NASHVILLE - State senators on Monday paid homage to local World War II Navy veteran Lewis H. Erwin, who served on the USS Indianapolis in a top-secret mission that helped end the war and then survived days of exposure, dehydration and shark attacks after a Japanese submarine sank the ship.
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who sponsored an earlier-passed resolution honoring Erwin, said he had never "been so humbled" to stand before colleagues and introduce Erwin, now 88, describing his "incredible struggle" and "honor to the human spirit" and service.
Erwin was a Coxswain who handled guns aboard the USS Indianapolis for more than two years when the ship was chosen to carry out a top-secret mission in the final days of World War II - delivering parts of the first atomic bomb to the Tinian Islands.
But after the ship left on 12:14 a.m. on July 30, 1945, Indianapolis was struck by Japanese torpedoes and sank in just 12 minutes. Three hundred sailors went down on the ship while some 900 others plunged into the sea where they faced a desperate battle to survive. Of these, only 316, including Erwin, survived the ordeal.
The Navy only realized what had happened four days after the sinking when a plane spotted the men. It was the single worst disaster in U.S. Naval history.
"We spent four days and five nights in shark-infested waters," Erwin told senators. "We figured 900 got into the water, but they took so long to pick us up ... only 317 survived. I just wish my shipmates were here with me."
Earlier, several military veterans of more recent conflicts spoke with emotion of Erwin and the ordeal.
"It is a real honor to meet you, sir," said Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, a physician who served two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan.
"I have real chills," Green said, telling Erwin he is "an inspiration to the generations of warriors that followed you."