January 18, 2013

USS Indianapolis survivor, husband of 70 years, dies

Jim and Mary Alice O’Donnell pose in a recent photo. The couple celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on Dec. 31, 2012. Jim, a survivor of the USS Indianapolis, died on Jan. 8 at the age of 92. (Submitted photo)

Jim and Mary Alice O’Donnell pose in a recent photo. The couple celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on Dec. 31, 2012. Jim, a survivor of the USS Indianapolis, died on Jan. 8 at the age of 92. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

Indianapolis and the Catholic community of central and southern Indiana lost a treasure on Jan. 8. James E. O’Donnell—husband, father, firefighter and last Indianapolis-native survivor of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis—died at the age of 92. He and his wife, Mary Alice (Gearns), celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary a little more than a week before his death. The couple was married on Dec. 31, 1942, at Holy Cross Church in Indianapolis.

The O’Donnells raised their family at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis. In recent years, they worshipped at Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis, where a Mass of Christian Burial was held on Jan. 14.

In a Feb. 28, 2003, article in The Criterion, O’Donnell said, “I’ve always been a strong Catholic.”

That faith and sheer determination were keys to O’Donnell surviving the worst naval disaster in U.S. history.

On July 30, 1945, two torpedos from a Japanese submarine sank the USS Indianapolis, which had played a role in delivering components of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Of the nearly 1,200 men on board, roughly 300 went down with the ship.

Those remaining, including O’Donnell, suffered five days in the Pacific Ocean with no food or water. Soaked in the fuel from the sunken ship, the men were burned by the sun by day and chilled by night.

In his submission to the 2002 book Only 317 Survived!, O’Donnell wrote, “We faced our worst nemesis the first morning in the sea. Sharks were in the area and had started to attack the defenseless men.”

As the title of the book succinctly states, only 317 ultimately survived the ordeal, including O’Donnell.

After the war, O’Donnell returned to Indianapolis where he joined the Indianapolis Fire Department. He worked his way through the ranks, retiring as a lieutenant in 1981 after 36 years of service.

O’Donnell dedicated much of his adult life to keeping the memory of the USS Indianapolis alive. He served for years as a member of the USS Indianapolis Memorial Organization’s board of directors. In 1995, the group saw the fruits of their labor materialize as the memorial was unveiled along the Central Canal in Indianapolis.

In 2009, O’Donnell was honored by the City of Indianapolis with the placement of his likeness in bronze in the City Market Plaza.

Mayor Greg Ballard honored the passing of O’Donnell in a written statement.

“The sinking of the USS Indianapolis is one of the greatest tragedies in U.S. Naval history,” he said. “The statue of Jimmy in the City Market Plaza honors his service and that of his shipmates.

“As a USS Indianapolis survivor and retired firefighter, Jimmy O’Donnell was an American hero and a great citizen of Indianapolis.”

O’Donnell is survived by his wife, Alice, who raised their four children as a stay-at-home mom. He is also survived by their children, Mary Theresa Hofmeister, and James, Thomas and Timothy O’Donnell, several grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Paul Hermitage or the USS Indianapolis Survivors’ Organization. †

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