The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, in the minds of many, represented the dramatic conclusion to fighting in Pacific Theater of World War II. While victory would not technically come for a month after the first atomic bomb ever used in combat was dropped, its devastating effect, coupled with a subsequent atomic attack on Nagasaki, not only effectively ended a bloody war, it changed the shape of international diplomacy, and tensions, forever more. Hiroshima’s destruction on August 6th, 1945 marked not only the beginning of the end of the greatest war ever seen on earth, but also marked the onset of the nuclear age.
Of course, the story of America’s victory in Japan is often told with a somber tone, as although experts at the time estimated ongoing fighting in the islands surrounding Japan, and a subsequent mainland invasion, would be among the most brutal and costly America had ever seen, the decision to use such a powerful weapon, to kill so many so quickly, was never one to be taken lightly, as demonstrated most tellingly by America’s decision to never again employ such a tactic unless faced with no other alternative following the second drop in Nagasaki. This loss of life, however tragic, was not the only caveat to America’s successful atomic operation, either – as the USS Indianapolis, that had been tasked with delivering the primary components of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, disappeared into the Pacific soon after it completed its mission, claiming the lives of the majority of the ship’s 1,196 crew along the way.
Worse still, because the ship sank so rapidly (estimates place it as 12 minutes between the Japanese torpedo impacting the hull and the ship disappearing into the deep) no distress call was sent, so although the majority of the crew managed to escape the sinking vessel, most of them died adrift in the days to follow to a combination of exposure, drowning, dehydration, and shark attacks.
In the beginning I took off their dog tags, said the Lord’s Prayer and let them go,” recalled Capt. Lewis L. Haynes, the ship’s chief medical officer, who tried, often in vain, to care for men dying as they waited for rescue. “Eventually, I got such an armful of dog tags I couldn’t hold them any longer.”
Only 316 sailors were ultimately saved, with 22 surviving to this day. The wreckage of the Indianapolis was never found – that is – until now.
Billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, along with a team of civilian researchers, recently announced that they had indeed found the wreckage of the lost battle cruiser, some 18,000 feet beneath the surface of the Pacific, serving not only as a reminder of this tragic footnote on America’s victory, but also as a bit of closure for those who lost loved ones that fateful day.
“To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling,” Allen said.
As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances. While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming.”
Allen’s team was able to find the wreckage of the Indianapolis using his Research Vessel Petrel, a 250 foot ship equipped with the latest in ocean floor imaging technology and diving equipment capable of reaching depths as far as three and a half miles beneath the waves. The 13-person crew is continuing to survey the site, as they have yet to locate the entirety of the wreck, while adhering to US laws pertaining to the disturbance of war graves.
Even in the worst defeats and disasters there is valor and sacrifice that deserves to never be forgotten,” Sam Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, said. “They can serve as inspiration to current and future sailors enduring situations of mortal peril. There are also lessons learned, and in the case of the Indianapolis, lessons re-learned, that need to be preserved and passed on, so the same mistakes can be prevented, and lives saved.”
Images courtesy of the U.S. National Archives