WWII ship sinking still chills survivor

A raft was his savior after sharks and the sea devoured other sailors.

Published May 28, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - For five days and five nights, Seaman 2nd class Troy A. Nunley floated on a raft in the middle of the Philippine Sea without food, water or sign of rescue. At 19, he watched the USS Indianapolis, his home of almost four years during World War II, sink in a matter of minutes.

Nunley, now 81, sat on his porch Thursday, wearing the bits of dried leaves and grass that had been his afternoon work. He was miles away from the Philippines. But as the retired landfill manager told his story, the intense gaze in his eyes showed the memory remains strong.

"Sometimes at night it hits you," he said. "It'll never go away."

About midnight July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis was struck by two Japanese torpedoes just after it delivered the first atomic bomb to the island of Tinian.

The almost 1,200 on board were sent into the sea or to an early grave.

Nunley was on the bow, where one torpedo hit. As the ship sank, he stepped into the water. The sky had been black, except for the flash of the explosion, and Nunley said he had to fight his way through the water, murky with oil from the ship. Somehow, he found a raft, which he shared with another sailor for the duration of their time at sea.

"I bumped into it luckily," he said. "It was my way of getting back to life. Something told me to go swimming that way and that's what I done."

Most of the sailors weren't as lucky. Nunley said some men linked arms and forced themselves under to drown. Some went down to get a drink of water or swam off to find a friend and never returned. Some sailors had lost limbs and were so dazed that they didn't know what was going on, he said. And many were devoured by sharks.

"There were millions of sharks, millions and millions," he said, his foot tapping nervously at the thought. "They weren't no little ones, either, they were big ones. ... All you'd do is see a shark come up and get them and ... you'd see blood and that was it. It was like fishing. You go out and fish and you get some big ones, and that's the way it went. You was the bait for the sharks."

Nunley said he fought off the sharks by hitting them, since they'll turn around if they run into something. Still, he said, one shark hovered near the raft for five days and five nights until Nunley was rescued.

"I think he was just waiting for us to die or get weak enough that he could get us," he said.

The men all went without food and water. Nunley said at one point he grabbed a fish from the water and ate it. It made him so sick that he still can't eat fish today.

"I thought I was going to die then for sure," he said. "You lose your mind. ... You're just dried out. Nothing in your stomach and no sleep -- that's bad."

He said he would get into the water during the day to stay cool and at night to stay warm, but he got saltwater sores as the water seeped into his cuts and scrapes. He said his legs turned "blue and purple" from the loss of circulation, and it took him six months to walk again.

Finally, a plane noticed the oil in the water and flew closer. Nunley said the pilot saw the mass of sharks and the men trying to fight them. The pilot radioed for help, and the USS Cecil Doyle was the first to respond.

They were lucky to be rescued. By then, only 316 were left, according to the Naval Historical Center.

Nunley spent more than six months at a hospital in Guam. He was eventually discharged with a Purple Heart and four or five medals, but the sea took those, too. He said he lost most of his belongings, including his medals and pictures, in Florida's no-name storm in March 1993.

But this didn't stop him from sharing his story. Nunley has been featured in five books and several documentaries about the incident. And every three years, he goes to Indianapolis for a reunion with about 50 of the remaining survivors, a trip he plans to make again this July.

Despite his struggles, he said he is focused on enjoying the rest of his life in New Port Richey with Alice, his wife of more than 50 years, and continuing his gardening.

"I'm just glad to see the old sun come up in the morning," he said with a grin. "I like it. I know I'll live another day, or I'm on my way, anyway."

Carrie Ritchie can be reached at critchie@sptimes.com.