Marine vet's promotion to sergeant officially recognized 73 years after sinking of USS Indianapolis

Good things come to those who wait. And wait. And wait.

In the case of Cpl. Edgar Harrell, a promotion to sergeant in 1945 was finally made official – 73 years later.

A chance conversation with Capt. Scott Montefusco while both took part in a recent Veteran’s Day Parade in Salt Lake City led to Harrell receiving, at long last, the documents making his sergeant rank official, on Aug. 9.

Harrell, who is 93 and a Tennessee resident, told Montefusco about his time on the USS Indianapolis -- how he would sleep on lifeboats because the heat below deck was too intense.

He stopped slipping out to the lifeboats after his unrecognized promotion because he didn’t want his new title to be stripped from him, he told Montefusco.

Montefusco, organizer of the Utah Military History Group, thought it unacceptable to allow Harrell to continue to go on without the official recognition of his promotion to sergeant.

I learned how this amazing man was never recognized for his sergeant rank. The whole time I kept sitting there thinking that we needed to fix this.

— Capt. Scott Montefusco, who led the effort to get Edgar Harrell's promotion recognized

“That's when I learned how this amazing man was never recognized for his sergeant rank,” Montefusco said. “The whole time I kept sitting there thinking that we needed to fix this," he said. And so he reached out to Sen. Bob Corker's office to get help.

Harrell didn't speak often of his "unofficial" rank. He considered it "more trouble than it's worth."

Instead, he has devoted his life since his days on the Indianapolis to speaking about the heroism of the men who perished when the Japanese torpedoed the ship during the closing months of World War II.

Harrell recalled swimming aimlessly in the salt water — mixed heavily with black oil and blood — with a group of 80 other men who had jumped off the fiery USS Indianapolis.

The USS Indianapolis in 1939.

The USS Indianapolis in 1939. (US Navy)

It was July 30, 1945, and it was 110 degrees. They had no water. Dehydration left their lips covered with sores and their tongues swollen.

By the afternoon of the third day, the group dwindled to just 17 men. Shark fins surrounded them. Harrell prayed continually.

Ultimately, of the 1,196 men on board, nearly 900 died. It was the single largest loss of life from a single ship in the U.S. Navy's history.

Cpl. Edgar Harrell.

Cpl. Edgar Harrell. (US Marine Corps)

Harrell spent months in the hospital recovering from a perforated appendix. He thought of how he had been promoted to sergeant on the ship, but it hadn't been official. Documents were lost, along with the ship's wreckage.

But the lament over his unrecognized milestone was eclipsed by a sense of duty to honor the men on the USS Indianapolis and to tell their story.

There was no fanfare when the men returned from the Pacific. Soon afterwards President Harry Truman announced that Japan had surrendered.

“I can’t tell the story without reliving it somewhat,” he said in an interview with USA Today Network - Tennessee. “I’m an old man today, but the good Lord is still watching over me. I hope I have some more time to go and tell this story.”

The church, where Harrell's son, David, is a pastor, was filled with his family and friends dressed for a special occasion. They had gathered for something that's been long overdue: Harrell's official promotion.

"We have a saying that once a Marine, always a Marine. We might be a little late with this one," Maj. Gen. Paul Kennedy said in the quick but emotional ceremony. "The Marines have been inspired by the legacy of (Harrell)."

The now-sergeant turned to look at the group who stood and clapped for him.

"Stay faithful," he said simply, touching on his faith that he credits to have saved him at sea.

His "little" brother, Bill Harrell, who towers over Edgar Harrell's small frame, made his way to the front and embraced his brother.

"I'm so proud of you," he whispered. He was just as proud as he felt when his saw his brother return decades ago.

Then just 8 years old, the younger Harrell sat with their father and mother as they listened to a radio news report that Indianapolis had sunk.

Soon after, they received a telegram that his brother was missing.

I can’t tell the story without reliving it somewhat. I’m an old man today, but the good Lord is still watching over me. I hope I have some more time to go and tell this story.

— Cpl. Edgar Harrell on his mission to pay homage to the men of the USS Indianapolis who perished

“We stayed glued to the radio for days to hear what had happened to Edgar. When we eventually found out he had survived, it was incredible,” Bill Harrell told the USA Today Network - Tennessee.

"To go through that and to see him standing here with this recognition is beyond words."

Harrell has written a book about his terrifying firsthand account of the Indianapolis. He's shared his story with anyone who asks, still continuing his promise to remember those who had died.

He became a celebrity of sorts last year when the ship's wreckage was finally located after seven decades of searching.

He answered as many calls and emails he could from those who wanted to hear about what had happened. His calendar filled up with stops in cities like Knoxville, Indianapolis and New Orleans.

And in what Kennedy described as the "fastest piece of legislation to be signed," Harrell's honorary promotion was approved.

"I felt a sense of accomplishment to see this happen," Montefusco said. "(Harrell) has dedicated his life so that future generations don't forget about this tragedy."

Harrell called his promotion a "double honor" and something he didn't realize was in the works until he was asked Monday when he might be available.

“I’m just delighted and to see this turn out, I am very honored. It’s an honor for me to live and tell of the tragedy that all of those 880 boys had to experience for the freedom America has today,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.