Americas,  United States

USS Indianapolis – July 1945

USS Indianapolis
USS Indianapolis

Hooper: You were on the Indianapolis?

Brodie: What happened?

Quint: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte… just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes…. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. He’s a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest.

USS Indianapolis. We all remember the scene from the movie Jaws. Gruff Captain Quint, young Marine biologist Hooper and Police Chief Brodie sit in the cabin of the small boat, drinking and comparing scars… as they wait in the dark for the Great White to surface, Quint tells the story of how a shark nearly took him. Sounds incredible, but the story is true, except for the date.
On July 15th, 1945 with the surrender of the Nazis and the war in Europe being over, America had turned their attention to the continued conflict with Japan. At Mare Island that morning 46 year old Captain Charles McVay of the USS Indianapolis had, in a secret meeting with Admiral William R Purnell and Captain William S Parsons received his orders regarding a mission that he was to command. Three days previously he had been given the order to muster his crew of 1196 men, some veterans, some new, some somewhere in between. The mission was to sail out on the Pacific with a package of unknown description, which he was to pick up at San Francisco, Hunters Point Navy yard. His destination would be revealed at some point during the crossing.

Just four months previously, the Indianapolis had suffered a kamikaze attack off Okinawa which had left nine dead and twenty nine injured. The ship was seriously damaged and following some quick temporary repairs had limped home for a proper refit. Now some of the crew were transferring off, stating she was unlucky. When the crew were mustered, on 16th July Indianapolis set sail for the pick-up at Hunters, where they loaded a large wooden crate approximately five feet by five feet by fifteen feet, into the forward hangar, and two crew carried between them a heavy black canister up the gang-plank, and from there out on the Pacific. McVay had commented on biological warfare not being used, to the man assigned to take charge of the crate, Captain Nolan, who after seeing it padlocked down onto the deck, and stated he would be keeping the key, and received no reply. Captain Nolan and his assistant Major Furman were in sole charge of the crate and the canister, guarded around the clock by 39 armed marines.

At 5am the Indianapolis prepared to set sail. At 6.30 as she entered the outer harbour, she stopped. Nobody knew why, but shortly afterwards a marine launch pulled up and a message was delivered to Captain McVay instructing him on Presidential order that the cargo was to be delivered without exception to its destination. Without knowing it, the crate contained the parts of “little boy”, the canister $300 million worth of Uranium-235, half of the available fissible amount in the USA at the time. The destination: Japan. The brief pause had been for the test taking place 1300 miles away in New Mexico. Once its success was confirmed, the go-ahead was given to commence. Should the nuclear test have failed, Indianapolis would have been ordered to return to her berth. McVay was not aware at the time, but Nolan and Furman were actually members of the small unit who worked with Robert Oppenheimer and his team, developing and building the components for the Atom bomb which was destined to drop on Hiroshima less than 3 weeks later. As the ship steamed out into open water, President Truman and Winston Churchill were preparing to issue the Potsdam declaration to Japan.
The destination of the cargo to Tinian was received as the ship ploughed its way through the Pacific. And the journey was relatively without incident. They reached their destination on schedule and the cargo was offloaded. Following a six hour break, Captain McVay was informed that his crew were to receive scheduled training at Leyte and set sail for Guam where he would pick up his directions for Leyte. Once there, the ship and her crew would be prepared to join the Pacific invasion which was under preparation. Commands via coded messages had been relayed by wire to all concerned, to expect the arrival of the Indianapolis. Except something went wrong.

The message to notify Rear–Admiral McCormick, under Vice-Admiral Oldendorf to whom McVay was to report at Leyte on board the USS Idaho, was mis-read by the decoding wireless operator. He made a simple mistake, he mis-read the name for who the message was intended, and did not bother to finish the rest of the message. The other officers in their various stations were aware of the planned movements of the Indianapolis, but not the dates she was expected. The Idaho did not get the message at all, and so was not expecting her arrival in Leyte.

