DES MOINES - For the past two months, House members have been quietly engaged in a bipartisan effort to find the families and friends of the men who lived through and died during the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.
"It became such a horrific event," said Mark Evans, a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington. "They were scalded by the flames and fuel, they suffered from dehydration and exposure, and then comes the story of the sharks."
A Japanese submarine torpedoed the Indianapolis on July 30, 1945, after the ship delivered parts that would be used to construct the atomic bomb 'Little Boy.' Of the 1,196 crewmen on board, roughly 300 went down with the ship. Another 520 died as they floated among the wreckage, many of them subjected to attacks by sharks. Only 317 of the original crew survived.
"To me, it personifies the tragedy of World War II," said Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who drafted a resolution honoring the Iowans who served on the Indianapolis. "Globally, 50 million died, but I think these 30 Iowans who died personify the grief, the loss, the absolute hell that some of our soldiers had to go through."
Kaufmann obtained a list of 30 Iowans who served on the ship from Edgar Harrell, a survivor of the sinking, who now lives in Arizona but speaks about the event across the country.
Early this session, Kaufmann distributed the list to lawmakers from around the state. He asked them to seek out any information on the families and friends of the servicemen who might still be in the state.
"One was from Hawkeye, where I grew up," said Rep. Andrew Wenthe, D-West Union, who eventually connected with the daughter of Robert King. King died during the attack.
"I called the historical society and the woman there hadn't heard of the family," Wenthe said. "Then, about three weeks ago, they called and said they had found one of his daughters."
The daughter, Carol, now in her late 60s, was a 2-month-old baby when her father died.
"We talked on the phone, and she said she'll be able to be here for the reading of the proclamation," Wenthe said. "She was grateful that someone was doing this."
The proclamation is set to be read March 5. Kaufmann is working with Rep. Jerry Kearns, D-Keokuk, to line up an equal number of Democrats and Republicans to introduce and read the resolution.
Kaufmann said he's not sure how many friends and relatives will be on hand for the reading. It's only "a handful" right now, but he hopes for more.
"The clock is ticking for us to tell living people 'Thank you,'" he said. "I feel that clock ticking as I see my own dad now in his upper 80s, and I just feel like we now have a window that is closing.
If any readers are aware of the location of any survivors of these brave sailors, please make them aware of the March 5th salute to the fallen servicemen. They are welcome to attend, and the State legislators would be honored by their presence.
All relatives of the Iowa members of the U.S.S. Indianapolis crew are invited to attend the reading of the Proclamation at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines. Relatives are asked to meet together in Room 304 between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on Monday March 5th, and all will be seated together for the reading.
Iowans who were aboard the USS Indianapolis :
Raynard Boege, Gladbrook; Harold Briley, Farragut; Richard Gries, Grant Center; Donald Griggs, Des Moines; Harley Figgins, Corning; Cecil Foell, Swaledale; Leonard Fritz, Runnells; Harry Heubner, Clinton; Lester Hodgins, Des Moines; Leland Hubbard, Waterloo; Chris Jensen, Sioux City; Harold B. Johnson, Decorah; Darwin Kruse, Wellsburg; Robert King, Hawkeye; Edward Koche, Denison; William Levalley, Des Moines; Leo Lohr, Anamosa; Richard Nutt, Chariton; Wilburn Pender, Storm Lake; Alvin Reemts, Rock Rapids; Leroy Reinert, Cherokee; Roy Rhoten, Magnolia; Joseph Strain, Creston; James Schlotter, Keokuk; Charles Stickley, New Hartford; Arthur Thomsen, Atalissa; Glen Milbrodt, Akron*; James Schlotter, Keokuk; Charles Wells, Camanche.*
(- *survived attack)