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WWII vet to speak at Bible Baptist Church

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Edgar "Ed" Harrell will share his story Sunday of surviving days at sea in the South Pacific, during World War II.

"I swam with the sharks for four and a half days," said Harrell, a Clarksville, Tenn., resident, who recounts his story with remarkable detail.

The 85-year-old military veteran is scheduled to speak to members of Bible Baptist Church, during the 10:30 morning worship service, according to Pastor Brad Blanton. The church is located at 2780 Mt. Carmel Road in Hampton.

"The whole story captivated me," said Blanton, who invited Harrell back in January. "I was just thrilled that he was available this coming weekend. My dad was in World War II. I consider them a part of the greatest generation, that I don't think we have yet fully appreciated."

Harrell's World War II story begins as an 18-year-old, volunteering to serve in the Marine Corps in 1943. He served until 1946, when he ended his tour of service as a Marine corporal.

In 1945, Harrell, and a special detachment of 39 Marines aboard the U.S. Navy's USS Indianapolis, were assigned guardianship over special cargo to be supplied to forces in the South Pacific. "We had just delivered the atomic bombs on July 26, 1945," said Harrell, who, at the time, was not aware of what cargo his special detachment was tasked to guard.

The Kentucky-born Marine said his world turned upside down, shortly after the delivery. The USS Indianapolis -- headed from Guam to the Philippines on July 30, 1945, for the main invasion of Japan -- was hit by two Japanese sub torpedoes. He said the ship sank in 12 minutes, leaving more than 1,000 Navy personnel and Marines to fend for themselves in the open seas of the Pacific Ocean.

"Eight-hundred and eighty did not survive," Harrell recalled. "Three-hundred and seventeen did, and 58 of us are still living. It's the largest casualty at sea in the history of the U.S Navy. "

Harrell said he was one of nine Marines who survived, and one of four Marines aboard the sinking ship, still living. He said the survivors spent more than four days at sea, dodging sharks, suffering hypothermia and severe dehydration, and combating salt-water hallucinations, before they were rescued.

"We were spotted by a land-based plane from Palau in the South Pacific," he said. The pilot, he added, spotted the remaining oil-slicked wreckage -- at first, assuming it was a Japanese submarine. The pilot called by radio for reinforcements, and eventually, determined the cause of the wreckage.

The war veteran said he and the other remaining survivors were taken by a U.S. Navy Destroyer, the USS Doyle, to remote hospitals in the area. He was eventually taken to a hospital in Guam, where he spent three weeks bedridden, and finally learned the purpose of his special detachment's prior task. Harrell said he learned of the Aug. 6, 1945, bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, and the Aug. 9, 1945, bombing of Nagasaki, Japan.

Harrell said his 39-member detachment guarded the atomic bomb units, known as Little Boy, and Fat Man, on their voyage to the Mariana Islands in the Pacific.

These days, Harrell has trouble hearing, and has sustained a back injury as a result of his tour in World War II. He speaks to organizations, churches, and school groups around the country. He plans to speak to Bible Baptist Church members, young and old, Sunday in hopes they can take something away from his experiences, be inspired, and be appreciative of veterans who have served and gone.

"They need to know something that happened back then," he said. "And besides that, it was the providence of God that brought me through. It wasn't that I was a Marine, or a good swimmer, that I survived, it was a higher power that brought me through that," he said.

"You know, freedom isn't free," he continued. "The little bit of freedom that we have today is because of the veterans, not because of the laws that have been made."

Harrell said he retells his story in a 2005 publication, "Out of the Depths: A Survivor's Story of the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis," written by his son, David Harrell.