In a memorable scene from the 1975 movie Jaws, Captain Quint, played by Robert Shaw, tells of his World War II experience on board the USS Indianapolis as it sank in shark-infested waters in 1945. Although the characters in the film were all obviously fictitious, the sinking that Quint described was real, and every inch terrible enough to warrant its inclusion in one of the most horrifying thriller movies ever produced.
The Indianapolis was first commissioned as a heavy cruiser on November 15, 1932, and it served in various capacities for about seven years before entering dry dock. After America entered the war, the Indianapolis become one of many to be recommissioned for wartime duty despite its age. On March 31, 1945, a kamikaze pilot struck the ship, and although the plane itself did very little damage, a bomb it carried plunged through several decks and exploded, killing nine sailors and doing extensive damage to the propeller shafts and several fuel tanks. The Indianapolis spent the months of May and June in San Diego, undergoing extensive repairs and being retrofitted with newer, updated electronics.
Meanwhile, the US had also developed the atomic bomb, and prepared to drop the first two, code-named Fat Man and Little Boy, on the Japanese mainland. The crucial ingredient in the bombs' design was a supply of Uranium-235, and the Indianapolis, due to her speed and proximity, was scheduled to leave California on July 16 in order to convey the radioactive material to the Pacific island of Tinian. Although no one on board, including Captain Charles McVay III, knew what was in the mysterious containers, the Indianapolis and her crew dutifully conveyed the mysterious cargo across the Pacific, a journey of more than 6,000 miles. After arriving in Tinian on July 25th, the Indianapolis headed south to Guam for new orders, and from there proceeded west to Leyte. As about 400 of the cruiser's 1,196 men were raw recruits, the Indianapolis's next mission was to proceed west another 1700 miles to the Philippines for a training mission with the USS Idaho. Indianapolis left dock on Sunday, July 28, and headed west; although its path led the ship into the hunting grounds of the Imperial Japanese submarine I-58, the US Navy command, for unknown reasons, denied Captain McVay's request for a destroyer escort ship specially equipped to detect and destroy enemy subs.
The Indianapolis made good time, but was a highly vulnerable target as it remained alone and functionally blind. Fourteen minutes after midnight, in the early morning hours of July 30, a torpedo from the I-58 struck the bow of the Indianapolis with tremendous force. Despite the attack having occurred at nighttime, many of the ship's officers were awake because the timing corresponded with the scheduled shift change; however, the blast occurred near their cabins, instantly claiming many as casualties. The ship's doctor jolted from his sleep as the blast blew his cabin porthole past his face as he lay in bed.
While the crew reeled from the impact, a second torpedo struck the Indianapolis on the port side amidships. The cruiser, having been built for speed, had armor measuring only about four inches thick, less than a third that of an average battleship, so the torpedo punctured the skin with relative ease, striking and igniting several powder magazines and fuel oil tanks. The resultant explosion tore the Indianapolis open with terrible ease, knocking out the power as it toppled the floundering ship. As interior tanks and pipes burst, the ship, crew, and ocean soon became coated with a layer of black, inky oil.
The ship's momentum carried it forward as it spent the next twelve minutes pitching, breaking apart, and finally sinking nose-first into one of the deepest sections of the Pacific Ocean. About 300 of the crewmen died in the initial blasts, and the remaining 900 spread out over about a mile of water. Some clung to debris or hastily-deployed life rafts, and others floated free; Captain McVay, who escaped the ship, clung first to a box of potatoes, then to a desk, and finally he met up with other sailors aboard a rubber life raft which had been deployed upside-down. Since the visibility while bobbing up and down in oceanic waves of 12 feet or more is limited, many sailors drowned without ever having been able to find their companions.
The men took what comfort they could in the fact that since the Idaho knew they were on their way, their absence would be noted and a search party would be sent out. Unfortunately, the original message to the Idaho had been garbled, and no request was made to re-send the confusing message. Ship-tracking logistics at the time assumed that all large warships such as the Indianapolis would reach their destinations safely, so there was so system to account their actual arrival. The Indianapolis sent out a distress call was sent out before the power went out, but the Navy commander that received the call discounted it as a Japanese fake; other receptors of the call were drunk, or failed to respond as they didn't want to be disturbed. Due to this cascade of sloppy decisions, flawed policies, and stunning coincidences, no one was aware the Indianapolis was missing, and so no help was forthcoming.
