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On Duty: A Sailor's Story

Editor's Note, Jan. 10, 2013: James E. O'Donnell, a survivor of the U.S.S. Indianapolis tragedy and a retired Indianapolis firefighter, died on Jan. 9. He was 92. In tribute to his storied life, IM offers the July 2005 feature below about this remarkable man.

James E. O’Donnell likes to watch sports and news. His wife, Mary Alice, doesn’t. That’s why O’Donnell has taken up residence in the spare bedroom of their Warren Park duplex. In this makeshift den, the 84-year-old retired firefighter spends most of his evenings adjusting positions in his pink automatic recliner—inherited from a sister now in a nursing home—and flipping through channels on his 17-inch RCA TV. His body fills the chair, his broad shoulders hinting that he was once a big man, but over the years the upper-body girth seems to have sunk to his belly. His knees are shot. He often nods off and spends the night in this chair, sleeping in slacks, socks and polo shirt. He doesn’t sleep well.

Tonight, while Mary Alice watches her programs in the living room, O’Donnell is taking a break from his usual cable-fed diet of jocks and talking heads. Earlier in the evening, a family friend called to tell him that at 9 p.m., the Discovery Channel would be airing In Search of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. The documentary chronicles the network’s 2000 deep-sea search for the wreckage of the World War II cruiser that was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945, just four days after delivering the atomic bomb. It was the worst wartime maritime disaster in U.S. Navy history; 880 men died.

Woven through the footage of divers and submer-sibles scouring the dark floor of the Philippine Sea are testimonials of survivors who spent five nights and four days floating without food or drink, in shark-infested waters, waiting for rescue. Over the years, O’Donnell has watched and read just about everything broadcast or published about the Indianapolis, and as his face is lit by ghostly blue-and-green images of a vast and empty ocean floor, he’s pretty sure he’s seen this program before. At the conclusion of the show, the scientists, having found nothing, bring the submersible back to the deck of their vessel. Credits roll with no sign of the lost ship. But O’Donnell sees it always. He was there.

He can taste the salt water, thick with bitter diesel oil, as it clogged his nose and stung his eyes. He can feel the burn of his sun-seared arms and face, the jolt of fear as he spotted the first shark beneath him, the exhaustion  and numbness in his joints as he fought to stay afloat in a waterlogged life jacket. He can conjure the careful rationing of hope as he and his shipmates mistook the moon’s reflection on the water for the lights of a rescue ship and heard planes flying high overhead, too high to distinguish men from ripples in the sea. He can hear the voices of the delusional.  He can see the faces of the dead. “It’s up here all the time,” he says. “You can see it all the time. But you don’t talk about it.” He didn’t talk about it to anyone outside his immediate family for 45 years.

In the framed and matted oil painting that hangs above the TV, the stern gray ship sits steadfast on a deep blue-and-purple ocean. In the white wool throw on the empty loveseat, the ship’s outline is stitched in navy blue along with the words “Still At Sea; Sunk July 30, 1945.” A miniature plastic model of the vessel, small enough to fit snugly in a whiskey fifth,  sits on the table by the door; its twin adorns the windowsill behind him, between a framed photograph of the ship’s bell and one of a slightly younger O’Donnell standing among fellow survivors on the steps of the U. S. Capitol.

Almost everything in the room is linked to his experience at sea 60 years ago. The room tells the story. In the closet across from him, three chapters are stowed in a navy-blue tote bag: a palm-sized slice of twisted red metal, a piece of the kamikaze plane that crippled the Indianapolis at Okinawa and sent the ship and its crew back to San Francisco, where the atomic bomb would be loaded; O’Donnell’s Purple Heart, one of the 1,196 given to every seaman aboard the ship when it was torpedoed and sunk; a tattered, yellowed Western Union telegram with fading purple type the likes of which were sent to only 317 families after survivors were pulled from the water five days later. This version reads: “A report just received shows your husband James E. O’Donnell, Water Tender Third Class USNR has been wounded in action. Your anxiety is appreciated and you will be furnished details when received.” The story continues above the loveseat, where a framed poster­—“Home At Last”—features a black-and-white photo of the survivors lined up on the deck of the aircraft carrier Hollandia on their way home from a hospital in Guam more than a month after their rescue.

