Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

THOMASVILLE -- Just past midnight on July 30, 1945, halfway between Guam and the Leyte Gulf, Seaman First Class Kenley Latner was suddenly awakened by the explosion of a Japanese torpedo that had just slammed into the starboard bow of the USS Indianapolis.

Seconds later, he was knocked off his feet when a second torpedo hit amidships, exploding near the powder magazine and fuel tank, nearly blowing the already wounded heavy cruiser in half.

"It was so hot down below that I had decided to sleep on the signal bridge on the superstructure," Latner, 86, recalled. "And it wasn't unusual for the crew to sleep on deck because of the heat.

"The explosion from the first torpedo woke me up. I was just getting to my feet when the second one hit. I put on my shoes and clothes because we were taught that in an emergency we needed to be fully dressed."

Four days earlier, the Indianapolis had, in a secret mission, delivered enriched uranium cores and firing triggers to Tinian Island. The components were used in "Little Boy" and "Fat Man," the atomic and plutonium bombs that were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Its mission accomplished, the Indianapolis was steaming at full speed toward the Leyte Gulf, where she was to join a task force led by the battleship USS Idaho in preparing for an invasion of the Japanese homeland.

She never made it.

"The ship was going down at the bow and starting a slow roll to the right," Latner said. "The skipper (Capt. Charles B. McVay) and the XO (executive officer) met at the No. 1 stack, and I heard the XO tell the skipper we should abandon ship and the skipper gave the order.

"I snapped up my Kapok life vest. By that time the ship had rolled almost 90 degrees to starboard," Latner said. "I bowed my head and asked the Good Lord to take care of me. I started down the hull on the port side. It was almost like walking into the water at the beach.

"I was one of the last ones to go into the water. After I was in I started swimming as hard as I could because I didn't want to get pulled down by the suction when the ship went under. I guess I got about 100 feet away when I turned around and looked back."

The moon was coming in and out from behind the clouds that night, and the sky cleared just in time to provide Latner with a picture he'll never forget.

"I saw the ship's fantail come out of the water," he recalled. "One of her screws was still turning. Then she slid into the water, and the ship gone. I remember looking at my watch. It took just 12 minutes from when the first torpedo hit for her to sink."

The exact number of men who went into the water that night will never be known. The generally accepted figure is around 900, and it is assumed that 300 sailors and Marines went down with the ship.

"I floated around for a while, and just before the sun came up, I ran across a raft," Lanter said. "I pulled Radioman First Class J.T. Moran into the raft. He was in the com room when we were hit, and I asked him if he'd gotten a distress signal off and he said he'd sent three.

"Later we found out that the calls were ignored or missed; either way no search was ever launched."

Then Latner added, "But in the morning the sharks showed up."

Of the 900 men who went into the water, nearly 600 died from their wounds, exposure, thirst or shark attacks, which continued until the men were finally pulled from the water five days later.

History has placed the men in the water into two groups -- the life preserver and raft groups. The raft group was lucky because while they could see the sharks, they remained relatively safe in their rafts.

The life preserver group had no such protection.

"When I saw those sharks, all I could think about was being a little boy and running barefoot up and down the street again. I did not want to be here," Latner said.

The men in the life preserver group tried to huddle together for protection as the sharks picked off the stragglers one by one. The men also began to scatter as the current carried the life preserver group south and the wind blew the raft group in the other direction.

"We picked up a couple of guys out of the water, so there were five men in the raft." Latner said. "The raft had a little water that we rationed until it ran out on the third day. The survival kit also had a little fishing rig in it, and one of the boys caught four little blue fish.

"Now I had always heard those brightly colored fish were poisonous. But at that moment I had a mind to try them anyway. I scaled and cleaned them. Those other boys weren't from the South and didn't know how to do it.

"I cut those fish into little squares, and we chewed on the pieces and ate them. The moisture from the fish helped a lot."

On the fourth day, the survivors were spotted by Lt. Wilbur Glenn, who was flying his PV-1 Ventura bomber on a routine antisubmarine patrol and just happened upon the group. Glenn radioed Peleiu Island advising that there were many men in the water.

"The Ventura dropped some rubber rafts into the water and a dye marker, and I knew we were gonna make it," Latner said.

Not far away, a PBY Catalina, a seaplane piloted by Lt. Adrian Marks, had heard Glenn's dispatch and flew to the scene. Disregarding standing orders not to land an amphibious aircraft at sea, Marks sat the craft down and began picking up the survivors he thought were at the greatest risk of shark attack.

"They were pulling guys out of the water with one hand," Latner said. "It was like they had superhuman strength. They were taxiing around just pulling them into the airplane."

Once the Catalina's interior was full, Marks ordered his crew to poke holes in the plane's wings and tied men to the wings with parachute cords.

Marks also radioed the group's exact position, bringing three destroyers and two other naval vessels to the location.

"There's not a doubt in my mind that Adrian Marks saved 59 lives that day," Latner said.

In the meantime, the destroyer USS Cecil Doyal had arrived on the scene and began picking up those in the life preserver group to the south of the raft group.

"To me, the last day was the hardest because we could see the ship's lights, and we figured they were rescuing the other survivors in the big group to the south," Latner said. "We thought they might miss us."

Hours later, the USS Ringness arrived and took in the raft group survivors.

Latner, who had served 19 months on the Indianapolis, reflected later on his harrowing experience.

"Personally, I just thought about how really lucky I was," Latner said. "To be topside when the torpedoes hit and to have found a raft. I asked God to take care of me and he did.

"I guess he had other plans for me."

The war in the Pacific ended two weeks after the sinking of the Indianpolis. Latner was discharged in January of 1946 and returned home to Thomasville.

He married his wife, Carmen, and the couple had four children -- two girls, Deborah and Linda, and two boys, Buster and Joe.

Latner worked a number of jobs before founding Latner Communications in 1969. He retired in 1980.