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USS Indianapolis Survivor
Lindsey Wilcox

by Wanda Orton
Wanda Orton

For 65 years after World War II, he had nightmares of sharks staring at him.

Two long, gray sharks were pulling him under the water and as he surfaced, pursuing him.

These were not nightmares made from horror movies or from fear of what could happen in a disaster at sea. They were nightmares reliving over and over what really did happen to Lindsey "Zeb" Wilcox of Baytown in the worst sea disaster in the nation's history.

The real-life nightmare began on July 30, 1945, when two Japanese torpedoes sent the USS Indianapolis to the bottom of the Philippine Sea. The heavy cruiser was sailing to Leyte after leaving her secret cargo, key parts to the atomic bomb, on the island of Tinian. From there, the Air Force would take charge of the secret cargo and on two days in August would finish off WWII with raids over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Soon afterward, World War II ended but most of the crew aboard the Indianapolis never lived to share in the victory celebration. Among the casualties was Baytonian Marvin Baker, killed inside the ship when it exploded, but Wilcox, who had lived and worked briefly in Baytown before the war, survived and one day would become a permanent - and beloved Baytonian.

Throughout the unthinkable ordeal at sea, Wilcox kept telling himself that he was survivor. He never gave up. Those two gray sharks must have sensed this because they gave up in their pursuit.

Thanks to Bert Marshall, Sun columnist and computer whiz, I have been listening to his taped interviews with Wilcox on Windows Media Player. It's a privilege to hear the voice of this genuine war hero tell his story. On the BaytownBert and OurBaytown web site, you can read about the interviews and look at photos Bert took.

Quoting directly Wilcox from the interviews:

"About midnight I was relieved of duty and made my way to the deck to lay down, when there was a tremendous explosion and fire came out of the forward starboard and port passageways, extending half the distance of the quarter deck. We had been hit by two Japanese torpedoes and the ship was listing badly, so I grabbed my life jacket and literally stepped off the side of the ship into the water. I quickly swam about 50 feet away and donned my 'Mae West' jacket. The ship, all 615 feet of her, sank within 15 minutes of being hit.

"I saw a life raft and got inside and those of us who were unhurt began giving up our place in the raft to all the injured sailors and Marines. I found a floater net and grabbed onto it to conserve energy. We all voiced concern about our situation and whether an SOS was sent out. The sharks began appearing - they were 6 to 7 feet long and gray. We had a lot of wounded, folks with broken limbs and burns.

"We prayed that God would give us strength to get through this ordeal and our lives played out before us, but the most important thing I did was tell myself I was a survivor - then it was okay - I knew I would survive.

"The first day was not too bad. We had about a 150 men on the two life rafts and several floater nets, but day two was a different story. Men started hallucinating, seeing islands and airplanes, giving everyone false hope. Some got into fights thinking the others were the enemy. A few went under water and claimed they ate chow or drank fresh water. We started losing men and below us we could see sharks everywhere. By day three, men were losing their minds. Drinking salt water does this to people and they would become combative, swim off and sink - then the sharks would get them.

"But on day four, I was awakened when a couple of sharks pulled me underwater. I came up fighting to face two gray sharks staring at me. Both were 10 to 12 feet in length and about 10 feet away from me. I think they were trying to see if I was dead so they could eat me, but I told them, 'You don't bother me and I won't bother you.' I realized I had floated away from the group and they were nowhere in sight, but about this time, I saw them in the distance on the far side of the sharks, so I swam between the sharks and they followed me all the way to my friends.

"On day 5, we were finally rescued Aug. 3, 1945 by the crew of the USS Bassett. My group was taken to the hospital in Samar, a province in the Philippines for two weeks and then sent to Guam. The war was over and we came back to the States. I was honorably discharged when I turned 21, at the Naval Air Station, New Orleans."

When Bert asked about the nightmares, Wilcox, then 82, replied, "I had many, many nightmares and they were always of the two gray sharks staring at me, but I haven't had one now in over a year."

He died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 85 on Nov. 14, 2010.

He was a genuine hero to many, including friend and former co-worker Don Holloway. In an email message, Holloway commented, "He was a hero in my eyes, never heard him brag. I was his neighbor until he passed away."

A longtime director on the Survivors Organization Board of the USS Indianapolis, Wilcox also was a member of the Cedar Bayou Grace United Methodist Church, Cedar Bayou Masonic Lodge and Baytown Noon Lions Club.

Wanda Orton Baytown Sun Columnist
"Wandering" September 8, 2015 columns

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