On 30 July 1945, United States Ship (USS) Indianapolis was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine. From a crew of 1196 sailors and marines, 300 went down with their ship. Though around 900 men survived the initial sinking, many succumbed to shark attacks, dehydration and salt poisoning soon after. By the time rescue crews arrived, only 316 people could be saved.
The sinking of the USS Indianapolis marks the greatest loss of life at sea from a single ship in US Navy history. The echo of the devastating tragedy can still be felt today, with a campaign in 2001 successfully lobbying for the exoneration of the captain, Charles B. McVay III, who had been blamed for the sinking of the ship.
But how did the devastating attack unfold?
The ship was on a mission to deliver atomic bombs
The USS Indianapolis was built in New Jersey and launched in 1931. At a massive 186 metres long and around 10,000 tons in weight, it was equipped with nine 8-inch guns and eight 5-inch anti-aircraft guns. The ship chiefly operated in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and even carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt on three cruises.
In late July 1945, the Indianapolis was sent on a high-speed journey to deliver cargo to US air base Tinian in the western Pacific. Nobody on board knew what the cargo was, including the personnel who guarded it round the clock.
The ship travelled from San Francisco to Tinian in just 10 days. After completing the delivery, it went to the island of Guam and was then sent to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.
It sank in only 12 minutes
Indianapolis was around halfway on its journey to Leyte Gulf when, just after midnight on 30 July 1945, a Japanese Imperial Navy submarine launched two torpedoes at her. They struck her on her starboard side, right under her fuel tanks.
The resultant explosions caused massive damage. Indianapolis was torn in half, and since the ship was so top-heavy because of armaments on the top deck, she quickly began to sink.
After only 12 minutes, the Indianapolis rolled over completely, her stern rose into the air and she sank. Around 300 crewmen on board went down with the ship, and with few lifeboats or life jackets available, some 900 of the remaining crew were set adrift.
Sharks massacred the men in the water
Surviving the torpedo attack was just the start of the ordeal for the surviving crew, who could only cling onto debris and the few life rafts that were scattered in the water. A number were killed after being engulfed in oil coughed up from the engines, while others, scorching in the sun, fatally drank the salty sea water and died from dehydration and hypernatremia (too much sodium in the blood).
Others died from hypothermia due to the the freezing conditions at night, while others were driven to desperation and killed themselves. Some were offered a little sustenance when they found rations such as crackers and Spam amongst the wreckage of the ship.
However, hundreds of sharks were drawn to the noise of the wreckage and the scent of blood in the water. Though they initially attacked the dead and wounded, they later began attacking survivors, and those still alive in the water had to endure anything from a dozen to 150 of their fellow crewmen being picked off by the sharks around them.
It has been reported that the shark attacks following the sinking of Indianapolis represent the deadliest mass shark attack on humans in history.
It took four days for help to arrive
Due to disastrous communication errors, the ship was not reported missing when it failed to arrive in Leyte Gulf as scheduled on 31 July. Records later showed that three stations even received distress signals but failed to act upon the call, because one commander was drunk, another had ordered his men not to disturb him and the third thought it was a Japanese trap.
The survivors were accidentally discovered four days after the torpedo attack by a passing US naval aircraft on 2 August. By that time, only 316 of the crew were still alive.
Upon discovering the wreckage and surviving crew, all air and surface units capable of rescue operations were immediately dispatched to the scene. Many of the survivors were injured – some severely – and all suffered from lack of food and water. Many were also suffering from delirium or hallucinations.
The captain was court martialled and later killed himself
Captain Charles B. McVay III was one of the last to abandon Indianapolis and was rescued from the water days later. In November 1945, he was court-martialled for failing to order his men to abandon ship and hazarding the ship because he didn’t zig zag when travelling. He was convicted of the latter charge, but was later restored to active duty. He retired in 1949 as a rear admiral.
While many of survivors of the sinking stated that Captain McVay wasn’t to blame for the tragedy, some of the families of the men who died disagreed, and sent him mail, including Christmas cards quoted as reading, “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son”.
He took his own life in 1968, aged 70, and was found clutching a toy sailor that had been given to him as a boy for luck.
The film Jaws reignited public interest in the tragedy
The 1975 film Jaws features a scene with a survivor of the Indianapolis detailing his experience of shark attacks. This led to a renewed interest in the disaster, with a particular focus on what many felt was a miscarriage of justice with McVay’s court martialling.
In 1996, a 12-year-old student Hunter Scott began researching the sinking of the ship for a class history project, which led to further public interest, and caught the attention of Congressional lobbyist Michael Monroney who had been scheduled to be assigned onto the Indianapolis.
McVay’s case was posthumously reopened. It came to light that the Japanese commander testified that zig-zagging wouldn’t have prevented the torpedo attack. It was also revealed that McVay had requested but was denied a protective escort, and that the US Navy had known about Japanese submarines operating in the area but hadn’t warned him.
In 2000, the US Congress passed a joint resolution exonerating him, and in 2001, the US Navy placed a memorandum in McVay’s record that stated he had been cleared of all wrongdoing.
In August 2017, the wreck of Indianapolis was located at a depth of 18,000 ft by the ‘USS Indianapolis Project’, a research vessel funded by co-founder of Microsoft Paul Allen. In September 2017, images of the wreckage were released to the public.