Clyde Beal: Navy veteran remembers USS Indianapolis
Thirty days after graduating from Huntington East High School in 1944, Keith Dean enlisted in the United States Navy. Up to this point of his career, the events and circumstances surrounding his life had been pretty much routine. The next two years would provide Dean with enough memories to last a life time.
After training at Camp Perry, Virginia, Dean was assigned along with 240 others to the USS Register, a newly commissioned 306-foot high-speed destroyer escort ship which carried four rescue boats of 36 feet in length. Those small boats would soon become involved in one of the most memorable rescue efforts of the war.
After a "shake down" cruise, they escorted 11 merchant ships to Okinawa. No sooner had this mission been completed, when orders were received to relieve the USS Knudsen which was on patrol for enemy submarine and Japanese suicide boats off the southwest tip of Okinawa. Dean remembers that patrol as if it were yesterday:
"We had been on surveillance less than three hours when a small group of Japanese Fighters were sighted coming directly toward us low on the water, and directly out of the sitting sun. I was equipped with a .30-caliber machine gun which seemed so inadequate. One of the planes hit the ship so close to me, that it was an absolute miracle it missed. Minutes later, U.S. Corsair fighter aircraft showed up and the enemy planes left."
One year after high school graduation, Dean was now asking God for the chance to live another day. Two enemy planes crashed into the ship during that raid, 12 purple hearts were awarded, the ship received considerable damage, and a lot of high school kids became adults before next day's light.
The next few weeks saw a lull in fighting as their ship underwent extensive repairs in the Philippine Islands. Days were filled with basketball, swimming on the beach, and exchanging stories with other crew members about what they had just gone through.
On 29 July, they were given orders to escort a group of ships to Ulithi, an island about 850 miles east of the Philippians. At the time it was the world's largest Naval facility.
"On 2 August, we received a message to abort the escort service, and proceed as directed 300 miles in search of survivors spotted in the water by a routine patrol plane," Dean said.
No one was aware of the events that had previously occurred on 30 July, 1945. A Japanese submarine had fired two torpedoes which hit the USS Indianapolis, sinking it in less than 20 minutes. There were nearly 1,200 men on board when it was hit, Approximately 300 went down with the ship. About 900 were left in shark infested waters, of which about 316 were rescued.
There were a total of seven ships involved with picking up survivors which had been enduring horrific conditions as they watched sharks randomly rip apart their buddies. One of those ships was the USS Register. Their rescue boats pulled 12 men to safety.
"One survivor was in a raft all alone. When we pulled him out, he told of a shark that had grabbed his arm, he punched the shark directly in the eye which let him go. Cuts and gashes on his arm were proof of his terrible ordeal," said Dean.
On 6 August, a B-29 called "Enola Gay" dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing over 80,000 people. That bomb was delivered to Tinian Island by the USS Indianapolis just days before it was sunk.
There have been books, television programs, and personal accounts written about the facts surrounding the gut wrenching events of the few who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. Dean feels a great sense of pride for his involvement in rescuing those few survivors, and a great deal of sorrow for the unspeakable death experienced by those who never came home.
The tragedy surrounding this event was of such epic proportion that a special medallion was created to honor the memory of the USS Indianapolis. It was presented to families of victims, survivors, and those involved with the rescue efforts. It is a possession that Dean feels honored to receive.
The USS Register logged 47,570 nautical miles, and Dean was a part of every one. He was honorably discharged in June of 1946. In just two short years after high school graduation, Dean had experienced enough death and destruction to last the rest of his life.
Clyde Beal is a freelance writer living in Huntington. If you are interested in sharing an interesting story with the readers of this paper; email Archie350@verizon.net
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