PORTAGE — Michigan resident Dick Thelan manned the 20-millimeter guns on the USS Indianapolis during World War II before it was sunk in the Philippine Sea during one of the deadliest naval disasters in American history.
He floated for four days and five nights in shark-infested waters — roughly 104 hours without food or water in 90- to 100-degree temperatures.
“My dad told me he wanted me to come home,” he said. “Every time I was ready to give up I would feel dad’s grip and see dad’s face. If I didn’t have him to think about, I would have died. I would have given up.”
Sharks dragged sailors from the USS Indianapolis under the water 15 feet to 20 feet away from Thelan. The sharks repeatedly nudged his legs and his life jacket. One stared him down.
“He looked me over and swam away. He didn’t like the looks of me,” he said. “I found out later I was saturated with diesel fuel and that sharks don’t like the smell of diesel fuel. So it saved my life.”
Thelan, three other survivors of the USS Indianapolis and submariners who served on the USS Indianapolis Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine gathered at the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor in Portage Thursday.
They were there to have lunch with sailors aboard the fourth ship to bear the USS Indianapolis name: a state-of-the-art Freedom-class littoral combat ship built by Lockheed Martin over the last few years at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine Corporation’s shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin.
The ship’s crew has been working feverishly this week, starting long days as early as 6:30 a.m., to prepare the $450 million warship for a historic U.S. Navy commissioning ceremony. More than 11,000 people, including many dignitaries and high-ranking military officials, are expected to attend the commissioning ceremony at 10 a.m. today.
Thelan’s advice to the sailors — some fresh-faced kids just out of high school — was straightforward: “Don’t ever give up.”
A crew of 70 officers and enlisted personnel sailed the USS Indianapolis down Lake Michigan from the Wisconsin shipyard to the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor. It’s been docked there since Monday, a short distance from the ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor mill that produced the steel plate that makes up much of the 3,900-ton ship.
“Since I found out I was going to be the commanding officer, I always knew I wanted to make sure the commissioning took place in Indiana, as close as I could get the ship to Indianapolis,” said Cmdr. Colin Kane, a native of Columbus, Ohio. “I think bringing this kind of event to the people here is extremely important. The steel mill over here is where much of the steel plate was laid for this ship. Having these people be able to be part of the commissioning event on this coming Saturday is something I wanted to make sure was a feasibility.”
Expect a lot of pomp and pageantry.
Sailors have spent the week draping the ship in American flag bunting and setting out a sea of white folding chairs as far as the eye can see along the dock.
The commissioning ceremony will feature a 19-gun salute, a performance of the National Anthem by the Purdue University Men’s Choir, colors by the University of Notre Dame ROTC Color Guard, and remarks from Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, Congressman Pete Visclosky and U.S. Defense Department’s Deputy Chief Management Officer Lisa Hershman. She will deliver the keynote address.
“We’ve been planning since about 2015,” said Doug Lehman, a retired Navy officer from Wabash, Indiana, who served on the board of directors for the commissioning ceremony. “A lot of logistics go into it. It takes a lot of people.”
Planned by about 25 to 30 volunteers from Indiana, the commissioning will feature many traditional ceremonies that include assuming command of the USS Indianapolis, setting the first watch, and the breaking of the flag of the under secretary of the Navy.
Jill Donnelly, the wife of former U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly, serves as the ship’s sponsor and will give the ceremonial first order to “man our ship and bring her to life.”
“For some the most impressive part is when they ask the ship to come to life,” Lehman said. “The crew runs aboard and everything that can move does.”
Following the ceremony, a crew that’s been training for two years to man the ship will sail it across the Great Lakes, through the St. Lawrence Seaway, and along the East Coast to Naval Station Mayport near Jacksonville, Florida.
“The commissioning is sort of like when you buy a new car and the dealer gives you a key and says you can drive away now,” Lehman said. “The Navy gets to take possession of the ship.”
