Have you visited the World War 2 Memorial in Washington, D.C.? Seen the new Nicolas Cage movie, Men of Courage? Or just a Shark Week junkie?
The U.S.S. Indianapolis had an important mission: to deliver a key component of the atomic bomb that would end up bombing Hiroshima. However, it would go down in history as one of the worst naval tragedies during World War 2.
The U.S.S. Indianapolis sailed out of San Francisco Bay on 16 July 1945. After delivering the key components of the first ever atomic bomb to the naval base on the Pacific Island of Tinian, the ship completed its mission. On July 28th, it sailed from the island of Guam, without an escort, to meet the U.S.S. Idaho in the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, where they would preparing for an invasion of Japan.
It is said that what followed could have been avoided if Capt. McVay's request for a destroyer escort wasn't denied despite not having anti-submarine detection equipment on board. This was particularly unusual as it was the only ship during the war that made the transit across the Philippine Sea without an escort. However, due to the top-secret nature of what they were carrying, which most on board weren't even aware of, it had to be under the radar as possible.
The next day was seemingly uneventful. The sailors played cards, read books or talked to the ship's chaplain as the Indianapolis was traveling through swells of around five feet in the Pacific. Shortly after midnight, tragedy struck. A Japanese torpedo hit the Indianapolis in the starboard blowing most of the ship's bow out of the water and igniting a tank filled with 3,500 gallons of aviation fuel. Next, another torpedo hit closer to the middle of the ship, hitting power magazines, fuel tanks and resulted in a ripple of explosions that ripped the ship in two. The ship began to sink and within 12 minutes, it was gone. During its decent it sent several SOS signals but they weren't taken seriously.
Remarkably 900 of 1,196 men made it into the water alive, but the horror wasn't over, not all of them would make it. On July 30th, the survivors waiting in the water as life rafts were scarce. Searching the dead, they traded their lifejackets for the survivors. The remaining men formed groups from a few people to over 300 in the open water.
What follows goes down as one of the worst attacks in history. Sharks were drawn in by the explosions, the sinking ship, and of course, the blood. Unfortunately, for the survivors, they began the feeding grounds for these creatures, including the aggressive oceanic whitetip. At first, the sharks focused on the floating dead but the movement of survivors captured their attention.
The blood of the wounded and injured attracted the sharks, so many sailors quarantined themselves away from them. As hard as it was, once someone died, they tried to get the sharks to go for them instead of the survivors. The more the sharks ate, the more blood there was, which attracted more sharks.
One group opened a can of Spam but sharks started circling so they disposed of the food, despite their starvation, in return for not being overrun by the predators. This continued for several days and the survivors saw no signs of rescue. Navy intelligence heard there was a sunken ship but they assumed it was a way to lure them in an ambush. The men treaded in the water, waiting. Sharks wasn't the only reason for the death of many survivors. As days passed many died to heat and thirst, or they attempted to drink the seawater which led to salt poisoning. As they died, some of them even dragged fellow survivors underwater.
Finally, on the fourth day, 2 August 1945, after 11:00 am a Navy plane spotted the U.S.S. Indianapolis survivors and radioed for help. Dr. Haynes, one of the survivors, claimed that one of the men on the plane went to fix the aerial, got a sore neck and laid down on the blister underneath, and spotted them as a result.
Most of their lifejackets were waterlogged and they had to focus on keeping their faces out of the water. A few hours later a seaplane dropped rafts and survival supplies to the remaining survivors. However, when the pilot, Lieutenant Adrian Marks, saw them being attacked by sharks, he disobeyed orders and landed in the water to get as many wounded and stragglers as possible.
Later the night, the U.S.S. Doyle came to the rescue and pulled the remaining survivors from the shark-infested waters. In the end, only 317 of them remained. This goes down as the worst maritime disaster in U.S. naval history.
No one knew about the incident until two weeks later. it is said that this was because it would get covered up by the surrender of the Japanese, but also so that it didn't decrease morale in a crucial point of the water.
The battle was not over for the Captain of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. McVay was not only blamed and criticized for the disaster, but in November 1945, he was court-martialed because he failed to sail a zigzag course to avoid submarines. However, the Japanese sub-commander testified that the maneuvers would not have saved the ship. McVay was the only Navy captain court-martialed for losing a ship during the war, eventually he took his own life in 1968. In 2000, Congress passed an act finally clearing his name.
Due to this tragedy, lifesaving equipment, vests and boats were improved. Also, any vessel with 500 or more people on board is required to have an escort.
The tragic incident has not only gone down in history but has been has been portrayed in movies such as Jaws, and the more specifically titled U.S.S. Indianapolis: Men of Courage. While Jaws has gone down in history as a classic movie, many have said the Nicolas Cage movie did not due to the incident justice. However, regardless of opinions regarding the movies, it's shone a light on this serious event and remains as a reminder of what was sacrificed to win the war.
For More Information
- In Harm's Way Book
- Documentary on the U.S.S. Indianapolis
- Shark Week Sample on the U.S.S. Indianapolis (Youtube)
- Podcast of Doom
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