But of all the artifacts in this one-room museum, the oldest and most authentic is the man in the chair. The skin on O’Donnell’s round face hangs loosely. His brow sags. As he tells his story, his eyes seem to drift as if he were paging through his memory. Sometimes the pages seem to stick, as he tends to include or omit different details with each telling. He was 25 at the time of the disaster. He’ll turn 85 this month. He is one of only 97 left.

 

O’Donnell is lucky if he can doze off for a couple hours before sunrise. On April 13, he’s wide awake well before it’s time to meet his friend John Gromosiak at 6:30 a.m. Donning his gold-embroidered navy-blue U.S.S. Indianapolis veteran’s cap and matching jacket, he slowly backs his 2003 Lincoln Mercury out of his garage and heads for the downtown O’Malia’s grocery store. The store has donated space just inside its front doors to house the wares of the U.S.S. Indianapolis Survivors’ Organization—boxes of books, T-shirts, sweatshirts and other paraphernalia bearing the image and name of the ship. By 8 a.m., these, along with a number of Gromosiak’s paintings of the vessel, are on display around a pair of 8-foot foldout tables set up in the lobby of the downtown Westin Hotel. Passing by the tables is a steady stream of firefighters, thousands of whom are in town for the annual Fire Department Instructors Conference. O’Donnell himself spent 36 years as a city firefighter, but he hasn’t come here to talk shop. He’s come to build a museum.

Back in 1990, the Survivors Organization and a group of local businessmen asked O’Donnell to break his public silence and share his memories at area schools and businesses; the goal was to raise awareness of and money for a monument in downtown Indianapolis commemorating the fallen ship and its crew. O’Donnell dutifully complied. “I don’t think people understand that the freedom they enjoy today is the result of sacrifices men and women made in the past,” he says. “That freedom didn’t come cheap.”

The ship’s 317 survivors hailed from all over the country: St. Mary, Nebraska; San Francisco; North Bergen, New Jersey; Miami. Of the 41 Hoosiers aboard, two survived. From Indianapolis, there was O’Donnell alone. He was and is the only living link between the ship and its namesake.

When the Portland-class CA-35 was built in 1929, it was Navy custom to name cruisers for American cities, and Indianapolis was about the biggest city that hadn’t been so honored. The ship was christened by the daughter of former Indy mayor Thomas Taggart. And as the name was an accident of history, so is the city’s role in preserving the memory of its fate. In 1960, the Survivors’ Organization chose Indianapolis as the site of its first reunion. This was partly due to the city’s easily accessible location. But it was mostly because, to the veterans, Indianapolis was the only logical place. “The ship was named after the city,” O’Donnell says. “It wouldn’t make sense to have it anywhere else.” Until 1995, reunions were held every five years. But as the survivors entered their 80s and their numbers began to diminish, the gatherings were increased to one every two years. Every one has taken place in Indianapolis, which the survivors have adopted as their honorary home.

The community, in turn, has embraced the veterans. Through the eight-year-old Adopt-A-Survivor program,  citizens have donated money to curb reunion travel costs. Until its recent financial woes put an end to such beneficence, the Indy-based airline ATA offered free and discounted flights to survivors travelling here. And hundreds of local volunteers have donated countless hours to help the survivors raise money for the construction of the U.S.S. Indianapolis Memorial on downtown’s Central Canal.

