Stranded in Shark Infested Waters - Part 3

Years ago Ed Harrell and a number of other sailors were pulled from the Pacific. They had survived four-and-a-half days afloat after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. It's four days that, as you might imagine, Ed Harrell has never been able to forget.
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Out of the Depths 
Day 3 of 4
Guest:                        Ed Harrell
From the Series:       Survival in the South Pacific 


Bob:                Sixty years ago this week, Ed Harrell was one of a few hundred men floating in the Pacific following the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.  In the four days that he was afloat, Ed saw some of his fellow sailors drift away from the group to be eaten by sharks.  Some who tried to swim toward an imaginary shore who never came back.  For Ed, the memories are vivid.
Ed:                  I can see it today, and I think maybe I'd like to look at it and say that the Lord reminds me, even today, of those incidents, and as He reminds me of those, then they help to strengthen my faith and my resolve to live a life for Him today.
Bob:                This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, August 3rd.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  Where did Ed Harrell's hope come from when it appeared all reason for hope was gone?  Stay with us.
                        And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  You know, we've heard a story this week, Dennis, about a ship under attack.  And then we've heard about the ongoing horror and terror of living in the middle of the ocean, bundled up with your buddies, hooked with your lifejackets to one another as the sharks encircle you in the waters and wondering, "Does anyone even know we're out here or will we die at sea?"  No food, no fresh water except for a thundercloud that comes by and gives you a little bit of a rain shower.  You hear a story like this, and you wonder where does the will to survive in the midst of that come from?  I think of myself and think, "When would I just lay my head back and say, "Okay, I'm ready to die.  I'd rather do that than keep living like this."
Dennis:          Yes, in fact, there's a story that Ed Harrell, who joins us again on FamilyLife Today.  Ed, welcome back to the broadcast.
Ed:                  Thank you.
Dennis:          There's a story you tell, Ed, of a Marine buddy who was ready to do the very thing Bob was talking about.  He was ready to quit, and you kind of – the picture I had from reading your book was you kind of grabbed him by the life jacket and looked him in the eyes, and you gave him a reason to believe.
Ed:                  I pretty much gave him an ultimatum, really, in that he had tried to convince me that he was going to commit suicide.  He'd gone into the water head first and all of that oil in his eyes and then, you know, you can imagine – you take your hand, and you try to rub that oil out, but the more you rub your eye, you're rubbing salt in, and you're kind of taking that salt that's in the water, you're grinding your eyeballs with that.  And then the sun then, you know, beaming off of that water, then through the daytime.  By the second day, Spooner was determined that he was going to commit suicide, and he mentioned that two or three times.
                        Anyway, I recall that I just got ahold of Spooner, and I turned him to me, and I kind of looked him squarely in the eye, and I said, "Spooner, there's only two of we Marines out here, and whenever a sailor is gone, there's still going to be two Marines, and you're going to be one of them with me," and I kind of turned him to me, and I fashioned – hooked his lifejacket then onto mine, and I swam with him then through that night, and then – it was sometime then the third morning that he wanted me to release him, and he made a vow to me that he would fight for life as long as there was breath in him because of him being able to survive as long as he had through that night, and I released him, then, the next day.
Bob:                You and some 300 of your shipmates survived in the waters in the Pacific from the time that your boat was attacked just after midnight on the 30th of July in 1945 when the Indianapolis went under in about 15 minutes.  You survived for a period of, what was it, four days, five days?
Ed:                  It was four-and-a-half days, yes.
Bob:                And you survived that, as you've already shared with us this week, there was – was it just a single rain shower that passed over that gave you a little bit of water?
Ed:                  Right, that's all the rain that we had the whole time I was out there, that's right.
Bob:                So you're in salt water, you had a few tablespoons of fresh water in a four-and-a-half day period – any food?
Ed:                  Well, let's come to the next day.  The third day, when there were 17 of us, and we had literally had a prayer meeting.  I mean, nearly everybody prayed.
Bob:                You'd started with 80, and now you're down to 17.
Ed:                  Right.  
Dennis:          The sharks had picked off that many?
Ed:                  That's right – well, sharks and – you mentioned somebody giving up – you know, I saw any number of boys that maybe at one minute you'd think, "Well, they're still alive," and just a little bit later you'd see that they just all of a sudden – seemingly, they just allowed their head to drop into the water, and they didn't have the energy to raise up, and they didn't care.  I recall that third day that we had had a prayer meeting, and everyone nearly was praying, and some would ask that you would pray for them, you know, they had – some had some children back home that they had never seen, and so on, and they were desperate to make it.  And, you know, "If you make it, and I don't make it, will you go by and see my family" and – "but don't tell them the gruesome things that are happening."
