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Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Arizonan who survived USS Indianapolis attack

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TUCSON (KVOA) - Seventy-five years ago Thursday, near the end of World War II, the USS Indianapolis was hit by two Japanese torpedoes and sunk in the Philippine sea.

To this day, it is known as the worst naval disaster in history.

With 1,200 sailors on board the ship, only 316 ever made it out of the water.

After so many decades, one of the survivors and a true hero has now been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

In a surprise presentation at his home by News 4 Tucson's, Matt Brode, it was clear it was a delivery Harpo Celaya never expected.

Adolfo Uvaldo "Harpo" Celaya, a USS Indianapolis survivor, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Thursday.

"I've received a lot of things, but my God, this is something else," Celaya said.

It is one of America's most prestigious awards.

The Congressional Gold Medal, a medal bestowed on others like Gen. George Washington, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, the Navajo code talkers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And now there is a new name added to that list, Adolfo "Harpo" Celaya.

Celaya, who turned 93 this year, said he learned he would be receiving a medal. However, he had no idea he was going to receive one that is so revered.

"I thought it was just an ordinary medal I was going to get," he said. "But when you brought it to me and I looked at it, I said, 'My God.' You can still see the tears in my eyes."

Recognition after so many years. Celaya entered the Navy as the age of 17. The Mexican-American teen from Florence, Ariz. needed his father's permission to join the force.

Unfortunately, at the time, he became part of a military that was still tolerating racism in its ranks.

"I enjoyed serving under it. I enjoyed everything. I just had a rough trip with a lot of the men. They didn't appreciate at that time," he said. "I stuck by it. I still stick by it and I still stick by the Indianapolis even though I was mistreated a little bit."

On the day of the attack, conditions were horrific to Celaya and all the men that went into the water. These men were people the Florence native called his brothers.

The survivors were left with few life rafts. Many were injured and covered with oil floating in shark-infested waters.

Despite the danger, Celaya still swam out to struggling sailors to bring them back to safety.

"After two or three days, you can't do it anymore and you're hanging on to yourself," he said. "Ii had a crew chief I met. He was my crew chief and I kept holding on to him. And on the third day, he disappeared on me. So, I kind of got hurt a little bit by not being able to hold on to my crew chief that day."

Celaya was one of just 316 men who survived for five torturous days in the sea. They were rescued after being spotted by a passing Allied plane.

He said struggling early in life gave him the grit to survive.

"If they had been around here when I was about 5 or 6 years old, they would understand why I'm still around," he said. "Because if you made it around here during the depression, you would probably make it here for quite a while."

Out of the 316 men who were saved from the attack, only eight are alive today.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, their annual in-person reunion has been canceled. However, an event will be held virtually.

Just six are healthy enough to participate, but that has not stopped some big names in entertainment, such as Matthew McConaughey and Gary Sinise, from honoring them all.

The Congressional Gold Medal, established in the days of the American Revolution, is the highest expression of national appreciation to honor the USS Indianapolis crew's perseverance, bravery and service to the United States of America.

"I am very honored, very honored," Celaya said.  

This year's virtual reunion will be taking place Thursday and Friday.

For a link to schedule and to find out how you can watch the live events, visit ussindianapolis.com.

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