With the passing of Cleatus Lebow on Thursday morning at the age of 98, Benician Harold Bray is now the lone living survivor from the legendary USS Indianapolis.
Lebow, raised in Abernathy, Texas, joined the Navy in 1943. A year later, he was assigned to USS Indianapolis (CA-35).
The Facebook page, “All Things USS Indianapolis” announced Lebow’s passing, quoting Lebow as saying, “Upon seeing her (the Indianapolis) for first time, I thought, “What a sleek, good-looking ship.” Lebow said he boarded the ship and “set sail for the adventure of this ol’ country boy’s lifetime.”
After starting in Mare Island, the ship delivered the Hiroshima atomic bomb in July 1945. On July 30 of that year, Japanese submarine I-58, captained by Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, fired two torpedoes that struck the Indianapolis on its starboard side, one in the bow and one amidships. Approximately 300 of the 1,195 sailors died during the explosion. The rest of the sailors jumped ship, only to land in the Philippine Sea, which was full of not only salt water, but massive amounts of oil and sharks.
Only 317 sailors would survive three and half days in the sea. Of those 317, two were Lebow and Bray. Bray is the youngest, having just turned 95 last month.
After surviving a week in horrendous conditions, Lebow returned to his home state of Texas, where he worked for the phone company for over 40 years while he raised a family. According to the Facebook site, “All Things USS Indianapolis CA-35”, Lebow recently expressed that he was ready to depart this life. A deeply religious man, he said he wanted “to go home.” He is now reunited with his wife, Joan, who passed away last November.
The Bray family sent their condolences to the Lebow family, telling the Times-Herald on Thursday that they needed some time to grieve before speaking on the issue.
Back in 2020, the Times-Herald sat down with Bray for the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the ship.
“At first I couldn’t believe it was going down — how could something so beautiful sink? I got to the fantail and I saw three guys leaning up against the bulkhead,” Bray said. “I started thinking, I better get off this thing. I grabbed the lifeline and ran down the side of the ship to get away from the screws. That’s when I jumped a good 40 feet. I hit the water and a lot of oil right away. It was so thick, there was no getting around it.”
In 12 minutes, the Indianapolis had sunk. It would not be found for another 72 years.
“With the moon being really bright that night, you could still see people jumping off the ship,” Bray told the Times-Herald in 2014. “It was like ants coming off a stick.”
When Bray jumped into the water, he only had his dungarees on. Bray said he was not cold right away when he hit the water. He was hot, because of the oil.
“It stayed with us for the remaining days. It just floated along with us,” Bray said. “It was coming out and a lot of people were just evaporating in it. I don’t know what made me so lucky.”
Bray credits the group in the water for helping save his life.
“At first the group, I’d say there were 85 of us. But the days took their toll. An officer in our group, I can’t remember his name, really kept us together,” Bray said. “By the end, there were just 18 of us left in the group and that’s because we didn’t drink the oil or salt water.”
Although Bray couldn’t remember the officer’s name. In 2014 he did, giving thanks to Dr. Lewis Haynes and sailor Thomas “Pappy” Goff when speaking with the Times-Herald.
“He kept me alive,” Bray said in 2014, fighting back a tear at the memory. “I have to give him a lot of credit. Everyone was drinking the salt water immediately because everyone was so thirsty. He told me, ‘Don”t drink it. Don”t do it.’ I listened to him and that helped save me.”
Bray also had to deal with another enemy — dozens of sharks.
“Then the sharks came,” Bray said in 2014. “I looked down and they were just swarming around us. Their tails would hit me every once in a while. There wasn’t really anywhere to go; we had to deal with them. The sharks seemed to go after the people that had big cuts to them, were naked or just in their skivvies. We lost a lot of good men in those first few days.”
Bray and Lebow waited for days for rescue. Finally, Bray saw his “Angel” — a PV-1 Ventura flown by Lieutenant Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn and his copilot, Lieutenant Warren Colwell, and a PBY 2 piloted by Bill Kitchen. They spotted the men adrift while on a routine patrol flight. Bray would be rescued by the USS Bassett.
“I can’t describe to you how it felt when the ships started showing up to rescue us,” Bray said back in 2014, while fighting tears. “We were discovered at night and there was some light shown so they could send down rafts. There were corks and a rope going through them.”
The rescue, which consisted of a dozen ships as well as two Catalinas, was spread out over 35 miles in the sea.
After the war, Bray received an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1946 in Illinois. From there he soon moved to Benicia, where he has lived ever since. Bray would eventually join the Benicia Police Department, where he worked in patrol and narcotics until 1983, when he retired.
In 2014 Bray laughed at the notion of finding himself in the dangerous field of police work after having survived the disaster of a lifetime.
“When I was in the eighth grade, my teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I told her that I wanted to be a police officer,” Bray said. “It was either that or a cross-country truck driver.”
Around the same time Bray became a police officer, he started going to reunions for the USS Indianapolis in the city of Indianapolis. The first one, in 1960, Bray missed. In 1965 Bray made the reunion — and he hasn’t missed one since, although the 75th anniversary was a virtual reunion due to COVID-19.
Like Lebow used to, Bray often walks into airports where he and his wife, Stephanie, would be showered with a standing ovation.
“It means a lot,” Bray said in 2020, through tears. “It means I’ve had a good life. It means people remember.”
Author Sara Vladic, for one, is grateful she has learned about Bray and the survivors including Lebow for her book: “Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man.”
“From Harold, I learned a lot about the perspective of the very young men who went aboard Indianapolis and survived,” Vladic said in 2020. “They believed they were just too young to die, and it wasn’t a possibility. We understand that, of course, age wasn’t a discriminating factor in their survival — sailors ranging from the ages 16 to their mid-40s were lost during those five nights and four days of hell. But what stands out among those who survived, is that they absolutely believed they were going to live. Perhaps their survival could be attributed to many things: A higher power, luck … sheer stubbornness. I think the lesson we can all learn from these incredible heroes is a simple statement that every single one of them still says often — never give up.
“Also, Harold still wins the title for giving the best hugs,” Vladic said.
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