Harlan D. Larsen was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and signed in 1944 with the Lockport Cubs, a Chicago Cubs’ farm club of the Class D PONY League. However, before he could play for the team, the 18-year-old entered military service with the Marine Corps.
At the beginning of 1945, Larsen joined the 39-man Marine Corps detachment aboard the cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in California.The Marines, who slept in their own compartment away from the ship’s crew, operated the onboard jail, fired the guns during battle and provided security for the ship. The Indianapolis set sail for the Pacific and supported the landings at Iwo Jima during February, then contributed to the pre-invasion bombardment of Okinawa in March, pouring eight-inch shells into the beach defenses.
On March 31, 1945, a Japanese fighter plane crashed near the port stern of the ship and its bomb passed through the deck and through the keel, exploding in the water below. The explosion blew two large holes in the keel and killed nine crewmen, and the crippled ship made the long trip across the Pacific back to Mare Island for repairs.
After a complete overhaul at Mare Island the Indianapolis docked at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard at San Francisco, where it took onboard parts and the uranium projectile for the atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” which would later be dropped on Hiroshima. The Indianapolis departed from San Francisco on July 16, and proceeded to Tinian where it delivered the top secret cargo, before proceeding to Guam. On July 28, she was directed to join the battleship USS Idaho at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan. On the way to Leyte, during the night of July 29, 1945, the crew of the Indianapolis had no idea that they were being stalked by the Japanese submarine I-58, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto.
Private First Class Larsen, who was in line to be advanced to corporal, was on duty until midnight on July 29, at which time he probably returned to the Marine compartment. At 14 minutes after midnight, two large explosions on the vessel’s starboard side, caused by torpedoes from I-58, blew away the bow, and split the ship to the keel. At least 10 Marines were incinerated in their sleeping area, and 12 minutes after the torpedoes hit, the Indianapolis sank. Of the 1,196 aboard, about 300 went down with the ship. It is not known whether Harlan Larsen got off the ship at this time. He was never seen again.
Around 900 men were cast into the Pacific Ocean with no lifeboats and little food or water. A series of blunders resulted in four days elapsing before it was realized the ship was missing and by the time the survivors were found only 321 men were still alive; nearly 600 had died from shark attacks, starvation, thirst, exposure and wounds. With sunrise on the first day came the shark attacks. The sharks would stalk for hours, then attack, pulling men out of the water and tearing off limbs. An estimated 200 died from shark attacks, and it was the worst single loss of life at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy.
On August 2, 1995, the USS Indianapolis National Memorial was opened. It is located on the Canal Walk in Indianapolis. Engraved on the south face of the monument are the names of the ship’s company, including Private First Class Harlan Larsen.