                        Anyway, we'd had a prayer meeting, and we got through with a prayer meeting there on that third day, and then we came upon the swell, and we looked off to a distance, and we could see that there looked like a little makeshift of a raft that was coming into our group.  And after a period of time, we yelled at them, and they back at us, and it wasn't long until they made it into our group.  There were five sailors, and they had a makeshift of a raft consisting of, like, two 40-millimeter ammunition cans and three crates, like, a wooden slatted potato crate or an orange crate.  And as they came into our group, I recognized that there were lifejackets that they had taken off of boys that had already expired, and they had squeezed those out the best that they could, because a life – a kapok jacket will last, maybe, 48 hours, but we've already long passed that.
                        So when they came in our group, they said that they were swimming to the Philippines; that if we could get close enough to the Philippines that maybe someone would see us.  And, at that time, we were nearly convinced that no word had gotten out, and yet 50 years later we found out that it did.  But, anyway, they wanted to know if anyone wanted to join them – swim to the Philippines, pushing that little raft.
Bob:                That was hundreds of miles away, right?
Ed:                  Probably 500 miles.  We didn't know that.  So I looked at my buddy, Spooner, and I said, "Spooner, I'm going to go.  I'm going to join them," and he said, "Harrell, if you go, I'm going to go," and so here are two Marines and five sailors began to say goodbye to our 15 other sailors, and we're going to swim to the Philippines, we thought.  So here we start.
Dennis:          Was there anything said by the guys you left?  Did they say, "That's foolish to do that?
Ed:                  They did.  They thought it was foolish.  They said the sharks will get you, and, well, you know, they've already gotten the bigger part of us, and there was really no – seemingly, no advantage to just stay and somewhat hope against hope and do what we can.
Dennis:          So you swam out past the perimeter where those sharks had been circling that group of boys?
Ed:                  We left our group and, after an hour or two, then, swimming, actually, I recall that after we had gone a distance we could see the sun setting in the west, and we thought, "Well, we'll be able to see the moon, we'll be able to see the Southern Cross, we'll be able to see the sun now as it sets, and we can tell that we're going to the Philippines, and the Philippines are big enough that we're bound to get in close enough that someone will see us."
                        Well, after we had gone a good distance, we came upon a swell, and I could look off into at a distance, and I saw some debris out at the starboard side out maybe a couple of hundred yards or so, and a 100 yards ahead of us, and I called it to the attention of the others.  And at first we thought, "Well, it's one of our buddies out there," but then as we got closer, we could tell that it was debris of some kind, not one of ours, and so, you know, you pray for food.  What's the possibility, you know, could there be food out there, and so we prayed.  And I know I said, "I tell you what, if you'll keep going straight, I'm going to swim out and get that.  If it's just a crate, then we'll bring it in and fasten it onto our others here, but let's hope and pray that it could be food."
                        Well, they thought I was foolish again, because the sharks maybe would get a straggler out there, but, really, I felt a real compelling force that says, "Go for it.  Go and see what it might be."  And I know, as I swam and got closer and closer to that crate, I'm praying for food, I'm praying for water, anything, you know, and as I got close enough that I could see those potatoes in that crate.  Kind of in desperation, I didn't pause to thank the Lord for what I'm about to eat but, in desperation, I'm making my way to those potatoes, and I reached in to get that first potato.  Kind of in the agony of defeat, all that rotten potato began to squeeze through my fingers, and as I kind of squeezed that in despair then, all of a sudden, it was solid potato on the inside.  You know, that was some food that I needed, some starch, and some water in that.
                        Then I began to peel some of them, then, and fill my dungaree pockets full, and then I began to make my way back, then, to my buddies, with still a lot of potatoes in the crate.  We had a feast.  Oftentimes, I talk to young people, I say, you know, we had a picnic and no ants to bother us.
Dennis:          You had sharks, though.
Ed:                  We had sharks, we had sharks.
Dennis:          You describe in your book that on more than one occasion, the sharks would be circling, and you would look up, and there would be a dorsal fin headed straight toward you.
