WWII Survivor

Retired World War II Marine Sgt. Edgar Harrell, 95, talks to Cpl. Angel Montanez after Harrell spoke about surviving for five days at sea after the USS Indianapolis sunk during an appearance at Goldman Sachs in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

MURRAY — Edgar Harrell lived most of his life near Clarksville, Tennessee, after returning from duty in World War II that included being one of the few survivors of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis cruiser. 

He is perhaps the most well-known of the men who were thrust into the Pacific Ocean in the early morning of July 30,1945, when a Japanese submarine torpedoed the American ship. He wrote a well-documented book about the experience called “Out of the Depths” and it seemed as if whenever anything related to the Indianapolis would be unveiled, including the establishment of a museum in the Indiana city for which the ship was named, Harrell was not only there, but he had been requested to appear.

He also was from Murray. Saturday, following his death over the weekend at the age of 96, the Marine Corps sergeant will be laid to rest in his original hometown.

“He was just a remarkable man,” said Murrayan Mark Kennedy, a fellow Marine, who served in the Vietnam War and, like Harrell, sustained serious injuries from his duty. Both emerged with Purple Hearts.

“I’ve heard him tell his story several times. He enlisted in the Marines (after his junior year at Murray High in 1943) and ended up basically as an embassy guard. Those Marines were sort of the select of the select and assigned to bigger U.S. naval vessels and they were the guys that guarded the commanders and they guarded anything on the ship that was of value. Of course, Ed was involved with the equipment at Tinian (small island nation in the Pacific Ocean) that was used to go to the Enola Gay (an American B-29 Super Fortress).”

The Indianapolis had delivered one of two atomic bombs that would be dropped in early August on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The cruiser was headed to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii after making its delivery when a Japanese submarine attacked the ship and sunk it. Because the mission had been secret, no one knew the Indianapolis was at sea.

So when the torpedoes punctured the ship, no one knew that 1,195 sailors were on board, about 300 of whom went down with the ship after it sank. That left the remaining 800-plus, including Harrell, to survive on their own, with no help in sight.

Four days and five nights later, and with the number of survivors down a little more than 300, thanks to exposure, saltwater poisoning and shark attacks, they were saved.

“I’ve heard Ed’s story several times about how he treaded water with a Navy lieutenant that was bald and he said that he and the Navy lieutenant had decided, like so many before them, to swim for land,” Kennedy said. 

In Harrell’s many presentations, he would, and with great emotion, recall how his mates would hallucinate and jump from flimsy rafts, as well as discard life jackets, and drift into the water, thinking help was nearby. He also would recall the many screams that happened as the jaws of sharks tore into the men.

“So, as they took off,  there happened to be a plane flying overhead. The pilot of the plane later told them that they saw the reflection of the sun reflecting off the head of that Navy lieutenant like a mirror. That’s why they turned around and came back and that turned out to be the sea plane that landed and took Navy sailors, as well as Ed Harrell, on the wing of that sea plane and waited for a ship to come rescue them.”

David Parker said Monday that he got the chance to hear Harrell’s story for the first time in the early 1990s when the Marine spoke in Murray at First Baptist Church. He said he felt compelled to attend because his father, James, who had died recently, was also a Marine.

 “The only thing I knew about the Indianapolis before that night was what was referenced in the movie  ‘Jaws,’ from the sharker Quint (played by actor Robert Shaw),” Parker said of how that night started a friendship between he and Harrell that would last about 30 years. “After he was through, I went up to him and thanked him for coming and I asked, ‘Did you ever know a fellow named James Parker?’ He held my hand and said, ‘Let me tell you a story.’

“I had known that, when my dad and uncle (Joe), were about to ship out for the Pacific Theater after their training in San Diego, that my grandparents (Hafford and Birdie) had gone out there to see their sons because they didn’t know what was going to happen. I knew they had picnics in Balboa Park in San Diego. Mr Harrell said, ‘They included me in those picnics,’ and we’ve been good friends ever since.”

Kennedy said the first time he saw Harrell tell his story was at Pagliai’s restaurant in Murray at a Marine Corps League dinner. Subsequent appearances he witnessed were at the World War II Museum in Indianapolis at Monument Circle, as well as in Fishers, Indiana while he was visiting his daughter’s family. 

“He would always remember my name,” Kennedy said of Harrell, whose presentation always included recollections from the five days in the water, complete with direct quotes from at least 10 of his mates. “Every time he met me it was, ‘Sgt. Kennedy … how are you doing?’ And he always referred to me as ‘Sergeant.’”

Harrell received numerous honors over the years, but one that was particularly meaningful was one Kennedy witnessed in October 2013 at the Murray Independent School District Central Office. That was the night Harrell received his diploma from Murray High and he said it meant a lot to him as well because he was a GED high school graduate. 

City of Murray Mayor Bob Rogers was the MISD superintendent that evening and said that event came back to him over the weekend after he learned of Harrell’s death.

“We were really glad to present that to him,” Rogers said, recalling how Harrell told his story that night to a spellbound audience. “His story is just amazing. It was an amazing honor to hear it. 

“To go through what they went through, with the sharks and everything else, just goes to show you what people  have to go through in order to win a war.”

Teresa Speed was Murray High’s principal, and had the biggest part of the presentation. She had the job of calling Harrell’s name, to come forward and accept his diploma, the same custom in which every Murray High senior participates during their commencement exercises. She then presented the leather-bound diploma to the Marine veteran, prompting strong applause from everyone in the room.

“I can tell you that it was a privilege to be part of Mr. Harrell receiving his diploma,” Speed said Monday. “What a blessing to his community and family!”  

Harrell’s funeral is scheduled for 10 Saturday morning in Tennessee. The burial is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Murray Memorial Gardens.