First Arriving Network
First Arriving Network

Retired Firefighter / War Hero Passes, Age 92

His Statue Stands in Indianapolis Park

JAMES E. O'DONNELL, RETIRED FIRE LIEUTENANT and U. S. Navy veteran who was the last surviving crew member from Indianapolis of the USS Indianapolis died yesterday (Wednesday) in Indianapolis at age 92.  He served 35 years in the Indianapolis Fire Department.

Lt. O'Donnell was born in Indianapolis in 1922 and graduated from Tech High School in 1938.  In 1944 he was drafted into the U. S. Navy and assigned to the USS Indianapolis, one of 1,200 sailors working on the Cruiser.  Wikipedia describes the ship:

She served as flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance while he commanded the Fifth Fleet in their battles across the Central Pacific. She holds a place in history due to the circumstances of her sinking, which led to the greatest single loss of life at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy. On 30 July 1945, shortly after delivering critical parts for the first atomic bomb to be used in combat to the United States air base at Tinian, the ship was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58, sinking in 12 minutes. Of 1,196 crewmen aboard, approximately 300 went down with the ship.

USS Indianapolis in Pearl Harbor, 1937.

The remaining 900 men faced exposure, dehydration, and shark attacks as they waited for assistance while floating with few lifeboats and almost no food or water. The Navy learned of the sinking when survivors were spotted four days later by the crew of a PV-1 Ventura on routine patrol. Only 317 sailors survived. Indianapolis was the last major U.S. Navy ship sunk by enemy action in World War II.

The few survivors remaining afloat were being picked off by sharks in the ocean and one by one, and "Jimmy" O'Donnell watched his buddies suffering the worst of slow deaths as he wondered if and when he would be next.

Following his return to his home town, Jimmy joined the Indianapolis Fire Department in 1946 and worked the job for 35 years while rising through the ranks to Lieutenant.  At the time of his retirement in 1981 he was assigned to Ladder 25.

At a Pearl Harbor day commemoration on December 7, 2009, O'Donnell was honored by the city by having a statue of him in his Navy uniform dedicated at City Market.  He had been active for many years in the USS Indianapolis Memorial Organization.  On learning of his passing, Mayor Greg Ballard issued a statement:

"Jimmy O’Donnell personified history and service to this country and city. The sinking of the USS Indianapolis is one of the greatest tragedies in U.S. Naval history. 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."

The Indianapolis Star posted this video from a prior interview with Jimmy:


He and his wife, who survives him, had just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on New Year's Eve.  One of his grandsons is an Indianapolis firefighter.

Jimmy and Mary Alice O'Donnell at the 
unveiling of his statue in 2009.  (WRTV)

Additional reading:
Indianapolis Star

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