WWII Veteran Recalls Surviving 1945 Shipwreck, Shark Attacks
This week marks the 69th anniversary of one of the most devastating and gruesome naval sea disasters of World War II: the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. One Southern California man was among the survivors, and he has a harrowing tale to tell of sharks, hallucinations and rescue.
Verlin Fortin, who goes by Buzz, was on the USS Indianapolis when it was sunk by Japanese torpedoes in 1945. The ship had just completed its top secret mission: delivering the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima days later.
Fortin lost his ability to speak after a stroke in February, so his son-in-law Greg DiGiovanni tells his story now - this time, to friends and family gathered on the 69th anniversary of the sinking.
"Of the 1,197 men that were on-board that ship, 880 perished, 317 would survive," DiGiovanni said. "Of those men, 69 years ago, 36 remain. And Buzz is one of them."
"That night, as luck would have it, he traded places with somebody and he went up on the deck of the ship, where he was sleeping," DiGiovanni continued. "If he had stayed down below, he would have been one of the casualties when the torpedo hit."
The ship's SOS signal was ignored. The 900 men who weren't killed in the explosion floated in the water for five days.
"No water. No food. Sores from the sea. Exhaustion from treading water and just trying to hang on," DiGiovanni said. "And, of course, the worst thing about it was, as soon as they went into the sea that evening, sharks came around. They said most of the men really lost their lives from the sharks attacking them. Most of them were able to get together in groups, and that kind of held off some of the sharks a bit. But any individual that would swim out alone would be eaten by the sharks."
Fortin held onto a potato crate and suffered a gaping wound when he finally let go.
"He would approach someone who had their life vest on and he would go over and touch them, and they would actually ... bobble down, and the whole underside of their body would be gone," DiGiovanni said. "Men were hallucinating. They could have sworn that the person next to them was a Japanese, and they would attack and kill their own men.
"When we asked him, 'How did you do this for four days? What motivated you?,' he told us he was thinking of his future wife."
On July 30th, 2014 - the 69th anniversary of the sinking - Fortin was honored at a ceremony at his retirement home near San Bernardino. There was cake, visits from friends and three generations of Fortin's family, and an emotional speech celebrating his survival.
"Miraculously, four days later, a plane on a reconnaissance mission happened to see the oil slick, went down and found the heads of men bobbing in the water," DiGiovanni recounted in a speech at the ceremony.
The next day, Fortin was pulled from his potato crate and spent the next few months in the hospital. When he finally went home to Burbank, he married the woman who he had thought of over those five days: Viola Murphy, or Vicky, as everyone called her. They were married for 44 years, until she passed away in 1990. Now their three children all have children and grandchildren of their own. Fortin didn't speak of his ordeal for years, but opened up to his family with all the details shortly before his stroke.
"You don't call a person a hero maybe that just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, but he is," DiGiovanni said. "To survive that kind of ordeal and be part of a piece of history that will live forever."