Ed:                  Right.  I know, many times, I had a fin coming straight toward me.  I knew that I was looking into eternity the next second, and yet as he got to me, he just went under, and I felt the dorsal fin as it hit me, and then him to go by.  And maybe then – momentarily then – another one would come through and take a buddy next to you, and yet the Lord, you know, spared me, and, you know, you have to be so mindful of all that the Lord does for you through your life and especially on occasions like that.
Bob:                Did you ever lose hope?  Day 4 – the fourth night you've been through, did you ever think, "We're not going to make it.  We're going to die out here."
Ed:                  Oh, I'm sure I thought that many times.  I wondered how much longer can a body really endure.  I lost about 27 pounds there in those four days, and, you know, how much more can you endure?
Dennis:          Hold it – 27 pounds.  How do you lose 27 pounds in four days?
Ed:                  I don't know.  There's others that say that they lost 30 or 40 pounds.  But, you know, dehydration does that to you and then, of course, you might think that we aren't swimming all the time, but basically we are swimming or fighting to be able to stay erect and to not allow the water to slosh over on us and get us strangled and cause us to drink the water.  So you're fighting the situation all the time and especially in the daytime, you know, the swells and all.
Bob:                You're trying to stay on top of the swells, keep your head up above the water.
Ed:                  That's right.
Dennis:          Ed, I listened to your ordeal, and you describe in your book how, at this point, it was Wednesday evening.  You'd been in the water 66 hours.  You had to be near death, and your spirit had to be, as Bob was talking about, losing hope.  And yet, as you dawned on the fourth day, all this group of men that you started out with, you're down to one man, right?
Ed:                  At the end of the fourth day, right.
Dennis:          How did that happen?  
Ed:                  Well, I think it would be fair if I back up just a little bit and say that the night before, when we had the raft, and there were five sailors, two Marines, as it got dark that night, we couldn't go; we couldn't see the Southern Cross, we couldn't see the moon, so along about midnight that night, I know we were just hanging onto the raft, didn't know which way to go, and then we hear voices.  
                        Now, there's times when I think there's some that heard voices, but we were actually hearing some boys, and we knew it had to be ours, and so we began to respond to them – holler out to them and they to us, and so sometime that night, then, there was a Navy lieutenant and I don't know how many as they came into our group, they kind of came in straggling one at a time, so to speak, and as they came in, I think there were maybe five boys, and Lieutenant McKissock, Charles McKissock from Texas, anyway, he convinced us that he was, likewise, swimming to the Philippines.  He said if we can get close enough then maybe someone will see us.  Then we tried to tell him that we were trying to go there with the raft, and at first he convinced us that the raft would be a deterrent, that it would slow us down, but we said, "Yeah, but we've got a spare tire," as we put it.  We've got spare life jackets on the top.
                        And the next thing, maybe, that happened right immediately was that there was a certain Marine that had a pocketful of Irish potatoes that began to take the potatoes out of his pocket and share those with McKissock and the others, and then I don't know what happened after that.  I really don't know what happened before morning.  The only thing that I know is that next morning I'm not with Spooner, not with my buddy, Spooner.  I'm not with the raft; I'm not with the boys that I was with.  I'm with Navy Lieutenant McKissock and one other sailor.
And now my life jacket will not hold my head out of the water, and I'm having to constantly swim, trying to keep my head above the water, and sometimes in that fourth day that's one of the times that I wondered if I wasn't gone, there, that fourth day, no doubt it got still.  I'm just exhausted and got still or something or the other and, all of a sudden, something hit me, and I just knew it was a shark.  I fell out of the kapok jacket, fell into the water, and, in desperation, the only hope that I had, I guess, was to get that life jacket back down under me, and I was struggling to get that back down under me, knowing that at any time that a shark is going to attack me. 
Bu then, as I finally got back into that life jacket, I'm sitting in it.  Then there was just millions on little fish then, about 8 or 10 inches long, that began to come all around me and kind of nudge against me, and the moment I saw them, I knew that they were my friends.  I knew that if they were there, the sharks weren't around me, and I did try to catch a few with my hands to have one to eat, but I was not successful.  Anyway, that was the closer part of the end of that fourth day before rescue finally came that afternoon.
Dennis:          Ed, as I've listened to you take us to one dramatic scene after another, I've stared into your face, and I've watched the emotion come and go, much like the swells in the ocean, and I'm amazed here, 60 years later, you're still very emotionally tethered to the experience that you had there.  You mentioned after you had been rescued that you couldn't talk about it for a long time?  Why was that?
