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USS Indianapolis survivor from Lansing recounts harrowing days adrift

Dick Thelen photo
Kevin Lavery
Dick Thelen of Lansing is one of 31 remaining survivors of the USS Indianapolis tragedy.

In the waning days of World War Two, a Japanese submarine sank the USS Indianapolis. Hundreds of sailors who survived the sinking spent four days in the water, facing sharks, dehydration and exposure. Current State’s Kevin Lavery brings us the incredible story of survivor Dick Thelen of Lansing.

Seventy years ago today, the first atomic weapon ever used in warfare was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. That bomb and the second dropped three days later on Nagasaki killed more than 200-thousand people and forced an abrupt end to World War Two. What happened to the crew that delivered the bomb to Tinian Island just days before is one of the most dramatic stories of the war.

In July 1945, Dick Thelen was an 18-year-old sailor on the Indianapolis. The ship had left Tinian Island bound for Leyte in the Philippines. There were nearly 12-hundred men on board. Today, just 31 survivors of the Indianapolis tragedy are still alive.

Current State’s Kevin Lavery talks with one of them, Dick Thelen of Lansing.


When the ship was attacked, do you recall what it sounded and felt like?

Well I was sleeping probably eight, twelve feet from the outside of the ship. I went in the air and I don't know if I went two feet or 22 feet, I have no idea. That's the way I woke up. I was going through the air. Anyhow, when I came down, I couldn't find my clothes or my shoes, so in other words when I hit the water I just had my shorts on. I lost everything.

What was happening as you and your shipmates started to understand what was going on?

Well, so many times you were sleeping you thought you were real safe. Then all of us just out in that ocean, dark, and you're floating around in that diesel fuel which is not pretty, you knew you [were] in trouble. As days went on, we kept talking to each other and thought we'd get picked up, you know within a day or so. So it wouldn't be too bad. But as the days went on, of course we got hungrier, thirstier, and kind of giving up a little bit. But finally we [were] rescued. It took a while.

I was on the swimming team in high school, I was a good swimmer. And that helped me in the water. A friend of mine he was in the water with me. I went through boot camp with him and he had his shoes on. He was fully clothed. I told him to take his shoes off because he was going to wear himself out kicking his shoes. He says, "Dick, I can't swim." Well, he died with his shoes on.

Does this still haunt you?

Oh, yeah. I didn't talk about it for years. My wife and I got married in 1951 and the first book, ‘Abandon Ship!’ came out in 1958. That's the first she knew I was on that ship. She didn't know the name of the ship, how long I was in the water or nothing because I didn't tell her. I just couldn't talk about it years ago.

Although it happened 70 years ago, has it become a defining moment in your life?

Oh yeah, I told my family if something happened to me today, a heart attack, a stroke, whatever… I lived life. Don't ever shed a tear over my life because I'm 88 years old and you can't live forever. I'm happy with my life. I had some serious operations a few years ago, and my second wife died this last Fourth of July… part of life. You never know what the future is going to bring for you.

Kevin Lavery served as a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered before retiring in 2023.
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