It was a role he had prepared his entire life to play, so when Matt Lanter heard that the incredible story of the USS Indianapolis was finally being made into a movie, he knew he had to be a part of it.
“There’s been scripts floating around for 20 years, but when this movie got the green light I told my agent, ‘Let’s make sure to keep on this,’ ” Lanter, 32, tells PEOPLE.
His grandfather, Kenley Lanter, was one of just 317 crewmen to survive the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, widely considered the worst Naval disaster in U.S. history.
“I grew up hearing about this story, it was my grandpa’s legacy” the 90210 actor says. “He was very proud of his service and he was very proud of what the ship did, so it’s very close to my heart.”
After auditioning with the producers of USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, Lanter was cast in the film alongside Nicolas Cage and Tom Sizemore. Director Mario Van Peebles even allowed Lanter to wear his grandfather’s real-life dog tags while filming, which he says was “extremely special to me.”
Lanter’s grandfather, along with the other 1,200 crewmen of the USS Indianapolis, were forced to abandon ship on July 30, 1945. They had just left the U.S. base on Tinian Island in the Philippine Sea, where they had completed their top secret mission: delivering components for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima just a week later.
On their return trip home, a Japanese submarine fired two torpedoes into the Indianapolis, sinking the ship in just 12 minutes. “Of the 1,200 men on the ship, 800 men survived the explosion and went into the water,” Lanter says. “They were stuck in the water for five days, and by the time they were rescued there were only 300 left.”
Some of the crew, like Lanter’s grandfather, were lucky enough to climb into lifeboats equipped with some modest survival tools. But many others, like Ensign Harlan Twible, had only their life jackets to keep them afloat.
“The trauma of abandoning the ship wore off after the first 12 hours when everyone started to realize there was no ship to go back to,” Twible, 93, one of the few surviving officers of the Indianapolis tells PEOPLE. “The rest of the time was a mix of order and disorder. We said prayers over people that died and came to terms with the unimaginable thing that happened to us.
Twible, who was 23 when the ship sank, gave the order to abandon ship after the first torpedo struck. Upon entering the water, he took command of the survivors around him and instructed them to cover their skin with engine oil to protect themselves from the unrelenting sun. He then turned his attention to the shark-infested waters.
“Nobody had ever trained us about what to do with sharks,” Twible explains. “I observed that they wouldn’t go after us in a big group, so my main objective was to keep everyone’s life jackets tied to a heap of netting from the ship.” In a state of panic, some sailors detached from the group and attempted to swim for land. Those who swam away were promptly “picked off by the sharks,” Twible says.
On the fifth day, a patrol bomber happened to spot the floating survivors. Miraculously, the life jackets that were only designed to stay afloat for 3 days lasted just long enough for the rescue. “By the time we were rescued the water was up to my mouth. We probably would have drowned in another 5 or 6 hours,” Twible guesses.
Despite the unimaginable ordeal, he’s still struck by how well the men responded to adversity. “I never gambled to think of how much chance we had of surviving,” he says. “It was our job as officers to make the men think we had a chance of surviving, and that’s exactly what we did. We did a lot of praying and we did a lot of helping each other.”
After the war, Twible returned home to “the most fabulous wife a man could ever want.” In their 73 years of marriage, he says they never had a single argument, because “after almost dying the little things don’t seem so bad.” They had four children: Pamela, Susan, Barbara and Randy, and a grandson, Jimmy. Looking back on the trauma of the war, he says he’s happy he was able “to turn a disaster into a blessing.”
Twible did not to participate in the film due out next year, but two other survivors, Richard Stephens and Granville S. Crane, Sr., visited set and were instrumental in helping the production.
Lanter’s grandfather died before the movie came to fruition, but the actor says, “I’m sure he’s very proud.” Participating in the film on his grandfather’s behalf “was an amazing experience for me,” he adds. “These guys went through such a horrible ordeal and I want them to be served properly.”