Indianapolis residents and businesses responded to the appeal, donating the bulk of the $1.5 million that was raised to build the memorial on the east bank of the Central Canal in 1995. The black-and-gray granite monument was designed to resemble the ship. Etched in its stone is a profile of the vessel, a list of those who served and a brief account of the disaster that befell them. One painting in O’Donnell’s den, an oil by Gromosiak, portrays the elderly survivor standing before the monument, jacket in hand, gazing into the distance; hovering above are the superimposed faces of three nameless young men in uniform—rendered from photographs of men who perished in the disaster. O’Donnell says the monument is dedicated to the memory of these men, the memory of the fallen. Now he and some of his fellow survivors are turning again to the citizens of Indianapolis to help erect a museum that will maintain more-tangible pieces of that history—a much larger, public version of O’Donnell’s private shrine.

In January 2003, with the blessing of the Survivors’ Organization’s leaders, a group of veterans and volunteers first devised the idea of a 50,000-square-foot museum in Indianapolis. The museum board—a mix of survivors, volunteers and local bankers, businessmen and historians—estimates the cost to build and maintain the facility at anywhere from $20 million to $40 million. It is to this purpose that O’Donnell now dutifully dedicates his time. Over the last two years, he has spent untold 12-hour days sitting behind foldout tables at area businesses, conventions and other public places, selling paintings, memorabilia and copies of Only 317 Survived—a 2002 book that compiles survivors’ own accounts of the experience—to raise money for the new cause.

On this sunny April day at the downtown Westin, O’Donnell engages as many firefighters as possible, swapping firehouse stories or just shooting the breeze, all the while managing to sell a book here and a T-shirt there. He’ll chat about most anything, including his time at sea, but he tries to focus on the museum that donors’ dollars would go to build. Although he is not a member of the board, he talks with great hope about the old uniforms, the actual equipment and the archival photographs that could be on exhibit; the paintings, murals and animated displays; the library that could offer books on the ship’s history as well as on WWII. He mentions the numerous ship models and though the idea sounds bizarre, even the possibility of a live shark exhibit that would allow museum-goers to encounter one of the sailors’ deadliest enemies at sea. Most importantly, he talks about the database that would feature recorded video testimony from survivors and their families. Together, O’Donnell and his 96 surviving shipmates could tell their stories. Their memories could be preserved.

Robert McGuiggan, Seaman 1st Class: I had just come off watch at midnight and was sleeping in a hammock I’d strung up between the 40-millimeter gun mount and the hangar bulkhead. The explosion damn near blew me out of the hammock.

Michael Kuryla, Coxswain 3rd Class: As the ship leaned over, I lost my balance and slipped into the water. I was sucked down twice. The second time, the ship rolled over on top of me. I thought it was my end. Water started going through my mouth. I saw my mother, father, my six sisters and my brother back on Homer Street in Chicago. I said the Act of Contrition. Then water went through my nose—knocked me out like someone had hit me between the eyes.

William R. Mulvey, Chief Master-at-Arms: The next day I found I was  senior man in a group of about 38 men. We were the only people around. It seemed like we were the only people left in the world.

Richard Thelen, Seaman 2nd Class: If you didn’t stay in your group, the sharks got you. I saw a man taken two arm lengths away from me.

Gerald Poor, Seaman 2nd Class: My friend went off his rocker. He thought he was back home, going to church, talking to his family. I had to hold him, keep him from swimming away. He wouldn’t stop talking. Finally, on the fourth day, he hushed and dropped his head. I called for a chaplain to give him last rites, but there was none. I did it myself. I made a hell of a mess of it, but I imagine the feller upstairs could understand what I was trying to say. Then I just took off his life jacket and let him go.

Mulvey: We always prayed. But I remember one boy who wouldn’t pray. He didn’t think God could hear him out there.

Poor: It never entered my mind that I might die. I kept thinking the ships were coming. By the fourth night, I was starting to get disgusted. On that night I saw a beam of light shining in the distance. I couldn’t tell if it was coming from above or below. At first, I thought it was God coming after me.

Kuryla: I was on a hospital boat in Guam on August 6, when they told us that we had carried the atomic bomb that had just been dropped on Hiroshima. All we could say was, “What’s an atomic bomb?”

