There are only about a dozen surviving crew members from the USS Indianapolis, which was sunk by a Japanese torpedo in July 1945. More than two-thirds of the 1,200 men on board perished in the shark-infested waters of the Philippine Sea just days after delivering components of the atomic bomb later dropped on Hiroshima.
Tuesday evening will almost certainly be the last opportunity for Lewis County residents to meet one of the survivors. The Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis is flying Al “Harpo” Celaya out from Phoenix to take part in a book talk and answer questions from 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Museum director Chip Duncan hopes for the same sort of sellout crowd that greeted another survivor, John Woolston, at two prior USS Indianapolis events in Chehalis.
Celaya joined the Navy in 1944 at age 17 and survived after floating for nearly four days in open waters. He exited the military soon after recovering and returned to Florence High School, where helped lead the basketball team to a state championship. Sara Vladic, co-author of the New York Times Bestseller “Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man” and historian Kim Roller will join Celaya.
Roller and Vladic appeared with Woolston in April 2018 at the Veterans Memorial Museum for a screening of Vladic’s film “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy” that Duncan estimates nearly 200 members of the public attended. Woolston passed away three weeks following that event.
“This is probably going to be the last time we’ll have a survivor out here, and I think that’s pretty significant for this community,” Duncan said. “The whole World War II generation is going pretty rapidly now, so I think it’d be a great opportunity for the community to hear (Celaya’s) perspective.”
The USS Indianapolis operated as an active Navy cruiser throughout the involvement of the United States in World War II. It was one of many boats tasked with searching for the Japanese aircraft carriers that carried out the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, played a supporting role in the August 1942 Battle of the Aleutian Islands and shelled Okinawa, Japan for a full week in March 1945.
Later that year, the ship was tasked with delivering about half of the world’s supply of enriched uranium to Tinian Island, which served as the starting point for the atomic bomb attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. After dropping off the cargo and a stop in Guam, a Japanese submarine hit the USS Indianapolis with two torpedoes, sinking the ship in about 15 minutes. More than 300 men died as a direct result of the attack, with more than 500 succumbing to dehydration, hypothermia and shark attacks in the days before the Navy learned of the disaster and sent a fleet of planes and ships on a rescue mission.
“Adolfo Celaya is probably one of the few remaining survivors who can actually still get out and visit places to talk about his experience,” Duncan said. “He was on board when they loaded up the parts for the bomb in San Francisco. It’s going to be your last opportunity to meet a USS Indianapolis survivor if you live in this region. Otherwise, you’d have to go to one of their annual meetings, but the youngest is 93 years old now and most of them aren’t able to go anymore.”
The event at the Veterans Memorial Museum costs $5 per person. All speakers will be available to sign books following the question and answer portion of the evening. For more information, call 360-740-8875.