Remembering a survivor

LOIS KRUEGER speaks about her husband, Dale Krueger, who served aboard the USS Indianapolis.

Dale Krueger didn’t spend his life asking why he lived when 900 others died. 

At least he didn’t ask the question out loud, said his wife, Lois, of Wayne.

Maybe when he was sitting on that tractor plowing up the Nebraska soil, he wondered why he was one of the 317 men plucked from the sea that August afternoon.

Or maybe when the harvest moon hung over the miles and miles of Nebraska prairie that were his life he thought about the miles and miles of ocean that had nearly caused his death.

No one knows. And it’s too late now to ask. Today, the 94-year-old is lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s and doesn’t realize that the vessel that almost became his tomb has been found.

* * *

John “Jack” Hinken of Norfolk could have asked himself the same question a hundred times while he was running his businesses in Norfolk and Fremont. Or maybe he thought more about the price he had to pay for the gas he sold at the truck stops he owned. When he struggled with health problems, Hinken may have wondered if they were related to the fact that he spent four days floating in salt water.

No one knows. And it’s too late to ask. Jack Hinken died 41 years ago from kidney-related issues.

* * *

Hinken and Krueger were both farm boys — Hinken was raised near Norfolk and Krueger was raised near Winside.

After Pearl Harbor was bombed, they, like thousands of other young men from around the country, took up arms against the Axis forces that were wreaking havoc around the world.

Hinken joined the Navy in February 1945, trained at the naval station in Great Lakes, Ill., and in July of that year was assigned as a fireman to the USS Indianapolis.

Krueger was drafted in 1944 and also trained at the naval training station in Great Lakes. He, too, was a fireman on the Indianapolis, a cruiser that served as the flagship for the Fifth Fleet.

Previously, the ship had been involved in a number of significant battles, including Iwo Jima in February 1945 and Okinawa a month later, during which it it sustained significant damage. It returned to California and was repaired, and in late July 1945 was sent back to sea bearing important cargo.

“He said they were told it was a secret mission,” Lois Krueger said of that late July trip to the island of Tinian, located 1,500 miles south of Tokyo. “There were extra guards on the ship ... but they didn’t know what (the cargo) was until it was delivered.”

Indeed, the captain of the ship didn’t even know what they were carrying. Only after they departed Tinian were they told that they had just delivered parts for the atomic bomb that would soon be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

After leaving Tinian, the cruiser headed unescorted across the Philippine Sea to Leyte. Following a suggestion from higher up, the commander had the ship zigzag to avoid any Japanese torpedoes that might be in the area. Around 11 p.m. on July 29, assuming all was quiet, he sent up an order to stop zigzagging, and he retired to his cabin.

Minutes later, a Japanese submarine discovered the ship and launched six torpedoes, two of which ripped through its starboard side.

The 1,196 men on board had 12 minutes to abandon ship. Among them were Dale Krueger and Jack Hinken.

They were off duty, but it was too hot to sleep below, so they went on deck to sleep, Lois said.

In 1975, the Omaha World-Herald interviewed Hinken, Krueger and two other Nebraskans — Clarence Hupka of Cook and I.C. Edward Nelson of Lincoln — who survived the sinking.

In that article, Krueger said he was hurled 6 feet into the air by the torpedo explosions but was able to find a life jacket in a storage locker before jumping into the sea.

A fellow shipmate named Whitey gave Hinken a life belt, which he used all the time he was in the water, he said.

Hinken and Whitey clung to the railing and helped others. As the ship listed, rolling farther over in the water, they decided to jump.

The survivors watched the ship’s final moments as “the stern of the two-football-field-long, 10,000-ton cruiser (rose) nearly straight up.”

“It just slid right under,” Krueger said. “I can still see that thing standing in the air.”

The ship sank in 12 minutes.

Some of the 900 who made it into the sea died from their injuries. Others climbed into lifeboats or large nets kept on the surface by floats attached to ropes. Some bobbed in the water, supported only by their life vests, or clung to debris.

Hinken was alone until morning when he saw heads bobbing in the water.

“They were a long way off. It took a long time to swim there,” he said.

He joined around 165 men in a “floater,” while Krueger was with a group of around 50.

Krueger’s group had a few cans of Spam that they shared, but no one had water. All they could do was float, bake in the sun and watch for sharks.

One by one, men disappeared.

“We had more guys in there than the net was supposed to hold,” Krueger said. “A lot of them were badly burned. There were always men dying.”

Those with burns didn’t last long in the salt water. Others died of dehydration, while others drank the sea water, thinking it would save them when it actually killed them.

At 6 feet, 4 inches, Hinken was one of the taller and stronger men who tried to help others, but he couldn’t save them all.

“By the third day, some were just giving up. They’d get out of their heads,” Hinken said. Men hallucinated and saw islands and ships that didn’t exist and tried to swim to them.

Sharks swarmed around.

Krueger said he never saw anyone in his group get attacked by a shark, but “guys were kind of torn up after it was all over and they said that (sharks) did it.”

Hinken’s group also saw sharks but was able to chase them away.

“Once in a while, someone would see a fin out there in the water and holler. Then we’d kick and beat the water hard to try to scare them off,” he said. Sometimes “they must have come swimming underneath, seen a leg hanging down in the water and just taken a bite. I remember one guy had the calf of his leg bitten out. He didn’t live long.”

Four days after the sinking, the pilot of a scout bomber noticed an oil slick in the water below him. He descended to investigate, saw survivors floating on the water and called for help.

“They had blisters ... and were covered in oil. None of them could stand (because) their legs were so weak,” Lois said.

Still, Lois said her husband always believed he would be rescued.

“It was dark,” Krueger said. “I can still remember those lights coming over the horizon.”

Hinken was one of the first of his group to be pulled from the sea. By then, “65 or 67” of his group were still alive, he said.

In the end, only 317 of the 1,196 men on board the ship lived to tell their stories.

Three days after being rescued, the bomb they had carried was dropped on Hiroshima, leading to the end of the war.

Krueger and Hinken recovered and eventually returned to Nebraska. Krueger farmed near Winside, and Hinken operated the Roll-N-Wheel Truck Stop in Norfolk and the M&M Truck Stop in Fremont. He died in 1976.

For years, the Kruegers attended reunions of survivors in the town that was the ship’s namesake. There Dale commiserated with the only people who could understand what he had endured. They also visited the memorial to the crew that was dedicated in 1995. Survivors of the Indianapolis raised the money to erect the $800,000 monument.

Among others who attended the first reunions was Charles McVay, commander of the ship who was court-martialed and found guilty of failing to zigzag to avoid being hit by torpedoes. He was later exonerated but died of suicide in 1968.

The Kruegers stopped going to reunions years ago. Now, only 19 or 20 survivors are still alive, including Krueger and Clarence Hupka of Cook.

* * *

On a recent morning, Lois Krueger took a phone call from someone with the Navy who told her that the long-lost Indianapolis had been found. A search team had discovered it in 18,000 feet of water, the voice said. A vessel dropped to that level had taken pictures and video, so Lois got her first look at the ship that had gone down in history.

Even though Lois visits her husband regularly, she won’t tell him that his ship has been found because she doesn’t think he’d understand, she said.

After all, he rarely recognizes her.

But no one knows what Dale Krueger remembers. Perhaps he can still sense the salt water stinging his eyes and skin, feel the parched throat and the cracked lips, hear the screams of men being attacked by sharks and remember the relief he felt when he was raised from the depths to live another day.

“Something like that, you never will forget,” he once said.

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