James E. O’Donnell, Water Tender, 3rd Class: I went into the service on April 13, 1944. It was a Friday. Two weeks later, I boarded the Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis was his first ship. A 23-year-old who’d spent his entire life landlocked in central Indiana, O’Donnell had hardly ever swum before. But by the time the Indianapolis sailed off on what would be its final mission, the wide-eyed Hoosier had been replaced by a hardened 25-year-old sailor. He’d been aboard the ship through five of the 10 battles she’d fought in. He was at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He was asleep in his bunk below deck on March 30, 1945, when a kamikaze crashed into the rear port side of the Indianapolis’ aft deck, killing nine, wounding 18, causing extensive damage and sending the vessel limping back to Mare Island Ship Yards,  just northeast of San Francisco. There it docked in late April and underwent repairs for the next two months.

O’Donnell knew enough to be suspicious when on July 15, the entire crew was quarantined to the refit Indianapolis—highly unusual for sailors at dock stateside—while the ship took on several unmarked crates from a pair of Army trucks. Even more unusual were the armed Marines who kept close watch as the crew helped load the crates. Other seasoned sailors noticed that two men who had come aboard with the crates dressed as Army artillery officers wore their rank pins upside down. Asked what size guns they fired, the two men couldn’t even make up a caliber. Looking back, some survivors now believe the two were scientists who’d worked on the Manhattan Project.

"A report just received shows your husband James E. O'Donnell, water tender third class USNR has been wounded in action Your anxiety is appreciated and you will be furnished details when received."

The next day, further fueling rampant speculation as to the nature of the unknown cargo, the Indianapolis took off through the bay at a breakneck 25 knots though the speed limit through the pass was only 10. The ship averaged 29 knots on the journey to Pearl Harbor, a trip it made in a record 74.5 hours. From there, it was on to the island of Tinian, more than 3,000 miles away.

En route, rumors flew. The crates, depending on which man you asked, contained food, clothes, toilet paper, mattress springs. “No one had any idea,” O’Donnell says. “All we knew was that our orders were to get there as fast as we could.”

At sea, O’Donnell always tried to sleep topside. By day, as a water-tender, he toiled away in the heat of the ship’s boiler room, making steam to power the vessel. He wasn’t interested in sleeping in his bunk below deck—where conditions often exceeded 100 degrees—and waking up in a pool of sweat.

That’s why, at midnight on Monday, July 30, 1945, O’Donnell and two of his shift-mates were sleeping on the main deck near the aft gun turret, trying to catch a sea breeze. The three were scheduled to go on watch at 4 a.m. Just a few feet away from them was the port hanger that had stowed the suspicious crates before they were delivered to Tinian four days earlier. The Indianapolis was now heading east, unescorted, across the Philippine Sea, to rendezvous with the U.S.S. Idaho for gunnery practice in the Gulf of Leyte.

O’Donnell remembers waking at the first explosion, just after midnight. The ship jumped and jumped again, sending a shock through the deck. He sat up  to see a ball of fire rising from the front of the cruiser. He had no idea what had hit them.

The first torpedo had taken a huge chunk out of the starboard bow and smashed one of the fuel tanks. The second had hit mid-ship, just aft of the captain’s quarters, nailing the boiler rooms and the powder magazine for the 8-inch guns. With the bow almost completely gone and all communication between the forward part of the ship and the engine rooms severed, the engines kept pushing the  vessel forward as it scooped on more and more water, causing the ship to list to starboard.

Forty-one Hoosiers were aboard the cruiser when it was torpedoed. Thirty-nine died. Of the five from Indianapolis, O'Donnell alone survived. He was the only living link between the ship and its namesake city.

By the time O’Donnell and his mates were able to find life jackets, the Indianapolis was almost completely on its side. O’Donnell raced across the port-side hull and slid down the keel between the propeller shafts into the water. Eyes and throat scorching from spilt diesel oil, he swam blindly from the foundering cruiser, joining others who had likewise gone overboard. He’d lost track of his two shift-mates. The water was full of men, screaming as the salt water flooded their burns and wounds. Others, with no time to dress, had taken to the sea in nothing but their underwear and now clung to debris or swam desperately for other sailors, stray life rafts and life jackets. O’Donnell remembers taking a few strokes from the fray, and turning just in time to see the ship slip silently under the waves.

