USS Indianapolis survivor uses experience to teach about war

Dick Thelen survived four days in the ocean after ship was destroyed in WWII

Dick Thelen
Dick Thelen, who served on the USS Indianapolis, at an event in Walker on May 15, 2017.

ALPINE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — There are fewer than 30 surviving crew members of the USS Indianapolis, which was destroyed during World War II. On Monday, 24 Hour News 8 spoke with the only one who lives in Michigan.

Lansing native Dick Thelen, 90, spoke to a crowd and fielded questions at Kenowa Hills High School near Walker after a showing of “The USS Indianapolis: The Legacy.”

The documentary tells the story of the hundreds of soldiers who died — and those who survived — after the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea on July 30, 1945.

Thelen was 18 at the time.

“First trip out for me. I was green as grass,” Thelen said.

USS Indianapolis
The USS Indianapolis, which was sunk during World War II.

“When it (the torpedo) hit, I went up in the air — I can’t tell you if I went two feet or 20 feet,” he said as he described the night of the attack. “We got to quarterdeck. It was engulfed in flames, so we couldn’t cross the quarterdeck. So we went forward again, by that time we see the bow was going and some of us said, ‘It’s all over.'”

But it wasn’t.

The ship sank in 12 minutes.

Thelen survived the attack. He lived for four days without food and water. Wearing a lifejacket, he floated in the ocean, dodging sharks.

During those dire moments, he never thought he would be standing alive more than 70 years later.

“Every time I was ready to give up, there was my dad’s face. I could feel his grip. In other words, I wasn’t going to give up because of him,” Thelen said.

USS Indianapolis
The USS Indianapolis survivors are shown on Guam in August 1945. The survivors of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945 drifted aimlessly for nearly five days, battling thirst, exposure and ravenous sharks. Only 321 of the 1,196 crewmen were alive when the Navy, which hadn’t realized the Indianapolis was missing, finally rescued them.

His son Dave Thelen never knew the story until he saw the movie “Jaws.”

“I said, ‘Mom, what are you chuckling about?’ And she goes, ‘Go talk to your dad about it.’ And I go, ‘What does he know about it?’ and she goes, ‘He was on that ship,'” Dave Thelen said.

“I just think that he didn’t want to talk about it. People just didn’t want to talk about what happened,” he continued.

He said his father is a hero.

“I’ve been called that by a lot of them. He’s too smart,” Dick Thelen said in response to that.

As one of the few remaining survivors, Thelen is still kicking.

“I drive my own car, do my own shopping, I do my own cooking by myself,” Thelen said.

Making sure to share his story so it’s not forgotten, he regularly speaks about the attack to educate people about war.

“I go out to church, rotary churches, schools and just let people know what war’s all about, and why I suffered and saw people die and what they got today,” Thelen said.



“The USS Indianapolis: The Legacy” Facebook page