I met a hero this week. His name is Dick Thelen. Dick was just 18 years old in July of 1945. He was on board the USS Indianapolis which delivered the first atomic bomb to Tinian Island in the Pacific. He’d only been on the ship for 11 days. It was a Sunday night just before midnight. The ship was hit by two enemy torpedoes.
“ When that torpedo hit I went up in the air. I can’t tell you how high,” Dick shared with me this week. Now 90 years old, he still remembers every last detail of the attack. Dick described for me what it was like to be on the ship as it tilted into the Pacific Ocean.
“Everybody asks me, ‘Where were you on the ship when you jumped off?’ I didn’t jump off the ship. The ship left me. I just swam away.”
900 men went into the shark-infested water. Dick went in wearing only his underwear and holding a lifejacket. He was in the water for five days and four nights. 104 hours. During the day he would put his underwear on his head to protect him from the sun. He watched his shipmates drown in panic or get eaten by sharks. But Dick Thelen had made a promise to his father that he would come home and kept his promise.
“You would get so hungry and so thirsty,” Dick told me. “Then you would feel the poke of a shark’s nose. Why they didn’t take me, I don’t know.”
Dick tells his story at schools. He tries to get high school students to understand what real struggle means, true hardship and to appreciate what they have in America. Of the 900 men who went in the water, 300 survived. Only a dozen or so are still alive today. Dick Thelen received the Purple Heart , a military decoration for being wounded in combat. He’s mighty proud of it. But Dick is quick to say, “I’m no hero. I just tried to stay afloat.”
Dick Thelen has been nominated as the 2017 Veteran of the Year in the Governor’s Fitness Awards.