At daybreak, he saw his first shark. At the time, he, like most of the 900 men floating in the sea, was confident in their chances of survival. Many were certain that a distress signal had gotten out before the ship went down, or at the very least, that the ship would be missed when it didn’t make its scheduled rendezvous with the Idaho the following afternoon. Rescue, they believed, was mere hours away. “You had to believe that,” O’Donnell says. “If you gave up, you didn’t make it.”

But the sharks were all around them, bumping up against them, spinning and rocking the men like bobbers on a fishing line. Survivors recall trying to wake a man whose head was down only to watch as a legless, lifeless torso spun in the water. They remember the distant screams and violent thrashing in the water at night. The consensus was that you were less likely to be eaten if you stayed together. So the men arranged themselves in clusters of 10, 30, 100 men. But by the end of day one, the current had scattered groups over miles of ocean, tearing tired sailors away,  and casting them to the sea. O’Donnell’s group of 15 or so combatted the problem by tying together the straps of each other’s life jackets. Larger groups tied float nets together; sailors clung to the nets to avoid being carried away by sharks. But sharks attacked men living and dead, day and night, alone or in groups. And men who evaded the sharks succumbed to the current.

O’Donnell didn’t sleep much. When hunger and fatigue overcame them, the survivors slipped into a sort of “semi-coma.” Sometimes, shaking out of these spells, they’d find that sailors in their group had disappeared. The kapok life jackets most of them wore had been rated to float for about 72 hours before becoming waterlogged and, therefore, useless. As days three and four went by, jackets became saturated and essentially pulled their helpless wearers to the bottom. Sharks also pulled men under. But there were other reasons for the disappearances.

As the sailors’ hope and patience wore thin, so did their ability to reason. O’Donnell remembers men who swore that the ship had broken in half and that one part had floated back up and was just beneath the water’s surface. Another survivor remembers a shipmate talking incessantly about the ice-cold water fountain in the ship—how he could look right down and see it. He took off his life jacket and dove down, but soon realized that he couldn’t make it and came flailing back to the surface, where the men in his group had to corral him. Later that night he tried the same thing again. The next morning there was an empty life jacket tied to the group.

Men saw things. Trains. Hotels. They talked about nearby islands they’d visited and the food, drink and women they’d enjoyed there. Others saw towns in the clouds that curtained the horizon. As  composure waned and hallucination took over, outbursts of violence became commonplace. Fights broke out over nothing. Men threatened each other with jackknives. Some survivors have reported that shipmates attacked others, thinking they were Japanese spies.

Those who kept their wits turned introspective, praying and taking stock of their lives in case they didn’t make it. Thoughts turned to loved ones, a fiancee or wife waiting at home, a child who had yet to meet his father, parents who had made their son promise he’d make it back alive. When asked what he thought of during the days floating in the sea, O’Donnell says simply, “Everything.”

By the fifth night, many of the men had had enough. Those who weren’t out of their minds were wracked by skin ulcers that stung and pussed in the salt water. Their lips were cracked, their tongues dry sponges. They choked from the lack of saliva. They had had enough of thirst, enough of waiting for ships and planes that weren’t coming. They’d had enough of death. So that night, when they saw a beam of light, about the size of a stovepipe, gleaming out of the distant waters, some were ready to embrace their end.

In fact, the light was a spotlight from the U.S.S. Bassett. Earlier that day, a pilot had spotted a long oil slick in the water as he flew over on routine submarine patrol. But as he further examined what he first thought was the trail of a leaking submarine, the pilot spotted groups of men waving their arms in the sea. He radioed for help. Ships began arriving that night, pulling survivors and bodies from the water. In five days, the waves had spread the groups of men over 20 miles of ocean.  Five ships, including the Bassett, picked up the 317 survivors. The individual groups had been decimated. One group of 38 had been reduced to three.

