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Saviors at Sea

This summer marks the 68th anniversary of one of the most tragic events of World War II and in the history of the U.S. Navy.

As the number of living veterans of the war rapidly and steadily slips away, one IUP alumna who helped mitigate that tragedy's pain and suffering still vividly recalls many of the heartrending details.

It happened in July 1945.

The USS Indianapolis, a U.S. Navy cruiser that had served as the flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance during the Fifth Fleet's battles in the Central Pacific, set sail from San Francisco on July 16, carrying a critical and secret cargo: The parts and the enriched uranium for the atomic bomb Little Boy, which would later be dropped on Hiroshima.

The Indianapolis reached Pearl Harbor three days later, then hurried on and delivered its cargo at Tinian on July 26. It next sailed to Guam and then started out alone toward the Philippine province of Leyte.

Just after midnight on July 30, the Indianapolis was hit by two torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine. The explosions ruptured the ship, which took on a heavy list. Twelve minutes after the blasts, it rolled over and plunged.

About 300 of the 1,196 crewmen went down with the ship.

The remaining 900 were set adrift in the sea with few lifeboats and almost no food or water. Many of the sailors had no time to don lifejackets and clung to flotsam or each other.

Then began one of the darkest chapters in Navy history.

  USS Indianapolis 

The USS Indianapolis, pre-war, at an unknown port [Jim Geldert/Nav Source]

 

Through a series of calamitous misunderstandings -- including the lack of an alarm when the Indianapolis failed to arrive at its next planned destination -- Navy commanders had no knowledge of the ship's sinking.

It was discovered nearly four days later when the crew of a bomber on routine patrol spotted an oil slick and sailors bobbing on the ocean's surface.

By then, the 900 men who had been thrown from the Indianapolis into the sea had endured exposure, dehydration, and shark attacks. According to Navy records, some killed themselves or one another while suffering delirium and hallucinations.

Only 317 ultimately survived. After being pulled from the water, many were taken to Navy Hospital 18 in Guam.

That's where 23-year-old Eva Jane Savel, a Navy lieutenant junior grade, was a nurse on duty.

"Something came over the loud speaker: 'All nurses, go to your centers.' We knew something was wrong then," she said recently.

Now 91 and with a married name of Eva Jane Bolents, she lives in a retirement home in El Paso, Texas.

"Of course, scuttlebutt came around and we knew that a big ship was torpedoed with so many sailors aboard. And it was in shark-infested waters."

Bolents, a native of Patton, Cambria County, grew up in Clearfield. "In the late 1930s, it took three years to be a nurse," she said. "I became a nurse in 1939" after completing training at the Clearfield Hospital School of Nursing.

She was working as an operating room nurse at University Hospital, Philadelphia, when she saw one of the iconic Uncle Sam recruiting posters.

"The finger pointed, and he always looked at you. 'We need Navy nurses. We need you,'" she said.

She enlisted and received six weeks of basic training in Philadelphia.

"We had to learn Navy jargon and how to march," she said. She underwent more training at the Great Lakes naval station in Illinois before she was sent to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

"I was very adventurous as an only child," Bolents said. "I didn't want to be under my parents' thumb too much longer."

When they left Pearl Harbor, Bolents and the other nurses had to climb into the belly of the plane, where they sat on boards during the flight. After landing in Guam, they rode in jeeps to Hospital 18 and to their Quonset hut barracks.

"All we had were our foot lockers for a chest of drawers," she said.

She ate meals in a mess hall.

"Of course, the deck was the floor and the bathroom was called the head," she said.

"We were so busy. There were so many amputations," she said, recalling that when a battle-injured Marine or sailor had a limb that needed to be amputated, the limb was placed in a trough of ice the night before. "It wouldn't take so long for the anesthesia to take effect," she explained.

  nurse-1 

Bolents holds a 1945 photo of her caring for USS Indianapolis survivor Vincent Allard. [Creative Flair Photography]

She was in Guam two years and eight months caring for wounded Marines and sailors. "We never had liberty. We never had any time off."

Her most vivid memories of Guam are of the Indianapolis survivors.

"Every bed was filled," she said. She still remembers the arms and legs with shark bites. "It was awful how it looked."

One survivor told her how, in the four days before their discovery, the men awoke each morning to six to eight sharks surrounding their lifeboat. "All they could see were their pointed mouths around the boat."

Some sailors, when they jumped from the sinking ship, were covered with oil on the surface, and the sun baked it like glue in their hair.

"We had a hard time getting that off their heads," she said. "If I didn't have pictures and hadn't written things down, I'd never remember what I know today."

One of the photos that help her recall those days was published in the Clearfield Progress, her hometown newspaper, on September 12, 1945. It shows Bolents in her white cap and uniform taking the pulse of sailor Vincent Allard, one of the Indianapolis survivors.

According to Bolents, the press was drawn to Allard because he had a brother, also in the Navy, who was quite famous because of the many decorations he had won. "They took the picture and had it published in several places in the United States," she said.

Along with the suffering came some lighter moments.

"Sailors would say to each other, 'Now, Miss Savel gave you a bath yesterday, so I want her to give me my bath this morning,'" she said laughing.

The nurses also shaved their bandaged patients with a straight razor. They'd see her sharpening the razor on a belt around her waist and they'd sometimes say, "I don't think I need shaved this morning," she said, laughing again.

After the war, Bolents returned home and became a night-shift nursing supervisor in Clearfield.

She used her GI Bill benefits to attend IUP and graduated in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in education. Afterward, she worked as a public health nurse near Philipsburg.

"I taught pediatrics at the Clearfield Hospital School of Nursing and then at the Philipsburg Hospital School of Nursing," she said.

She also married twice and raised a family. She has adult children living in Texas, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.

Bolents feels women in the American military during World War II, especially nurses, never received the praise and recognition they deserved for their wartime sacrifices.

"No, they couldn't have done it without the nurses, that's for sure," she said.

When the servicemen came home from Europe and the Pacific to confetti parades in America's cities, the women, in her opinion, were not equally represented.

"That hurt," she said.

Several years ago, still smarting from what she regards as a lack of appropriate media coverage of the 350,000 American women who volunteered for military service in the war, she wrote to newspapers, urging them to tell some of those stories.

"Why don't the reporters who acknowledge only the sacrifice of World War II men visualize the shattered body of an American nurse who died in a forward area caring for her brothers, and mentally touch her cheek and say out loud, 'That's somebody's darling,'" Bolents wrote in her letters to newspapers.

"I'm so glad I did that for the nurses," she said. "I'm so glad I was put there. I just feel as if I did my duty in World War II."

And other women who served, she said, would say they were glad "God put us there."

The USS Indianapolis was the last major U.S. Navy ship sunk by enemy action in World War II and resulted in the largest single loss of life at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy.

 

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 Photo Gallery | Letters to the Editor | In Brief

 
 
 
 
 
 

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