Other castaways also felt God’s presence. Yeoman 2nd Class Otha Alton Havins, 22, of Shafter, Calif., saw horrible things while leaving the ship, men burned beyond recognition, screaming in pain. After helping some injured sailors to a safe spot in Indy’s aircraft hangar, Havins had watched helplessly as an observation plane broke loose, careened down the angling deck, and crushed them.
After he jumped off the ship, Havins swam alone for a solid 20 minutes, firmly believing he was the only survivor. During this time, he held a plainspoken, running conversation with God:
“Lord, please take note, I have a problem. …”
“Lord, I still have a problem, and you can lend a hand anytime. …”
“Lord, move in real close and let’s get out of here!”
Another 30 minutes had passed when he heard a sailor’s voice: “Over here! I have a cargo net!”
Havins struck out swimming and later boarded a raft under the command of the sunken ship’s commanding officer, Charles McVay. Havins promised God that if he survived this ordeal, he would become a pastor.
NOT ALL THE CASTAWAYS enjoyed spiritual comfort, or even believed it available. As Indianapolis sank, she continued forward, thereby depositing men over a broad swath of midnight waters. Though these initial survivors were ultimately spread over many miles, they sometimes formed groups. Some clustered around a scant number of available rafts and floater nets. Many had only life vests. Others had nothing.
Ensign Donald Blum, 21, of Scarsdale, N.Y., secured a spot on a raft. After floating for more than 60 hours, he heard another junior officer try to lift their group’s spirits by ordering the men to pray. Blum sighed. He had heard men mumbling to God since the beginning of this nightmare—reciting the Lord’s Prayer, asking God for rescue, and so forth. Now men were talking of heaven. The idea just didn’t register with Blum. If God was going to rescue them, why had He put them in this mess in the first place? In the end, Blum believed the only one he could count on was himself.
He was a rarity, however. Most survivors would later say that though many men of weak or no faith entered the water, very few came out.
As their ordeal wore on, hallucinations and outright madness ran rampant. Men spotted lemonade stands below the surface and dove down to drink, never to be seen again. Even strong faith did not keep them tethered to reality. Shark attacks added to the terror.
ON THE FIFTH DAY, when rescue planes finally appeared in the sky and began dropping gear, Lebow let go of his floater net and swam away. Hershberger caught up to him and hauled him back to the net. Lebow waited a while then struck out again. Hershberger splashed after him and pulled him back a second time.
“Lebow, if you go again, I’ll have to let you go because I won’t have the strength to come and get you again,” Hershberger said. “What are you doing, anyway?”
Lebow’s eyes lit up. “Well, you saw them dropping that stuff from the plane? One of those big boxes is full of B-29 bomber parts. We can put an airplane together and fly home!”
Hershberger looked into his friend’s over-bright eyes. “Cleatus, I noticed it’s getting dark,” he said. “Let’s just wait until morning, and we’ll do it then.”
“OK,” Lebow said. In the tilted world of his delirium, Hershberger’s idea was just logical enough to save his life. Many men were lost at the brink of rescue when they swam willy-nilly toward the planes, but drowned because they were too weak to make it.
Both Hershberger and Lebow lived. So did Capt. McVay, who was wrongfully court-martialed for the sinking and committed suicide in 1968. A 50-year fight by his men and then others led to his posthumous exoneration in 2001.
Today, Lebow and Edgar Harrell, both 93, are among just 18 Indianapolis survivors still living. Donald Blum and Alton Havins have died, Havins having kept his promise to God to become a pastor.
Clarence Hershberger died in DeLeon Springs, Fla., in 2015 at the age of 89. Those who loved him allowed that he could sometimes be a curmudgeon who spoke his mind without compunction. But for 70 years after the sinking, Hershberger didn’t have a single cross word to say about Cleatus Lebow.
Instead, he would say, smiling, “Cleatus gave me Jesus.”