Don, 85, of Champaign, Ill., is one of the estimated 57 or 58 living survivors of an explosion that occurred 65 years ago almost to the day. From the dwindling pool of survivors, around 26 are expected to attend the 65th reunion in Indianapolis this weekend, Don's daughter Peggy McCall said.
"I'm one of the lucky ones," Don said. "I lead the life of Riley now."
Japanese torpedoes struck the rig as it headed through the South Pacific Ocean toward the Philippine Islands for training. He didn't know it at the time, Don said, but he and other passengers aboard the ship had just completed the delivery of parts for the atomic bomb that would end World War II.
It only took 13 minutes for the USS Indianapolis to sink on July 30, 1945, and with it threw an estimated 900 passengers into the water, thick as molasses from oil discharged from the rig. Out of those who survived the initial explosion, only 317 survived nearly five tormenting days directly exposed to the elements of the South Pacific.
Don had seen several major battles as a "deep sea lookout" even before the USS Indianapolis exploded, which even today are still difficult to think about.
He remembers the day of the explosion. He was off duty at 12 a.m. and went to the mess hall to get a cup of coffee. Because of the unbearable heat, he opted to spread out a blanket near his gun mount all night to be ready for work in the morning -- something which Navy commanders usually frowned upon. If he had been where he was supposed to be -- down in his bunk -- it would be likely Don wouldn't be alive today, he said.
It was training procedure to throw life jackets overboard first, but Don was afraid he wouldn't get one upon making contact with the water 70 feet below. He put one on and made the jump into the oily salt water, its pressure causing oil to gush through his nose, down his throat and into his stomach.
"I swam as fast as I could to get away and then watched it go down. I started upchucking all this stuff and gagging," he said. "It was terrible."
Don stayed afloat in the water, nearly 500 miles from land, for five days after he was thrust overboard following the worst open-sea disaster in U.S. Navy history.
In his days out at sea, Don saw men die from shark attacks, drowning or the effects of drinking salt water. Prolonged exposure to the elements caused some men to hallucinate and turn on each other, stabbing others who they thought at the time were Japanese.
To optimize his chances for survival, Don remembers staying far away from fellow crewmembers during the day as they flailed about, likely attracting sharks to the area, and sticking closer to them at night to preserve body heat. When fellow crewmembers died, remaining survivors would take their life jackets.
Don said it was likely that placing a life jacket on top of his head to minimize direct exposure to the heat from the sun shining on the ocean's surface that led to his ultimate survival and eventual rescue. He avoided shark attacks by making as little movement as possible so as not to draw attention to himself.
"I made up my mind out there that I would hang on," he said.
It was a submarine chaser flying overhead, having trouble with an antenna in his plane, who happened to see the men floating in the ocean, which Don found out he originally thought it was an oil slick from a submarine.
He said if it weren't for the helping hands of the man who lifted him out of the water by the arm pits, the man he now calls his "angel," his family today would be non-existent.
"If it weren't for him, there'd be no us," his daughter Peggy said.
When help finally came in the form of the USS Bassett, the ship that came to rescue those still alive and afloat, Don remembers his entire body was slick from oil and about 30 pounds lighter since the ship had sunk five days prior.
"I wouldn't have lasted much longer," he said.
His mouth dry and cracked due to dehydration, Don was eventually taken to the Phillipines for medical help at the hospital, and remembers shortly after his rescue that he didn't realize he had burned a cigarette on his hand. Bleeding made worse from the salt water, his arms were wrapped in cotton to prevent inflicting any further injuries to himself.
It took Don nearly 10 years to begin sharing his experience surviving out at sea, but once the initial post-traumatic stress of reliving his navy days wore off, he's been more open to sharing aspects of his days on the open Pacific. Reunions like the one this weekend, for example, provide a forum for the survivors to recount memories from those days and to share them with family members and friends.
If you asked him 35 years ago if he would consider attending a survivors' reunion, he wouldn't have given it much thought. Like others at the time, he memories of the explosion then were ones he said were still too harrowing to share with family members and moments of his life he was trying not to relive. It was his late wife Rita, who, after doing some research about that fateful day in history, talked him into going to his first reunion in 1965, he said.
"Back then I didn't want to talk about it, and Rita was kind enough not to ask me about it," he said.
These days Don is much more open about telling his story to family members -- although it's still because it's a way to preserve and garner the understanding of future generations of such a historic event. Every day Don will share parts of his story to his children, who look on with admiration for what their father went experienced.
"I run into people all the time whose dads never talked about it, or their dads died and they never got to hear about it," Peggy said. "At least with dad (Don), for the past 10 years, he's been talking about it."
Don said he spends a lot of time at the Veterans Affairs office in Danville, he said, where they tell him to talk about his past experiences, and he has gradually become more open in sharing his former life as a sailor.
"For years though, these guys just wanted to get on with their lives," Jeff said. "When you hear these veterans talk, it's very impressive to see what the Greatest Generation went through and to learn why they're called the Greatest Generation.
"When you hear what they had to sacrifice of their lives, and sometimes their lives entirely, it's impressive to hear that that generation went all in."
Since the explosion, Don has led a productive live and considers himself to be "pretty lucky." He was discharged from the Navy in late 1945, later becoming a brick mason in Illinois, a job he held until he was 68. He has four children with wife, Rita, who died in 1975. He also has nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren -- all of whom are planning on going to the reunion -- and enjoys golfing and "some nice background music."
But like some of his fellow survivors, who are decreasing in number each year, Don is still a bit leery in calling himself a hero and from time to time still finds himself struggling with his own thoughts about what happened nearly 65 years ago. The only thing he was really trying to do, he said, was survive being surrounded by sharks and finding ways to beat the hysteria brought about by extreme dehydration.
"The heroes are still out there," he said.