Adrian Marks, 81, World War II Navy Pilot

 

By Richard Goldstein,, 15 March 1998

 

Adrian Marks, a Navy pilot who rescued 56 sailors struggling in the

shark-filled Philippine Sea after the cruiser Indianapolis was sunk by

Japanese torpedoes in July 1945, died on March 7 at Clinton County

Hospital in his hometown of Frankfort, Ind. He was 81. Marks was flying

a seaplane designed for landings only in calm water. He had been ordered

never to touch down on the high seas. But on what he would remember as

"a sun-swept afternoon of horror," he disregarded his orders, risking

his life and the lives of his eight crewmen, and began a dramatic mass

rescue following the worst disaster at sea in American naval history.

The attack took almost 900 lives. Marks later had the Air Medal pinned

on him by Adm. Chester Nimitz, the commander in chief of the Pacific

Fleet. The Indianapolis, unescorted and carrying 1,200 men, was en route

to the Philippines from Guam, having delivered atomic-bomb components to

Tinian, when it was spotted by the Japanese submarine I-58 around

midnight of Sunday, July 29. The submarine skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Mochitsura

Hashimoto, ordered the firing of six torpedoes; two struck the

Indianapolis. Rocked by the explosions, it rolled over and sank in 12

minutes. Some 400 men were lost outright, but 800 others scrambled into

the water as SOSs were radioed. No one ever heard the distress calls, so

far as is known. And because of slip-ups and bureaucratic lapses, Navy

commanders did not think to look for the Indianapolis even when it

became officially overdue at Leyte Gulf, the Philippines. All through

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the survivors of the torpedo attack --

suffering from injuries, sunburn and dehydration and menaced by sharks

-- thrashed about in the sea. By Thursday, Aug. 2, only 320 of the men

were still alive. Then, at about 10 a.m., a Navy pilot flying a routine

mission spotted figures bobbing in the water. Marks, summoned from the

island of Peleliu, piloted the first rescue plane to arrive. He dropped

three life rafts in the late afternoon, but one broke up when it hit the

water. He then polled his crew members about whether they should make a

dangerous open-sea landing that was forbidden by regulations. When they

agreed, he set down his PBY5A Catalina plane, known as a Dumbo, amid

12-foot swells. The plane bounced 15 feet in the air after hitting the

waves, but incurred only slight damage. Speaking at a reunion of

Indianapolis survivors exactly 30 years later, he remembered his crew

members' realization that they could not rescue everyone. "We would have

to make heartbreaking decisions," he recalled. "I decided that the men

in groups stood the best chance of survival," Marks said. "They could

look after one another, could splash and scare away the sharks and could

lend one another moral support and encouragement." Marks' crewmen first

picked up the men who were alone, throwing life rings attached to ropes

to the men. Soon there were two survivors in each bunk on the plane, and

then men were lying two and three deep in all the compartments. Marks

later shut off the engines and put additional survivors on the bobbing

wings, tying the last of the 56 men down with parachute material. And

then night came. "Even though we were near the equator, the wind whipped

up," he remembered. "We had long since dispensed the last drop of water,

and scores of badly injured men were softly crying with thirst and with

pain. And then, far out on the horizon, there was a light." It was the

destroyer Cecil J. Doyle, the first of seven rescue ships that were

belatedly dispatched. The survivors were hauled onto the Doyle, followed

by Marks and his crewmen, and the Doyle and other ships later fished

others out of the water. The next morning, the Doyle sank Marks' plane,

now too damaged to fly again. Twelve days later, Japan surrendered,

ending World War II. The skipper of the Indianapolis, Capt. Charles

McVay III, was court-martialed in December 1945 and found to have left

his ship vulnerable to torpedoes by maintaining a straight course rather

than zigzagging. He was allowed to remain on duty, but his career was

ruined. Reprimands were issued to four officers in the Pacific over the

failure to mount a timely rescue operation, but these were later

rescinded. Robert Adrian Marks (he did not use his first name), a native

of Ladoga, Ind., and the son of a lawyer, had graduated from

Northwestern University and Indiana University Law School before the

war. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on Dec.

7, 1941. He later attended flight school, became a pilot and served as

an instructor at the Pensacola, Fla., naval air station before going to

the Pacific. After the war, he returned to his Frankfort home -- some 40

miles from Indianapolis -- and opened a law practice, specializing in

real-estate titles and deeds. He is survived by his wife, Elta; a son,

Robert, of Bellevue, Wash; three daughters, Pamela Levine of Lakeville,

Mass., Alexis Shuman of Enumclaw, Wash., and Lynn Larson of Olympia,

Wash; a foster son, John Barlas of Mercer Island, Wash., and 10

grandchildren. Over the years, Marks never let the events of Aug. 2,

1945, leave him. Speaking at the 1975 survivors' reunion, he paid

tribute to the sailors he rescued and to all others who had undergone a

shattering ordeal. "I met you 30 years ago," he said. "I met you on a

sparkling, sun-swept afternoon of horror. I have known you through a

balmy tropic night of fear. I will never forget you."


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© 1998 by Neil Mishalov