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Survivor of U.S.S Indianapolis speaks to local students

Posted at 4:23 PM, Nov 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-13 06:05:31-05

In honor of Veterans Day, a famous Michigan Veteran spoke to students at a local school.

Richard Thelen, Gunner's Mate First Class from the U.S.S. Indianapolis was at St. Martha's school in Okemos.

Thelen told the students about his time in the ocean, which was 5 days long, surrounded by sharks. The ship was sunk during World War II. Thelen was 18 years old. "When it blew, I don't know if I went 2 feet, I don't know if I went 20 feet, but I went in the air," he recalled.

About 900 sailors went into the ocean on July 30, 1945 when a Japanese submarine hit the ship with 2 torpedoes. It has been reported that it sank in 12 minutes.

Thelen is known as Michigan's lone-living survivor. He thinks that the diesel fuel that he was covered in not only saved him from the hot sun, but also the 100's of sharks.

"Twice a shark was poking me in my life jacket. That shark's eyeballs and my eyeballs were [not] far apart, but he looked me over and swam away," said Thelen in a documentary on the sinking. He is one of 317 men that survived.

Thelen played himself in "Ocean of Fear," on the Discovery Channel during Shark Week.

His story, and that of his fellow shipmates, was acted out by Robert Shaw in 1975's blockbuster, Jaws.

"Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. We’d just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes.

Didn’t see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know, was that our bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’ by, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. It was sorta like you see in the calendars, you know the infantry squares in the old calendars like the Battle of Waterloo and the idea was the shark come to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and sometimes that shark he go away… but sometimes he wouldn’t go away.

Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’… ’til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then… ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red, and despite all your poundin’ and your hollerin’ those sharks come in and… they rip you to pieces.

You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour. Thursday mornin’, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist.

At noon on the fifth day, a Lockheed Ventura swung in low and he spotted us, a young pilot, lot younger than Mr. Hooper here, anyway he spotted us and a few hours later a big ol’ fat PBY come down and started to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.

Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”