USS Indianapolis Survivor’s Story of Faith
I was recently teaching through John 4 where Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that if she knew the gift of God and who she spoke with, she would have asked for a drink from Him, and He would have given her living water. For an illustration concerning the difference between regular old water and the water of life that Jesus brings, I referred to the World War II Naval tragedy of the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis. The USS Indianapolis war hardened battleship that had participated in numerous battles in the Pacific theatre including Tarawa, Guam, Tinian, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa to name a few. After she was hit by a Kamikaze plane, losing nine sailors, she went back to the states to undergo repair. When she was sea worthy and able to return to the Pacific she was sent to Tinian, transporting (unknown by most of the crew) the main parts to assemble “Little Boy,” one of two atomic bombs that would bring an end to the war. After delivering the bomb, the “Indy” set sail again and was soon after struck by a torpedo from aJapanese submarine. 880 men from the crew would perish in the ensuing events whether from the explosion and damage from the torpedo, drowning at sea or the infamous shark attacks. The 317 survivors clung to life rafts, floater nets or bobbing debris for five days when a sea plane piloted by Chuck Gwinn and another battleship the USS Bassett eventually spotted them and came to their rescue. Having viewed not a few books and movies on the matter, I often recollect how the stranded sailors were desperate for water and often began to hallucinate. Their extreme thirst would often drive them to drink the ocean salt water which would in turn cause them to drift into insanity. They would see hallucinations of the Indianapolis underwater in ship-shape with functioning drinking fountains. With such refreshment nearby, they would dive under the surface of the sea in an attempt to drink from the fresh water fountain, only to be swept farther away from the group or picked off by a shark. My sermon’s illustration was that anything else that the world has to offer that would take our affections and passions from Jesus is like deceptive saltwater that not only leaves us longing for more, but actually causes our demise and puts us in a place to be deceived and picked off by the wicked one.
After the service, one of the women in our church, Denise Miles approached me with a special smile of excitement. “My uncle, Cletus Lebow was a survivor of the Indianapolis sinking. He would be excited to hear that you spoke of the Indianapolis in your sermon today as he is a Christian!” The next week, Denise came to church with her arms full of special envelopes and books. These envelopes contained personal correspondences between Uncle Cletus and her mother Oleta. All kinds of newspaper clippings of the Indy Survivors being remembered and honored with very special city memorials and the Congressional Gold Medal. A book detailing the experience of every single survivor from the war to later in life, pages of special poetry and testimonial was signed and annotated by Cletus himself. Another spiral bound book has the stories of Cletus and other family member’s upbringing. One envelope in the bundle had a hand written letter by Cletus telling some especially hard accounts from the war that have hung on his mind over the years. Some of these events included the horrors being on a recovery crew inside the USS Oklahoma after the attack on Pearle Harbor, witnessing countless landings on the pacific islands, the suicides of civilians on the island of Guam and the Kamikaze attack on their very own ship.
All of these envelopes, bundles and books were graciously loaned to be to peruse and appreciate. They are a wealth of historical gems from a man who loved and served his country faithfully and sacrificially. Yet, out of all the pages some stood out more than others. Pages where Cletus boldly and unashamedly tells of the faithfulness of His God, the Lord Jesus Christ with declarations of “How Great He is!” In the spiral bound book, Cletus tells of how his brother, mother and himself were saved from their sins to know Jesus. Incredibly noticeable differences took place in his older brother Curtis, “something new and alive in Him.” Later, when Cletus was 12 he would receive what Christ had done for him while living in Abernathy, Tx. An entire chapter is devoted in the spiral bound, not to the experience of the Indianapolis (as harrowing as that was), but to the Goodness of His God. The chapter begins, “As far as I am concerned this will not be a chapter in my life but the complete story. I would not have survived in this world for all these years without the protection for our Lord in Heaven. Thank God. He has been with me, is with me, and will be with me as long as I will allow Him.” He later says, “I know there is life after death, but only if there is life before death. The life of being born again into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Cletus experienced God providing for his family through incredible job openings, miraculous healings from cancer for his wife Joan, deliverance from chronic back pain and of course His deliverance from the deep after his sleek battleship plunged into the water.
Just before the Indy took its journey to deliver the atomic bomb “Little Boy” to the Tinian Island, Cletus had a sense that something ominous was about to happen to him. His mother noticed that he was disturbed and told him that even though she could not join him on the mission, there was one who could. Cletus responded with, “Yes mama, Jesus can go with me.” When the ship was struck and Cletus plunged into the water, He cried out, “Lord, help me!” Cletus recalls, “a bright light appeared and said, “Don’t be afraid.” Immediately a feeling of calm and peace came over me. I knew that I was okay whether I made it back home to Abernathy or home in Heaven and I was no longer afraid… He was in control. I am sure this kept me from succumbing to the almost irresistible and fatal desire to drink my fill of good old salt water straight from the ocean.”
Cletus’ story is a reminder that no matter what our circumstance, our Lord Jesus is worthy to be trusted. We can hope in Him in life’s greatest trials and tragedies. As the psalmist says, “though He slay me, still I will trust Him.” A closing Poem by Cletus is also a good charge to use the gift of life for our Lord’s purposes and glory:
As the Waves rolled over the Indy asleep in the deep
The Lord gave us a miracle to keep
He gave us a chance to serve Him for many more years
And we remember the lost comrades as we shed sad tears
Lord, we thank you for added days
We work to glorify You in all your ways
May the miracle of survival live in each heart
We pray you will guide us to do our part
We give glory and honor to You
And strive to serve you in all we do
Thanks for the miracle of survival from the sea
Thanks for your love and grace and for saving me
- Survivor’s Reunion, August 7,1995