O’Donnell doesn’t remember seeing the rescue boat from the Bassett. He doesn’t recall realizing that they were being rescued at all. “I just knew that when they got me in the boat,” he says, “I was better off than where I was.”

After being in the salt water so long, the survivors’ skin had become loose and soft, piling up on their bodies like the bend in a drinking straw. O’Donnell remembers rescuers trying to hoist a man by his arm and ripping off the tender flesh clear to the bone. All the sailors were exhausted, malnourished and unable to board the ships on their own. Rescuers had to devise straps by which they could be lifted out with the aid of sailors who went down into the water. Once onboard the ships, the survivors were cleaned, given fluids and put on cots to rest. Most slept all the way to the hospitals in Guam and the Philippines. “I remember I had to go to the bathroom, and the sailors offered to help me from my cot,” says O’Donnell. “I said I could do it by myself, but when I got up, I fell flat on my face.”

After weeks spent recovering in hospitals on Pacific islands, O’Donnell and the other 316 survivors finally returned to the States in late September, almost two months after the sinking and nearly a month after the Japanese surrendered—due in large part to the bomb the Indianapolis had delivered to Tinian.

With the war over, many survivors served out their Navy stints in stateside bases and then returned to civilian life, back to their families in Michigan, Missouri, California and Indiana. But for most, the transition wasn’t easy. They were plagued by memories, flashbacks, nightmares. Without the understanding of others who’d been there, many of the men couldn’t talk about it. They closed themselves off, and their unexplained mood swings alienated their loved ones.

Though O’Donnell says he shared his feelings with Mary Alice and his family, some survivors couldn’t bring themselves to tell even their wives what had happened. Others talked, but refused to go into detail; their families learned more about the disaster from the newspapers than from their sons and husbands.

Yet O’Donnell and other survivors agree that talking helps—especially, most comfortably, with other survivors. For most, the reunions have provided the forum for that support.

This month will mark the 13th time the surviving crew of the U.S.S. Indianapolis will converge on Indianapolis for a reunion. It is a milestone: the 60th anniversary of the sinking. From all around the country, survivors from ages 75 through their 90s will come by plane, car and RV to the Westin, their gray and white hair concealed beneath their navy-blue veterans’ caps. Even in the heat of midsummer, most will wear their navy-blue rayon-and-cotton windbreakers. In 1999, 85 survivors made it to Indy. By 2003, that number had dwindled to 57. They’re aging. They’re ailing. They’re dying.

Those who attend this year will be honored in an antique-car parade through city streets and welcomed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and other landmarks. They’ll go out and eat and drink and visit. They’ll convene in hotel banquet halls to talk about comrades lost, both at sea long ago and more recently to age. They’ll also meet to talk business, and this year, with new developments on the museum front, there’s much to be discussed.

In January 2004, the museum board obtained not-for-profit IRS 501-C19 tax exempt status for veteran organizations, which lays the foundation for fundraising by making donations to the museum tax-deductible. It has thus far raised $75,000 in pre-seed money, with which it has laid out a business plan and enlisted the aid of marketing, accounting, architectural and legal consultants. A week after the reunion, on July 29—the 60th anniversary of the Indianapolis’ last day at sea—the board will host a private fundraising reception at the Indiana War Memorial to raise $250,000, with which it plans to hire professional fundraising coordinators. The board has also conducted studies on potential sites for the museum, including the Herron School of Art (less-than-ideal location), Union Station (uncertain future) and White River State Park (no land available). The primary focus is now the 80,000-square-foot former Indiana State Museum on Alabama Street, which the Indianapolis–Marion County Public Library is using as its temporary location but plans to vacate when it moves back to Meridian Street in 2007. Nothing has been finalized.

