65 years after World
War II, he had nightmares of sharks staring at him.
Two long, gray sharks were pulling him under the water and as he
surfaced, pursuing him.
These were not nightmares made from horror movies or from fear of
what could happen in a disaster at sea. They were nightmares reliving
over and over what really did happen to Lindsey "Zeb" Wilcox of
the worst sea disaster in the nation's history.
The real-life nightmare began on July 30, 1945, when two Japanese
torpedoes sent the USS Indianapolis to the bottom of the Philippine
Sea. The heavy cruiser was sailing to Leyte after leaving her secret
cargo, key parts to the atomic bomb, on the island of Tinian. From
there, the Air Force would take charge of the secret cargo and on
two days in August would finish off WWII
with raids over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Soon afterward, World
War II ended but most of the crew aboard the Indianapolis never
lived to share in the victory celebration. Among the casualties
was Baytonian Marvin Baker, killed inside the ship when it exploded,
but Wilcox, who had lived and worked briefly in Baytown
before the war, survived and one day would become a permanent -
and beloved Baytonian.
Throughout the unthinkable ordeal at sea, Wilcox kept telling himself
that he was survivor. He never gave up. Those two gray sharks must
have sensed this because they gave up in their pursuit.
Thanks to Bert Marshall, Sun columnist and computer whiz, I have
been listening to his taped interviews with Wilcox on Windows Media
Player. It's a privilege to hear the voice of this genuine war hero
tell his story. On the BaytownBert and OurBaytown web site, you
can read about the interviews and look at photos Bert took.
Quoting directly Wilcox from the interviews:
midnight I was relieved of duty and made my way to the deck to lay
down, when there was a tremendous explosion and fire came out of
the forward starboard and port passageways, extending half the distance
of the quarter deck. We had been hit by two Japanese torpedoes and
the ship was listing badly, so I grabbed my life jacket and literally
stepped off the side of the ship into the water. I quickly swam
about 50 feet away and donned my 'Mae West' jacket. The ship, all
615 feet of her, sank within 15 minutes of being hit.
"I saw a life raft and got inside and those of us who were unhurt
began giving up our place in the raft to all the injured sailors
and Marines. I found a floater net and grabbed onto it to conserve
energy. We all voiced concern about our situation and whether an
SOS was sent out. The sharks began appearing - they were 6 to 7
feet long and gray. We had a lot of wounded, folks with broken limbs
"We prayed that God would give us strength to get through this ordeal
and our lives played out before us, but the most important thing
I did was tell myself I was a survivor - then it was okay - I knew
I would survive.
"The first day was not too bad. We had about a 150 men on the two
life rafts and several floater nets, but day two was a different
story. Men started hallucinating, seeing islands and airplanes,
giving everyone false hope. Some got into fights thinking the others
were the enemy. A few went under water and claimed they ate chow
or drank fresh water. We started losing men and below us we could
see sharks everywhere. By day three, men were losing their minds.
Drinking salt water does this to people and they would become combative,
swim off and sink - then the sharks would get them.
"But on day four, I was awakened when a couple of sharks pulled
me underwater. I came up fighting to face two gray sharks staring
at me. Both were 10 to 12 feet in length and about 10 feet away
from me. I think they were trying to see if I was dead so they could
eat me, but I told them, 'You don't bother me and I won't bother
you.' I realized I had floated away from the group and they were
nowhere in sight, but about this time, I saw them in the distance
on the far side of the sharks, so I swam between the sharks and
they followed me all the way to my friends.
"On day 5, we were finally rescued Aug. 3, 1945 by the crew of the
USS Bassett. My group was taken to the hospital in Samar, a province
in the Philippines for two weeks and then sent to Guam. The war
was over and we came back to the States. I was honorably discharged
when I turned 21, at the Naval Air Station, New Orleans."
When Bert asked about the nightmares, Wilcox, then 82, replied,
"I had many, many nightmares and they were always of the two gray
sharks staring at me, but I haven't had one now in over a year."
He died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 85 on Nov. 14, 2010.
He was a genuine hero to many, including friend and former co-worker
Don Holloway. In an email message, Holloway commented, "He was a
hero in my eyes, never heard him brag. I was his neighbor until
he passed away."
A longtime director on the Survivors Organization Board of the USS
Indianapolis, Wilcox also was a member of the Cedar Bayou Grace
United Methodist Church, Cedar Bayou Masonic Lodge and Baytown Noon
© Wanda Orton
Baytown Sun Columnist
8, 2015 columns