World War Two Survivor Story: Navy Captain John Woolston, USS Indianapolis
Retired U.S. Navy Capt. John Woolston, a survivor of the USS Indianapolis, shares his story with members from the Defense Information Systems Agency Pacific (DISA PAC) at the Wright Brother’s Café on Hickam, April 21, 2017. The service members held the breakfast to learn about leadership lessons from Woolston’s experiences. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman
JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, HI, UNITED STATES
Story by Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman
JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii–Seventy-two years ago, the USS Indianapolis sank, losing most of its crew in one of the worst Naval disasters the world has ever seen. To pay tribute to one veteran, Airmen, Soldiers, and Sailors from the Defense Information Systems Agency Pacific (DISA PAC) gathered to have breakfast with one of the survivors of the Indianapolis at the Wright Brother’s Café on Hickam, April 21.
Retired U.S. Navy Capt. John Woolston was an engineer assigned to the Indianapolis when it sank, but his history with it began several years before.
“The Indianapolis was the first Navy ship I ever walked on,” said Woolston. “I was about ten years old when my buddy’s brother-in-law was an officer on the ship. He took us over and showed us around.”
The tour made an impression on Woolston. After finishing midshipman’s school at Cornell University, he would set foot onto the Indianapolis as an Ensign.
“I had the opportunity to replay my entrance from 15 years before,” said Woolston. “I walked up the gangway, saluted the flag, and said, ‘Ensign Woolston reporting for duty.’”
A few months later they set sail, setting a record for crossing from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor and from Pearl Harbor to Tinian Island while carrying parts and uranium for the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy.’ After successfully delivering its cargo, the Indianapolis headed towards Japan to support the looming invasion. But the vessel never made it.
“That night, I was on watch in the Damage Control Center,” said Woolston. “I was relieved of duty and went up to the main deck to the galley. I ordered a sandwich and a cup coffee and sat down when I heard a bang, and the ship shook.”
On July 30, 1945, at 12:05 a.m., Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.
“Next thing I saw was two whirling caterpillars of flames jump through the door, filling the room with fire,” added Woolston. “I jumped over the serving counter, went into the galley and me and the steward on watch opened up the port. We stuck our heads out until we got our breath back.”
The ship took on water immediately.
“After a few moments, the ship was already at a 30-degree angle,” said Woolston. “I climbed and could see the entire bow was underwater.”
Within 12 minutes, the Indianapolis sank into the Philippine Sea. Of the 1,196 men on board, 900 abandoned the ship and only 317 men survived and were rescued four days later.
After his rescue, Woolston went on to serve a total of 31 years on active duty, sharing his story with hundreds of service men and women throughout Hawaii.
Though this tragic event occurred decades ago, DISA PAC leaders wanted to make sure Woolston knows today’s service members are proud of the actions the young ensign embodied years ago.
“We just want to take a moment to thank Capt. Woolston for taking some time to meet with us,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Huro, DISA PAC deputy chief of plans and services division. “It’s not often we get was an honor and privilege to be able to listen to his story.”