission was anything but ordinary, beginning in San Francisco where a special package was delivered to the ship.

LeBow said he remembers joking with his shipmates about the large metal box that was welded to the deck and guarded by Marines 24 hours a day.

“We thought maybe it was a Cadillac for (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur, perfumed toilet paper for the officers, whiskey for the end of the war,” he said. “There was all kinds of speculation, we had no idea.”

The contents of the container would later be known as Little Boy, the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima less than two weeks later and helped usher in the end of the war.

“We had no idea there was such a bomb anywhere in the world,” LeBow said.

By sunrise after the sinking of the Indianapolis, it was obvious that the helpless men floating aimlessly in the Pacific were in trouble. LeBow climbed on a net with floating ends to help keep him above water.

Shark fins were already visible in the distance.

“We kept a watch out for them all the time,” he said. “They would swim up close to us.”

Without drinking water for hydration, many of the men began to experience delusions. Those who couldn’t bear the thirst any longer would drink the sea water, which LeBow said almost immediately sealed their fates.

As the men floated, their life jackets became soaked and less buoyant, leaving most of them up to their necks as they waited for rescue to arrive.

“All we could do was just sit there and talk about things we’d done and things we were going to do,” he said.

His thoughts were on his wife and young children back home in Abernathy.

Some men swam away from the group, shouting about nearby islands or other inventions of the imagination that weren’t really there.

“They wouldn’t get very far,” LeBow said. “You’d see a fin come along, take them under the water, and they’d be gone.”

He said his faith in God, his belief that he would either go home to his family or go home with Jesus, carried him through.

By the fourth day his own delirium had set in, and if it wasn’t for a caring friend he would have probably been eaten as well after he kept swimming away from the floating net.

He said he thought he had seen parts of an airplane that he could put together and use to escape.

On Aug. 2, the men were spotted on accident when a patrol flight looking for submarines found the survivors floating in an oil slick with sharks nearby.

LeBow doesn’t remember the rescue, and said he didn’t remember much until waking in the hospital a few days afterward.

He was worse off than some of the others, and was kept in quarantine until his condition improved. He said the nurses told him he was the first person to make it from special care to the regular ward after his treatment.

“I said ‘Gee, thanks,'” he said. “They didn’t think I was gonna make it.”

All the survivors were awarded a Purple Heart for their sacrifice.

After the war, LeBow took a job working for a telephone company, bouncing from place to place across the state. He was living in Plano until 12 years ago when his wife’s mother became ill and they decided to move to Memphis to care for her.

Since then, he’s spent a lot of his time speaking with different groups about his experience during the war and attending reunions with his old shipmates.

Jimmy O’Donnell, another Indianapolis survivor, who lives in Indianapolis, said LeBow has become the spiritual leader of the survivors’ group, which has about 67 members.

“I think he’s been very instrumental in getting the religious part of the group going,” O’Donnell said of LeBow’s work as the group’s chaplain. “I think the incident brought a lot of us back to religion, very much.”

LeBow also helped put together a large memorial for veterans outside the Hall County courthouse, where the Indianapolis takes center stage on a large plaque.

“He got the signatures necessary to get the county to donate the land, and through his committee, he raised enough money to get up the memorial,” said Jim Chappell, a Memphis resident and member of the town’s American Legion. “He’s like a man that’s gotta do something all the time.”

Through time, LeBow said he has learned to forgive the Japanese for the war and for sinking his ship. It wasn’t easy at first, but now he said he realizes they were following orders just like he was.

“They were doing for their country what we were doing for ours,” he said. “I wish the war had never happened.”

His home acts almost as a mini-museum for the ship he loved dearly and the friends he lost so many years ago. He proudly shows off mementos from his time in the Navy and laments having lost a government-issued pistol that sank in his foot locker along with the rest of the ship.

He can even joke about the sharks now, not about the horrible tragedy they contributed to, but about his own form of retribution for all the suffering they caused.

“I threatened to buy some and eat it just to get even,” he said with a sly grin. “But I don’t think I could take a bite.”

Source CHRON


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