By DANNY MINTON
The sea’s gentle swells glistened momentarily, then once again fell dark as the moon appeared from behind the clouds and returned to darkness. The clock had just passed midnight breaking into a new day. It was July 30, 1945. Several hundred miles from the nearest shore in the Philippine Sea, the Portland Class Heavy Cruiser, the USS Indianapolis, sped home from delivering the atomic bomb to Tinian Island. At approximately 15 minutes past midnight, a torpedo slammed into the ship’s bow tearing it apart. Moments later, a second torpedo rammed amidship, causing a terrifying explosion. Within twelve minutes, the ship had sunk, carrying with her almost 300 sailors.
Before sinking, close to 900 sailors and marines abandoned the ship, jumping from the side into a pool of saltwater and oil. It would be the beginning of one of the most horrific and heart-rending stories on the war’s American side. The mission had been so secret that their failure to return had gone unnoticed. For over four days, men floated in the waters fighting sickness from the oil, salt water ulcers, dehydration, hallucinations, and worst of all, sharks.
Days and nights filled the air with screams and prayers. Men of all faiths prayed for deliverance. Atheists quickly converted to believing and calling upon God to save them. Each day the number of survivors grew smaller, some swimming off to islands that did not exist, some diving deep, seeing a non-existing water fountain or ship. But mostly, they gave their lives to the sharks, day and night, attacking randomly without prejudice.
It was on the fourth day, with nighttime approaching, that an American pilot accidentally spotted them. Radioing in the position with fuel running low, he stayed as long as possible until another plane appeared. In a daring effort, the second plane landed on the water and began collecting those who appeared more seriously injured. He filled the aircraft with over fifty survivors.
Then as night crept in, the men looked up and saw a light in the clouds. It was a light that gave them hope. Hours away was the Destroyer Escort, USS Cecil J. Doyle. Its captain was Lt. Cdr. W. Graham Claytor, Jr. The ship knew that they were coming into a situation where there was possible submarine activity. The danger of being spotted and torpedoed as well lingered in Claytor’s mind as well as those of his crew. However, they knew men were dying in the waters ahead, so without concern for their safety, the USS Doyle turned her giant spotlight toward the heavens. The light reflected in the sight of those on the floating aircraft and those struggling in the water, giving hope to those who thought they were lost.
For five and a half hours, the Indianapolis crew watched the light getting closer and closer, knowing that help was coming. Their prayers and hope for being saved had become a reality exemplified by a light from the heavens. Of those who went into the water, only 317 would survive. To the 317, it was the light of hope that helped them make it one more night. When the light arrived and lifted them from the darkness and onto the Doyle and other ships, the hope had become a reality.
The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2 (NIV2011) As Jesus began to preach, these were the words used about Him and His ministry (Mt. 4:16). Jesus refers to himself as the light of the world, and John 12 tells us that he has come into the world as a light so that no one who believes in him would remain in the darkness.
Much like the light of the Doyle gave hope to a dying group of men, the light of Jesus offers hope to a dying world. It reminds me of the time Peter saw Jesus walking on water. He calls out to him and tells him if it is him to have him come to him on the water. Peter steps out of the boat and walks toward Jesus, on the water! He removes his eyes from Jesus, and seeing the water, he begins to sink. With the fear of drowning, he calls out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus, without hesitation, reaches out and takes Peter by the hand to safety.
It is easy during this day and time to feel like we are living in darkness. There are so many negative things happening around us that sometimes our days feel dark and gloomy. We don’t know what to expect, and life at times feels hopeless. But, we have hope in the light.
For four days, the USS Indianapolis crew would feel the heat of the parching light of the Sun during the day and would gaze at the moon and stars at night. Then in their despair, a bright light shone in the clouds bringing hope and salvation. Today we see the same sun, moon, and stars that they watched, praying for someone to save them. As we look up, there is also a light that lifts us. In our time of despair, we only need to open our eyes and hearts, gaze toward the heavens and know the light of Jesus Christ, the one who was willing to come to this earth and go through what he did to give us hope and salvation.
Danny Minton is Pastoral Minister and Elder at Southern Hills Church of Christ