A Lansing man who survived one of the most infamous tragedies of World War Two will be honored Monday in Lansing. U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) will host a ceremony for Dick Thelen. In July 1945, Thelen was an 18-year-old sailor aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the ship that delivered the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. As the ship headed for the Philippines, it was struck by two Japanese torpedoes and sank.
WKAR’s Kevin Lavery met Mr. Thelen in 2015 to ask him about his life-altering experience.
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.