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Editor’s note: The following is the conclusion of the story of Seaman first class George Stanley Abbott, the last Trimble County casualty of World War II.
George Stanley Abbott, Seaman first class, United States Naval Reserve, was aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis when—shortly after 12 a.m. on July 30, 1945—the large cruiser-class warship was rocked by explosions. Two Japanese torpedoes detonated near her bow. Abbott, a Trimble County farm boy, had joined the Navy two years earlier.
The ship had been torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58, and sank 12 minutes later. Several of the 1,196 sailors and Marines aboard died in the explosions or otherwise went down with the ship. Abbott was among about 900 who went into the Pacific waters in the dark. A tiny fraction were able to board inflatable rafts. Most were equipped with life preservers.
“The large group of survivors … had nothing at all except life preservers,” the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Charles B. McVay III, later recalled. “Some of them didn’t even have a life preserver. They had to share theirs with one of the others. Their eyes were filled with fuel oil and consequently, they spent a very uncomfortable 36 to 48 hours trying to get the fuel oil out of their eyes. It smarts very badly, you are not too uncomfortable when your eyes are closed for any length of time. It’s rather peculiar that when you open them for about the first ten minutes, you have a very excruciating, smarting feeling in your eyes. Then it subsides and your eyes are quite comfortable. When you close them again, you have exactly the same smarting feeling.”
The men floated in the sea through the night and by midday on Monday, July 30, the heat from the sun became quite intense. According to one shipmate Abbott survived the explosion and was in the water with others bobbing in their life preservers or treading water until their strength gave out.
“Toward nightfall of the first day it became evident to me that no one had seen us,” Ensign Harlan Twible recalled. “No one had heard us and no alarms had been received by those on shore. No planes had showed up, no ships had shown up and this started to frighten the men. I then decided that we had to get their minds off of what they were thinking and I said, ‘Let us pray.’ And I became the chaplain of the group. And I led the men in prayer and it was a most solemn sight to see these men who just a few minutes before had been scared and frightened to death, place themselves in the hands of the Lord. And we prayed and when the prayers were over the men had quieted.”
The comfort level of Abbott and his comrades went from extreme to extreme, Seaman Woody James recalled.
“So the day passed, night came and it was cold. It was COLD! The next morning the sun come up and warmed things up and then it got unbearably hot so you start praying for the sun to go down so you can cool off again,” James said.
A number of the men were attacked and killed by sharks, although some who were attacked survived. That story was recounted by Sam Quint, the fictional character played by actor Robert Shaw in the 1975 movie “Jaws.” Other sailors drank the salt water and began hallucinating. Some claimed the Indianapolis was just below the surface and the galley was still open serving food. Some became disoriented and thought their companions were enemy soldiers trying to drown them.
Despite its failure to arrive at Leyte on Tuesday, July 31, the Indianapolis was not reported lost or even late by the Navy. No pilots were alerted to be watching for ships in distress or survivors at sea.
“There was a remarkable thing that these men had done,” Ensign Twible said of Abbott and his fellow survivors bobbing on the sea. “I had seen bravery that I had never seen before and have never seen since. I saw greatness in these men that’s hard to describe. While they themselves were dying they were helping others. I saw men holding up other men while they themselves were sinking lower and lower as far as life was concerned. This greatness that I had seen left an impression on me for the rest of my life.”
While the men were equipped with life jackets that were designed to sustain buoyancy for up to three days most held up for four days.
“It’s true that after about 48 hours the wearer had sunk low enough in the water so that if his head fell forward he would drown,” Capt. McVay said. “Consequently, the people had to look out for one another. One tried to sleep while the other watched him. Very little sleeping was done the first 48 hours, but after that the people became so exhausted that they would drop off to sleep.”
One of Stan Abbott’s friends and shipmate Robert Schafer wrote Abbott’s parents in 1946 long after the Navy had given up the Trimble lad as lost at sea. Schafer, Abbott and another friend, Stuart Whalen, had all been floating in the same group after their ship went down.
“I am grieved to tell you that I know George is dead,” Schafer wrote. “I saw him and Whalen both die on the third day after we were shipwrecked. We were all just floating around in life jackets” in the oil slick and scum. Schafer estimated the group had been adrift for 30 miles. Abbott and Whalen “died from exhaustion and exposure. I saw (George) die. He just gave out. He couldn’t make it any longer. I think he was not suffering. He just went to sleep and never woke up and so did Stuart.”
A day later a pilot spotted the oil slick and men being attacked by sharks in the water. Of the 1,196 men aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis when she was torpedoed in the early morning hours of July 30, 1945, only 317 were retrieved alive from the sea. A week after the last of the survivors were pulled from the mouth of Davy Jones’s locker Japan surrendered.
Abbott’s parents received a telegram from the Navy on Sept. 20 that their son was reported killed in action on July 30. The telegram arrived a little more than a week after what would have been George Stanley Abbott’s 21st birthday.
In a letter to Abbott’s parents, Capt. McVay wrote: “Nothing that I can say will lighten the burden which is yours at this time, but I do want you to know that your son had done his part in the teamwork which made the Indianapolis an efficient fighting unit of the fleet.”
The Trimble Democrat broke the news of Abbott’s loss of life on October 11, 1945, ending the story with the following: “A handsome lad of quiet and pleasant disposition, Stan was popular with young and old alike, and the loss of him and so many other young heroes brings close to home the forceful fact that the survival of our democracy has been purchased at great cost.”
Special thanks to Benny Abbott for sharing the story of his late brother and to the members of the Trimble County Historical Society for making his recent presentation at the Trimble County Library possible.