The USS Indianapolis leaving San Francisco Bay
On the 30 July 1945, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-58. The sinking of the Portland-class cruiser was the greatest single loss of life, at sea, in the history of the U.S. Navy.
Launched on November 7, 1931, and commissioned a year later, the Indianapolis was engaged in a training exercise at Johnston Atoll on the morning of December 7, 1941. After the New Guinea campaign, the Indianapolis would head to the Aleutian Islands, to take part in the shelling of the Japanese held island of Kiska.
After delivering some components, including the enriched uranium, for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima, the Indianapolis departed Guam for Leyte in the Philippines. She would not make it to Leyte. Two Japanese torpedoes intercepted the cruiser, and approximately 300 men went down with the ship. The sinking happened so quickly, that the desperate crew did not have time to get off a distress signal.
It is estimated that roughly 880 men went into the water, with a lucky few getting into life rafts. Even though the Indianapolis was expected in Leyte, no word was given that she did not arrive. By the time the Navy learned of the sinking, the sailors and Marines had been in the water for over three days. A PV-1 Ventura, flying an enemy sub patrol, spotted the oil slick, and then the men bobbing in the water. This was August 2, and by then over half of the men who entered the water had died. They had no food or water, unless they were lucky enough to find something floating among the debris. Hypothermia started to set in, flesh was rotting from the immersion in the water, some men suffered delirium and hallucinations, other drank the salt water. And there were the sharks. Most sharks fed on men that had already died, or that had floated away solo, but there is no doubt, that many men died from the shark attacks directly.
Lt. Adrian Marks commanded a PBY Catalina seaplane to the location. Upon seeing all of the sharks among the floating men, he set the plane onto the water, and taxied around picking up survivors. Marks later said that he made “…heart-breaking decisions”, as the crew singled out survivors that were floating alone or away from groups. “I decided that the men in groups stood the best chance of survival. They could look after one another, could splash and scare away the sharks and could lend one another moral support and encouragement.” In all, Marks and his crew would somehow manage to pull 56 men from the water, even strapping some to the plane’s wings.
The USS Indianapolis had a crew of 1196. 880 survived the torpedoes, of those only 321 came out of the water alive, with four later dying from their injuries after being rescued.
The Captain of the Indianapolis, Charles McVay, would face a court-martial. He was found guilty of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag”. The Japanese commander of I-58 testified that zigzagging would not have saved the ship. In fact, the Navy’s orders to McVay, were to “zigzag at his discretion, weather permitting”. Charles McVay would retire from the U.S. Navy in 1949 as a rear admiral. He took his own life in 1968 with his Navy service revolver.
The USS Indianapolis had been awarded 10 Battle Stars for its actions during WWII.
Survivors of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, in Guam – August 1945
Photo credit: United States Navy