James Wesley Smith – One of the last survivors of the Indianapolis, Part 2
Doug Christian is a former Morristown resident who, as a teenager, learned about an uncle who died on the U.S.S. Indianapolis during the last days of World War II. The Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser, had a top secret mission to deliver the components for the atomic bomb to Tinian Island in the Pacific. Soon after leaving Tinian, the Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine a few minutes after midnight on July 30, 1945. Three hundred men went down with the ship, while nearly 900 men went into the ocean without having time to gather the materials to sustain themselves. After 4-and-a-half blistering hot days and chilly nights in the water, 317 of those men were found alive. Only 12 of those men survive at this writing.
After learning about his uncle, Doug studied all the materials he could find on the fateful ship. Hearing about a survivor who was speaking at a Wise, Virginia college, he headed to the lecture. Sitting beside the lecturer was another survivor who lived near Johnson City. Doug later discovered where survivor James Wesley Smith lived and met the old hero. A call to his lifelong Morristown friend, Danny Underwood, resulted in a call to me and we, along with my friend Ronnie Yount, quickly headed to Mt. Carmel to meet Mr. Smith. Arriving at our destination, we were welcomed in by the friendly survivor and his daughter, Missy Van Dyke, with whom he makes his home. James soon began telling us about the horrible experience he lived through.
James Wesley Smith was born in Pontock, Mississippi July 10, 1924, the son of mail carrier Clarence and his wife, Nora Smith. James remembers the banks closing during The Depression. His school was next door to his house, where he simply walked out the back door of his house to attend. With World War II going and knowing he would be drafted, he left school to work as an auto mechanic, and then to build airplanes for the Ford Motor Company.
“I didn’t want to go to the Army and wade all that mud and eat K rations,” he said. “My cousin Lamar had went to the Army and didn’t last long, so I joined the Navy on September 17, 1943. Basic training at San Diego wasn’t too bad. We took boat training before they sent me home. Then they put me back on duty and we’d have to march around and hike five or 10 miles. We also had to take a swim test. I had almost drowned before I went to the Navy and I could swim.
“They put me on the Indianapolis in December 1943 and I was on her for 19 months. I was a deck hand and manned a five-inch gun. I ate like a hog and we had good hot food every day. When the sea was rough and we’d eat supper, the food on the table would go every which way. When we were in the Mariana’s Turkey Shoot, we sank three aircraft carriers and two destroyers, and we got five or six of their planes. I’ve been about everywhere. At Okinawa a kamikaze hit our ship and killed eight men. It hit midship about at the mess hall near the other side of the boat from me. They sent us back to California to fix it and sent me home to Pontock. I turned 21 on July 10.
“When it came time to leave, I was away seeing a girlfriend. We had to leave the ship in our uniform, but I took my civilian clothes off ship in a bag and got back late. They put me in onboard arrest and in the brig for five days on bread and water. They let me out on Sunday and gave me a good meal. I was asleep in my bunk when the torpedo hit and thought that it was a drill. The lights were out and I went to my gun. The ship was already turning over and we tried to get a raft off and couldn’t, so I put on a life jacket and just walked off the ship into the water. I knew the ship would suck me under when it went down, so I swam away as fast as I could. The moon was bright and I could see the ship disappear under the water. I swam for a while and came to a group of men. Oil was everywhere and it was in my nose and mouth. You couldn’t tell who anyone was.
“I figured that we’d be rescued after that first night, but after spending another day in the water, we saw people die right in front of us. Some had been badly injured. The sun was so hot during the day that we prayed for the sun to go down, but it was so cold at night we prayed for it to come up again. We had nothing to eat or drink and the second day was like the first. You would hear someone shout ‘Shark!’ and I would raise my legs and hold my breath and pray they didn’t come for me.
“I was afraid to go to sleep and not wake up and was awake for over 90 hours and was in a daze. Some small fish would swim by me, but I couldn’t catch them. Some people would take off for an island that was not there and we’d never see them again. Finally an airplane on patrol flew over us. We waved our hands and yelled and he came down for a better look. My kapok life jacket has lasted the whole time. I tried to get on one of the rafts that were dropped, but a Marine wouldn’t let me on, so I swam over to the airplane and was the first one on. They gave me two ounce of orange juice on the airplane, then I passed out.
“When I woke up, I was on the USS Doyle and thanked God that I was alive. For a few days they just gave us broth. The salt water had eaten my nipples off. They took me in for 3 or 4 days and put me on a hospital ship to Guam. After that I went to a hospital on a submarine base. I had lost about 30 pounds and they give us T-bone steaks and ice cream and everything we wanted to eat. They sent me to the U.S. on an aircraft carrier and I got on a train to come home. When I got to Amarillo, Texas, I got a man to take me to Memphis.”
Now back at home, James took a job at the Piccadilly restaurant in Memphis. He later transferred to the company’s restaurant in Kingsport, where he worked for 26 years.
“I started out at Piccadilly in Memphis for 50 cents an hour and was making $320 a week when I came up here,” he smiled.
With a son from a previous marriage, James married Marcene Taylor, who had a daughter from a former marriage, in 1959, and they had three sons and a daughter. Marcene passed away in 1973. Still with a sharp mind and a twinkle in his eye, I wondered aloud how he had managed to survive such an ordeal.
“You just have to know Daddy,” daughter Missy answered. “Before he had left for the Navy, he’d wrecked his daddy’s truck and driven the town firetruck up and down Main Street.”
When I asked James about his discharge, he answered he was released from the Navy in Nashville in 1946.
“There’s no Navy in Nashville,” I replied.
“That’s right, but there’s a brig there,” he smiled.
It had taken a tough man to endure the terrible ordeal James had survived.
-Jim Claborn is a retired history teacher and a historical reenactor, as well as a published historian.