Ed:                  I don't know that I can answer why.  I found out that I relived it each time – if I try to get into any detail or anything – I can see it today.  I mean, there is no problem of seeing what all was happening, but I try to think above that and think of the positive rather than to look at it from the standpoint that hope was gone and nothing but despair.  And then to see my buddies go as they were going.
But I recall that after I was home two years, Dad's closest friend, which was a friend of the family, and one Sunday afternoon he insisted, I guess, somewhat, he began to question me and, out of respect, I think, for him, as a friend, and I started telling it, and I talked maybe for a couple of hours.  And I know when I got through my dad broke down, and he said, "Well, he's been home for two years now, and this is the first I've really known of really what happened."
                        But it was the best cathartic that I could have ever experienced, really, because there it kind of set in motion, not only through the years how I've wanted to give credit to the Lord for His providence and His mercy and grace to me in my life, but I wanted to tell others somewhat of the story.  So for the past several years, I've been in, like, 14 different states now, telling, and just kind of reliving.
Dennis:          Well, you're in all 50 states right now.  You're telling a lot of people the story.  Psalm 139, verses 7 through 10, I think, have a special power about them because of the scene that you have set for us here.  "Where can I go from Thy Spirit, or where can I flee from Thy presence?  If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there.  If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there.  If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Thy hand will lead me, and Thy right hand will lay hold of me."
                        It goes on to talk about darkness overwhelming me.  The thing that – or the person who leads us in the midst of the darkness, in the midst of our chaos, our challenges, our crisis that we face, He is the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the sovereign ruler of the universe who knows the number of hairs on our head, and He cares about us, and He loves us, and He loved you.  He loved you and brought you through one of the most amazing stories I've ever heard.
Bob:                You know, I can't help but reflect again on the book that our friend, Chip Ingram, has written that looks at a number of the Psalms of David and reminds us that God is with us in the midst of any affliction, and the book is called "I Am With You Always."  It's a book that we've got in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and I don't know what kind of affliction our listeners are going through, but that reminder, again, that God is with us, that He is for us, that He has not abandoned us.  There are times in life when we have to be reminded of that, and Chip's book does a great job of doing that.  
                        Again, it's in our FamilyLife Resource Center along with the book that you've written, Ed, which tells the story of the sinking of the Indianapolis and of your survival – four days in the Pacific.  The book is called "Out of the Depths," and we have both books in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  In fact, this week when our listeners order both books together, we will send at no additional cost the two CDs that have our conversation this week with Ed Harrell and, in fact the CDs have more of the story than we've been able to include on the broadcast because of time constraints.  It's something that the whole family can listen to as you travel this summer, or you can use it for family devotions.
                        Go to our website,  When you get to the home page, down at the bottom of the screen there's a button that says "Go."  You click on that button, it will take you right to page where you get more information about the resources we've been talking about.  You can order online, if you'd like.  Again, the website is or call 1-800-FLTODAY.  We've got folks who are standing by who can help you with more information about any of these resources, or they can take your order over the phone and get the resources sent to you.  Again, the toll-free number is 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  
                        We also want to ask you when you get in touch with us, if you're able to help with a donation this month, you need to know that FamilyLife Today is a listener-supported program, and it's donations to the ministry that keep us on the air in this city and in cities all across the country.  You also need to know that we are committed to the idea that you ought to be giving to your local church as your first priority.  So we hope that if you do get in contact with us to make a donation, you're not, in any way, taking money away from your local church.
                        But as you are able to help with the financial support of this ministry in the month of August, we want to send you a thank you gift.  Back, a couple of months ago, we sat down with Shaunti Feldhahn, who is the author of a book called "For Women Only."  We had a great conversation with her about things women need to know about their husbands that many women just aren't aware of.  Shaunti had done research on the subject, and many of you got in touch with us after those interviews and requested the CDs, and we thought during the month of August we would make those CDs available to anyone who wants to make a donation of any amount to the ministry of FamilyLife Today. 
                        You can donate online at or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY to make a donation.  You'll need to request the CDs when you make your donation.  If you're calling, just let our team know that you want the CDs for women, and they'll send those to you.  Or you can request the CDs online.  When you get to the keycode box as you're making your donation, just type in the two letters "CD," and we'll send out the interview to you.  And, again, it's our way of saying thanks for your ongoing support of FamilyLife Today.  We appreciate you standing with us financially.
                        Well, tomorrow Ed Harrell is going to be back with us to finish the story.  We're going to hear how you were spotted in the water, and it's a remarkable story of God's amazing providence.  I hope our listeners can be with us for that.
                        I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today. 
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