The 388-foot-long ship is powered by two gas turbine engines, two main propulsion diesel engines, and four waterjets that operate on the same principle as a jet ski. It’s fast, much faster than many traditional Navy ships — capable of reaching speeds of more than 40 knots. It’s also agile with a navigational draft of 14.1 feet that’s about half of that of the Navy’s larger cruisers and destroyers.
Surface Warfare Officer Lt. Julian Turner said the ship would principally serve a mine patrol mission, to detect and destroy mines placed near coastlines to deter ships and submarines.
“We are very maneuverable, very agile,” he said. “We’re a littoral ship, which means we can get very, very close to land. That’s where our mission package is, for mine warfare, which is typically close to shore.”
But the combat ship was designed so it could be configured into other uses, such as by adding more firepower so it could serve in a surface warfare capacity. The USS Indianapolis now has a 57-millimeter gun and side scan sonar to detect mines. With a mine warfare detachment of 20 sailors and an aviation unit that’s 23 sailors strong, it can deploy 11-Meter Naval Special Warfare Rigid Inflatable Boats and has a large helipad in the rear that can dispatch either two manned helicopters or three drone helicopters to hunt for mines.
The ship holds up to 100,000 gallons of fuel and can go up to 10 days without refueling or needing to replenish its food supplies.
“It varies how quickly we go through that, depending on speed,” Kane said. “We can go 10 knots where I can go 4,000 miles or I can go 260 miles really fast and be pretty much out of fuel.”
The USS Indianapolis features many references to its namesake city in central Indiana. Its interior features a mural of the Indianapolis skyline, a mural of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and a quote from Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears: “America allows us to be able to dream, then gives us the ability to achieve those dreams.”
Petty Officer First Class Joshua Gaskill of Lizton, Indiana, enlisted more than eight years ago after a buddy who always wanted to join the military was injured in a firearms accident. He found it ironic he ended up stationed on a ship named after the capital of his home state. But he’ll get the chance to see his family and friends who will attend the ceremony in Portage.
“They’re all very proud,” he said. “My mom loves everything I do in the military, and she’ll be up here on Saturday. It’s not often you get to commission a ship in Indiana where you’re from, the namesake of your hometown.”
After arriving at the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor, the crew of the USS Indianapolis went on a whirlwind tour of the state, visiting war memorials in Indianapolis, the Bankers Life Fieldhouse where the Indiana Pacers play, the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, and the ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor steel mill.
They have since been readying the ship and drilling to practice for the ceremony, knowing that high-ranking Navy brass will be watching. They also want to hold up the storied history of the USS Indianapolis, which was the name of a World War I-era cargo ship, the heavy cruiser that sunk in 1945 and the attack submarine that was decommissioned in 1998.
“It’s a weight on your shoulders, trying to keep up that legacy,” Information Systems Technician Second Class Bea Vang said.
Expected to remain in service for 32 years to 35 years, the USS Indianapolis littoral combat ship’s motto is “Legacy of War.”
“It really brings home what the reality is of the history of our namesake,” Kane said. “It gives me a lot of pride. It makes my job more real and helps my sailors realize what happened in our past. We can’t forget our past. We have to understand that because I think it helps us become better warriors in the future. That’s what the Navy does. We protect our nation. We’re prepared to give our lives in the service of our country.”
Thelan, who nearly gave his life for his country in the closing days of World War II, went on to be married to his late wife for 50 years and drive a truck more than 2 million miles around the country. The 92-year-old is moved that he will get to watch the commissioning ceremony firsthand this morning.
“When it was time to do the christening, I thought I probably won’t be alive,” he said. “But here I am, two-and-a-half years later… When you go through something like that, you never forget. It will never leave you.”
Tickers to the commissioning are required to attend, and they have all been allotted.
Anyone who was unable to get tickets or attend can still watch the commissioning ceremony at https://allhands.navy.mil/Live-Stream.