LINCOLN — Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the 23-year-old sailor from Nebraska was literally dying of thirst.
Clarence Hupka and other crew escaped the sinking of the USS Indianapolis only to spend nearly five days adrift under a tropical sun. He’d seen dozens of his crewmates die from wounds, dehydration and even shark attacks in the hours after a Japanese submarine had torpedoed the heavy cruiser in the waning days of World War II.
Hupka wanted nothing more than to obey his parched, swollen tongue, but he knew that drinking salt water meant death. So he obeyed his training, which he later credited for keeping him among the 317 men who survived. The 879 other crew members went down with the ship or perished while awaiting rescue.
Hupka — one of the last living survivors of the Indianapolis — died Sunday in Tecumseh at the age of 95. Over the years, the soft-spoken, unassuming farmer had shared his war experiences with schoolchildren and civic organizations across southeast Nebraska.
“He was one of the sweetest, most humble people that I’ve ever known. ... He had a wonderful heart,” said Sara Vladic, a San Diego film director who made the 2015 documentary “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy.”
Hupka grew up on a farm near St. Mary and attended parochial school through the eighth grade. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and served as a baker on the Indianapolis, which earned 10 battle stars in the Pacific Theater. He narrowly survived a kamikaze and bomb attack on the ship during the Battle of Okinawa.
On the final mission, the crew had secretly delivered components of the atomic bomb “Little Boy” to Tinian Island in the western Pacific. The bomb was later dropped on Hiroshima, helping to bring an end to the war.
The Indianapolis was speeding toward Leyte in the Philippines on July 30, 1945, when it took direct hits from two Japanese torpedoes. Hupka spent four days and five nights without drinking water or food, kept afloat by a life jacket or a floating net. He had never been taught to swim.
During the ordeal, one of Hupka’s buddies was attacked by a shark and suffered a hand wound. Despite the risk from fresh blood in the water, Hupka stayed near and helped the sailor get on a life raft once the rescue operation began, said Vladic, who remained in contact with Hupka after the filming of the documentary.
“I really think, talking to Clarence and other survivors, it came down to sheer will,” she said. “They were prayerful. They were young men. ... They were expecting to come home.”
Only 18 survivors are still living, said Peggy Campo of Urbana, Illinois, secretary of the survivor’s group. Nebraska has another surviving member of the crew: Dale Krueger, 94, of Wayne.
Several hundred people attended a screening of the documentary in Tecumseh on Veterans Day 2016, Vladic said. In January, hundreds also attended a question-and-answer session with Hupka.
Hupka also lived to see a new chapter in the Indianapolis story: On Aug. 17 of this year— 72 years after the disaster — a team of marine explorers found the ship’s wreckage 18,000 feet below the surface of the Philippine Sea.
After the war, Hupka farmed for 40 years near Cook. He and his wife, Helen, had four sons. He loved to bowl, square dance and listen to polka music. He also was active in the Indianapolis survivors organization and strongly advocated for people with developmental disabilities.
Health problems sent him to an assisted living center a couple of years ago, and a recent fall put him in the nursing home. But mentally he remained strong, said his son, Jim Hupka of Olathe, Kansas.
He died quietly in a recliner while watching the World Series, his son said.
He is survived by his wife, three sons and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and one great-great grandson. Services will be 10:30 a.m. Friday at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Tecumseh. Wherry Mortuary in Tecumseh is in charge of arrangements.