On July 30, 1945, in the closing days of World War II, the cruiser Indianapolis (CA-35), unescorted in the Pacific Ocean, was steaming for Leyte, having left Guam after just delivering the components for the atomic bomb to Tinian.
The Indianapolis’ orders were to rendezvous with the battleship U.S.S. Idaho (BB-42), in the Leyte Gulf and prepare for the upcoming invasion of Japan. She was steaming west on a course of 262 degrees and making 17 knots.
She would never arrive.
She was struck by a Japanese submarine (I-58), who fired six torpedoes, of which two struck the cruiser and blew away the bow, the second struck near midship on the starboard side next to a fuel tank and a powder magazine. The resulting explosion split the ship in two to the keel, knocking out all electric power. The ship went down by the bow and then rolled over to starboard in just 12 minutes, not enough time for the ship’s captain to radio a distress call.
Some of the sailors were able to don life jackets, whose buoyancy faded after about 48 hours and would begin to slip down a sailor’s body which increased his exhaustion. Few men were able to make it onto life rafts or debris from the sinking. Those who didn’t have either life jackets or make it onto a raft, however, were forced to tread water until another sailor drowned, died from exposure or was eaten by sharks.
No alarm had been raised by the Navy in Leyte, the ship wasn’t reported overdue and the men would have all died if not for blind luck. The men were at the limits of their endurance when a Navy reconnaissance plane noticed a large oil slick in the water. Upon a closer look, he saw survivors bobbing in the water. All available ships were sent to the area.
PBY Catalina’s dropped freshwater, life jackets and life rafts to the survivors. One PBY made a dangerous open water landing, to pick up single survivors and those in most need of medical attention. Loading 56 men onboard he whisked them onboard to safety. He stayed on station with his searchlight on during the night so that other Navy ships could find them. The next morning, August 3rd the U.S.S. Cecil Doyle arrived and picked up the remainder of the survivors.
Of the over 1200 sailors on board the cruiser, more than 300 died in the initial attack. More than 800 sailors were dumped into the Pacific Ocean where after five days of suffering burns, drowning, dehydration, exhaustion and shark attacks, only 316 were rescued.
The story of the Indianapolis’ crew and the horror suffered was first made famous by Robert Shaw in the 1975 thriller “Jaws” where Shaw as Quint, described the shark attacks. “Sometimes the shark’d go away… sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. Y’know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’… until he bites ya. And those black eyes roll over white, and then… oh, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, the ocean turns red, and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and they… rip you to pieces.”
The Indianapolis’ captain, Charles McVay III was court-martialed for the sinking. He was exonerated on one charge but was found negligent of putting his men in danger by not zig-zagging in the Philippine waters. This was despite testimony from the Japanese sub commander that zigzagging would have made no difference in the action. He was made the scapegoat for the entire affair.
The sinking sent shock waves through the Navy and they delayed even releasing the information about its sinking until August 15 when the US announced that Japan had surrendered. But many of the facts surrounding the court-martial were quashed, which would have exonerated Captain McVay completely.
US Naval intelligence was aware of two Japanese submarines (I-58 and another) operating in the area, due to the ULTRA secret organization that had broken the Japanese codes.
McVay’s request for destroyer escorts was denied, despite the fact that his ship lacked the proper anti-submarine detection equipment. He was also not made aware that a Japanese sub had attacked and sunk a destroyer escort in the same area.
Shortly after the Indianapolis was sunk, the Navy decoded a Japanese message claiming that the I-58 had sunk an American battleship. That message was ignored.
There were also reports of the Indianapolis’ radiomen who claimed that they did, in fact, send off a distress call. The Navy claims to have never received any call from the stricken cruiser. However, unsubstantiated reports surfaced later that these too were ignored as a Japanese ruse to lure American rescue ships into the area.
At his court-martial, his defense lawyer didn’t contend two key parts of the prosecution. One that McVay’s orders were to zig-zag, “at his discretion. And the other was that the Navy contended that visibility was clear on the night of the sinking. McVay ordered the cessation of zig-zagging when visibility was so poor that crewmen couldn’t see each other only yards apart on deck. Even the Japanese sub commander who testified at the court-martial on December 3, 1945, after the end of the war, believed the charges were contrived.
The Indianapolis’ tragedy did, however, bring some major change on how the Navy’s reporting procedures for ship arrival and non-arrival. During World War II, these reports were not required.
The Indianapolis was steaming alone. Now any Navy ship with a crew of 500 or more sailors must have an escort. Lifesaving equipment, life rafts, life jackets have been vastly improved since then.
The men of the U.S.S. Indianapolis suffered and died needlessly on that day 72 years ago. Had they been given a proper destroyer escort which was needed and requested, perhaps no sailor would have lost his life. The fact that Captain McVay was made a scapegoat for the entire affair is wrong and was a blight on the fine history of the Navy during the Second World War.