But while the concept of a private museum that can sustain itself through merchandising, endowment and donations has been endorsed by Gov. Mitch Daniels, Sen. Evan Bayh, Mayor Bart Peterson and the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, its feasibility is open to debate. The fact that in more than two years only $75,000 has been raised—in a grass-roots effort that has failed to generate much buzz—leads some experienced Indy fund-raisers to question the viability of a stand-alone museum at such a large scale. That skepticism is shared by some survivors. Some of the men, like Woody James, feel that while a museum is a good idea, the board is dreaming too big. In James’ opinion, there simply aren’t enough artifacts and exhibits to fill a building even half the size of the State Museum. Besides, he says, “the people of Indianapolis have already adopted us. They don’t need to be begged for money every time they turn around.”

Gromosiak—who is a vice president of the museum board and director of public relations for the Survivors’ Organization—answers the latter point by noting that the museum fundraising is a national project. In fact, the board recently unveiled plans for three ways to take the message cross-country: traveling stand-alone displays for conventions and other events; a mobile mini-museum built into a semi truck; and a touring exhibit for museums. As for what could fill the building, Gromosiak says the models,  displays and other exhibits would be supplemented by survivors’ personal effects, which he’s trying to convince the men to bequeath to the museum.

O’Donnell isn’t sure what will become of his trove of mementos. Beyond a vague assumption that his wife and four children might want to hang onto them, he hasn’t thought much about it. But he continues to serve the cause in other ways. He believes that the story of the crew’s bravery and will to survive is an important lesson for today’s youth and future generations. And just as he labored in the ship’s boiler room, he is content to do the grunt work, selling T-shirts, hats and books at $20 and $30 a pop to help make the museum project go.

"I wonder why. Why them? Why not me? But it's not in my hands. It wasn't my time. You don't know when you're going to go. I guess it's better that way."

He says the memories have never really bothered him. He has no nightmares, no violent mood swings. In fact, he compares the disaster he lived and has relived for the last 60 years to a terrible car accident, or any traumatic event. “It’s just something you deal with,” he says. “I often think about the two guys I was sleeping with that night. After we jumped ship, I never saw them again—don’t know what happened to them. Guess they’re dead. I wonder why. Why them? Why not me? But it’s not in my hands. It wasn’t my time. I could walk into the next room and … You don’t know when you’re going to go. I guess it’s better that way.”

But even as he downplays the impact his experience has had on his life, the walls of O’Donnell’s room give him away. Alongside the tokens of the ship and its story, there hangs a plaque commemorating The Indianapolis Star’s naming him its Man of the Year in 1995. On an adjacent wall hangs the 2001 Hibernians Irishman of the Year Award. On the floor, leaned up against the love seat, are a framed Indiana Sagamore of the Wabash Award from 1998, and a framed mayoral proclamation of August 2, 2002 as “Jimmy O’Donnell Day.” “I wouldn’t have enough wall space in here to hang them all,” O’Donnell says. That’s why he’s annexed the garage for his other collection of trophies.

Standing in the doorway to the garage, he flips on the automatic door–opener, summoning a rapid dawn as daylight swallows darkness. A cool breeze rushes past the tan Lincoln, rustling the cloth that covers a table on which sit two colonial-patriot statuettes, a sailor made from small painted flowerpots, and three miniature flags—the United States’, Indiana’s and the U.S. Navy’s.  On the wall above the table hang 18 framed certificates of appreciation. “Fulton Junior High recognizes James E. O’Donnell, member of the Greatest Generation, for his service to our country.” “Doe Creek Middle School honors James E. O’Donnell for his contribution to our country and our children.”

At the top of the display, above the certificates, is a black-and-white photo of the youthful survivors taken at the 1965 reunion. Since then, more than 200 of the men have died. Leaning on the card table, O’Donnell grunts as he eases into a plastic chair. The walk from his den to the garage wasn’t easy. His weary face sags as he tries to catch his breath. With a sigh, he turns and looks up at the wall.


Photos by Tony Valainis

This article appeared in the July 2005 issue.