Survivor's memories of USS Indianapolis disaster help preserve history

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When 23-year-old Don Howison awoke from a deep sleep in the early morning hours of July 30, 1945, he had no idea what just happened.

"I heard a loud bang and it woke me up,” Howison said. “It had to soak in; I didn’t have the slightest idea of what it was."

Howison was one of over 1,100 seamen and Marines aboard the USS Indianapolis when it was torpedoed by the Japanese. The cruiser ship just completed a secret mission in the Pacific, delivering parts to the atom bomb that would help end World War II.

The now-97-year-old Howison recounted his story over the last several years to National Geographic historian Sara Vladic, who co-authored a book on the Indianapolis disaster with author Lynn Vincent, which was recently released. His memories of the events are featured in the New York Times bestsellers pages.

"It’s so important to hear these stories and to share them with the next generation because we’re not going to have that opportunity very long,” Vladic said.

Howison said, after he realized something was wrong that night, he started making his way to the battle station when the ship went out from under him.

"I was standing on the deck and, the next thing I knew, the bow went down and I was floating," Howison said.

The Indianapolis disappeared into the Pacific in 15 minutes; 800 of the 1,100 sailors and Marines were now stranded at sea.

"It was hell,” he said. “Hoping, but not knowing, if anybody knew where we were. We were just all alone and the ocean is very lonely when you can’t see anything.”

For four nights and five days, the men were left drifting in the Pacific. Navy command was unaware of the sinking. The men faced dehydration, drowning, exposure, even sharks that picked off the injured.

"It was terrifying,” he said. "They’d swim under us. Once in a while, someone would get bit."

Howison said some men started drinking the seawater, out of desperation,

“Unfortunately, if they did that they didn’t live long,” he said.

But your greatest enemy, he sais, was yourself.

“The big thing was the attitude of the individual,” he said. “In my case, I told myself I was going to survive, come hell or high water. I might be the last survivor, but I was going to be it.”

As the days stretched on, some men started hallucinating.

"After a while, we started having trouble with individuals who were losing their minds. They'd be delusionary and think you were Japanese and they wanted to get you. I had a man pull a knife on me," he said.

He said although he had a floater net to hold onto and a life preserver, he was in the water throughout the ordeal. By the fourth day, the dead outnumbered the living.

"People died, the only thing we could do was take their clothes off of them to give them to somebody who needed them and let them loose. They were bait from then on," Howison said.

It was on the fourth day that finally, and by accident, a U.S. military plane discovered the survivors in the water, still with sharks all around. That plane couldn't land in water, but summoned help.

It was in those moments a friend of Howison's made a mistake that cost him his life.

“A fella that I had gone to training with was in the same group as I was in,” he said. “When the plane landed in the water, he decided he was going to swim toward the plane. I tried to hold him back, and I knew I couldn’t swim that. It was just too far away, I didn’t have enough strength. I tried to hold him, but he got away from me. And he tried to swim to the plane, but he never made it.”

Recalling those memories to Vladic was tough; he says he’s tried to put them all aside, but he knows it’s important to tell them.

"You could talk to her,” Howison says of Vladic. “You could laugh with her, you could cry with her."

He's put the memories of those five days behind him, but will never forget those who never made it home.

"It happened, I'm sorry it happened,” he said “I'm lucky, and I thank the good Lord for being here today. I'm just living a good life, and happy that I can do it."