MEMPHIS, TX — Seventy-five years after surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, Texas WWII veteran Cleatus Lebow received a Congressional Gold Medal. Lebow is one of now only eight living survivors left from the sinking, one of the worst naval disasters in the country’s history.
“We didn’t have any food or any water … What can you imagine doing out there with nothing to do but lay in that big puddle of water and then wait, hope they find you?” Lebow said.
Ninety-six-year-old Lebow was born and raised in Abernathy and currently resides in Memphis, TX. After the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945, the ship sunk in under 12 minutes, killing hundreds and sending about 900 men, including Lebow, into the Philippine Sea.
“They had a big ol’ whole in that big ol’ ship,” Lebow said.
For days, Lebow and other crew members were stranded in the water facing sun burns, starvation and dehydration as they fended off the sharks that swam beneath them.
“The Navy didn’t even know we were out there until we were accidentally found,” Lebow added.
At the time of the sinking, the ship was on a top-secret mission to deliver parts that would help make the world’s first atomic bomb. Because of the ship’s covert purpose and the chaos at the end of the war in the Pacific, among other things, it took the Navy about four days to even realize the USS Indianapolis was missing.
By that time, many men had already succumbed to the elements or were eaten by sharks. Of the 900 that plunged into the water, only 317 survived.
Lebow was rescued after an airplane flew over and noticed the men adrift, but help wouldn’t arrive until a day later.
He emphasized that his faith in God helped him survive his days at sea.
“When I started off the ship, I just said, “Lord, help me!” And from that minute on, I felt good about the whole thing,” Lebow said.
Lebow’s son told KAMC News that the way his father went from the ship to the water was an especially poignant memory. He said his father walked –not ran– off the ship, hand-in-hand with two other crew members. However, when the senior Lebow came back up for air, the other two were nowhere to be found.
On July 30, 2020 — 75 years later to the day of the sinking — Lebow was presented with the Congressional Gold Member, which recognizes both the survivors and the crew members who died during the disaster.
Lebow’s family said that they had lobbied congressional representatives from across the country for years for help with the bill to create this award. They said Lubbock Congressman Jodey Arrington was critical in making the award happen.
Lebow was also surprised with a drive-by parade from his front porch. Dozens of cars decked out in red, white and blue stopped by to honk and wave to commemorate an emotional anniversary for the man who “refuses to let people call him a hero.”
“Oh a hero? I think baloney, I know better than that … I’m just glad people care enough to do things like that. They’ll do it for anybody,” Lebow said with a laugh.
To this day, Lebow is not a fan of the water though he said cruises are okay. He stressed that he does not live with fear but rather an appreciation of the lessons he learned while fighting for his life — lessons he hopes others will also learn from his story and the stories of the ones who didn’t come home.
“It just gives me a little deeper thought on what it means to be safe and out of the water with food in front of you every day,” Lebow said.