At first, the men organized themselves as best they could, looping their arms through straps in the back of their fellow sailor's life vests to keep them from sinking and clustering together to support the wounded and preserve their body heat. Some men scavenged potatoes and Spam from floating pieces of debris. Over time, however, their conditions deteriorated; the oil on the water, while it protected them somewhat from sunburn, caused photophobia, or a type of sun blindness caused by the reflection of the light off of the oil-coated ocean water. With no fresh water to drink, some men panicked and drank salt water, the diarrhea from which causing them to dehydrate more quickly, causing many to die of thirst. Even among the survivors, this dehydration, along with the constant chill of being submerged and the rampant salt poisoning, caused delirium; many men went mad, started fights, and drowned.
Sharks also circled the water-borne sailors. Many of the sailors they ate had already died on their own, but the survivors in the water often sensed the lurking presence of hundreds of hunting sharks just below the waterline. Waterborne sailors heard screams in the distance as lone stragglers, unable to find their companions, regularly disappeared underwater to be devoured. This constant threat added to the despair and madness that lasted for several days.
More than three days after the sinking of the Indianapolis, on Thursday, August 2, the two-man crew of a PV-1 bomber, on a mission to find and sink enemy subs, saw a lengthy, oblong oil slick, and thought it was evidence of a recently-submerged Japanese submarine. As the bomber opened the bay doors and prepared to drop explosives, he noticed a long trail of men, waving and shouting for his help. They immediately notified their command of "many men in the water", and spent hours circling the crash site, relaying specifics. It took hours for their commanders to decide it was not, in fact, a prank, and they should dispatch rescuers immediately.
A heavy PBY seaplane arrived soon, and the pilot, Adrian Marks, disobeyed safety procedures and landed on the open ocean water, nearly crashing in the process. Marks puttered about in circles for hours, collecting the most vulnerable survivors, even lashing some to his wings with parachute cord when he ran out of interior space; in total, Marks collected 56 men from the Pacific water. When the destroyer Cecil Doyle arrived, Marks transferred his rescues to that ship, then sunk his seaplane, as he had damaged it irretrievably during the course of the rescue.
Five more ships eventually arrived, searching the water for further survivors for almost a week. In all, 317 sailors survived the sinking of the Indianapolis. Medics aboard a hospital ship treated the survivors for dehydration, starvation, and all sorts of injuries and wounds suffered both aboard the ship and in the water.
On August 6, Enola Gay delivered the two atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Navy court-martialed Captain McVay for the loss of his ship, on the basis that he didn't take sufficient precautions. Throughout the rest of his life, he received angry mail from the families of deceased Indianapolis sailors, and in 1968, suffering from loneliness and guilt, he committed suicide on his back porch. In 2000 Congress retroactively overturned the result after further investigation and the availability of previously-declassified files on the subject.
Links and Sources:
"Narrative of the Circumstances on the Loss of the U.S.S. Indianapolis", press release by the U.S. Navy, February 23, 1946, retrieved from the Naval Historical Center web page, on May 1, 2012.
"The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis" by Patrick J. Finneran, on USSIndianapolis.org, retrieved May 1, 2012.
"Recollections of the Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis" by Lewis L. Haynes, retrieved from the Naval Historical Center web page, on May 1, 2012.
Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by Dan Kurzman, Random House Digital, 2001.
Abandon Ship!: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster by Richard F. Newcomb, HarperCollins, 2002.
Portrait of the U.S.S. Indianapolis CA-35, by Michael Guyot, from Art of the U.S.S. Indianapolis on the Maritime Quest web site.
Photo of Adrian Marks from the Clinton County Historical Society and Museum.
Painting of knife-wielding sailor confronting a shark by Jeff Coatney.
"Twilight of Perseverence" by Mark Churms.
Film clip from the movie Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, 1975.
"Many Men in the Water" © 2015 by James Husband.