After reaching Guam, his stopping point before the 1300 mile trek to Leyte, McVay was given his routing orders, these included the ruling that due to the possible threat of enemy vessels, his course was to zig-zag, which was thought by the men at the top to make it harder to hit, in practice it made little difference, McVay requested an escort. He was denied, as it wasn’t considered necessary. The last intelligence suggested that there had been no confirmed enemy sightings for the previous week. What McVay wasn’t told, as in the decryption of the German Enigma code, which led to the decision of the military top brass in England to withhold information of the proposed Luftwaffe bombing of Coventry, as to make preparations would reveal to the enemy that their code had been cracked forcing them to change it, was that the Japanese code PURPLE had also been cracked. And that one US ship had already been lost on a convoy three days previously with the loss of over 100 lives.

An unaccompanied, unexpected USS Indianapolis left Guam on the 27th July, without the protection of sonar detection – it wasn’t fitted as the escorts usually carried this equipment and so it wasn’t thought required – and aimed for the standard Peddie route, travelling at a standard rate of knots in an effort to protect the engines following their break-neck voyage from San Francisco. What he was also unaware of was that somewhere in the distance, 36 year old Lieutenant-Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, on board his submarine I-58, was watching, waiting and desperate to secure a kill before the war ended. Having yet to successfully take an enemy target, Hashimoto knew Japanese defeat was imminent.

On July 29th after a stop at Apra, which had resulted in the somewhat successful notification to Rear Admiral McCormick that the Indianapolis was expected at Leyte, which he chose in the first instance to disregard as he had not received the first communication sent two days earlier, he believed that the information was incorrect, and a notification that successfully reached Vice-Admiral Oldendorf about her expected arrival, but not when, Indianapolis was reaching the final stages of her voyage. That night, due to poor visibility, as per his instructions, McVay gave the order to stop zig-zagging, and went to bed at 11pm.

At 12.04 am the call came out on board the I-58 that a possible enemy ship had been sighted roughly three miles away. Excited, as he used his supplied chart to try and work out what kind of ship he was up against, Hashimoto gave the order to steer slowly and stealthily toward the target and had six torpedoes loaded and ready to fire. His Kamikaze Kaiten pilot loaded himself ready and his second made ready. After spending a minute using his sonar to calculate the rough speed of the ship using the revolutions of the engines, Hashimoto gave the order to fire the torpedoes. In three second intervals, six missiles shot out of the submarine, at a speed of 48 knots, each loaded with 1210lbs of explosive. The snuck through the water at a depth of 16 feet leaving a visible wake. By now the Indianapolis was less than a mile away.
At 12.05 two torpedoes hit the Indianapolis, lifting her clean out of the water, spinning her southwards and setting her back down, still moving at a speed of 17 knots. The Ship had most of her bow missing and had been sheared almost in two. 3600 gallons of stored high-octane aviation fuel had ignited and a fire raged as it gushed out of the ruptured tank. One torpedo had hit the boiler room which provided the steam for engine room number one, powering the forward engine, and blown the powder room which contained the powder magazines for the eight inch guns on board.

With all but one of the propellers out of action and tons of seawater being taken on board, Indianapolis was listing heavily. As it become obvious that she could not be saved, and that they were now alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no emergency radio, the order was given to abandon ship. There were few survivors from the forward section of the ship, most had been vaporised as the first torpedo hit. Those further back were slightly more fortunate, although some blinded by aviation fuel, burned and bleeding. Bodies littered the remains of the ship. Just 8 minutes after she was hit, the order was given to abandon ship. Many of the surviving crew had already mustered on the deck and stood by the rail watching horrified as they rose further out of the water. The engine powered lifeboats had either been blown apart or upended, rendering them immovable, and the men were reduced to grabbing the available cork and canvas life-rafts that were stacked around them. These life-rafts were big enough to hold 25 men, and should carry provisions for each man to last a few days, including water. Unfortunately only 12 of these rafts made it off the ship, and in their haste to depart Hunters Point, they had not been stocked with necessary provisions.

USS Indianapolis Memorial
USS Indianapolis Memorial

As the survivors grabbed life vests, which as luck would have it, had been over-supplied, meaning there were more than twice as many as needed, they jumped off the port rails into the sea 80 feet below in darkness. On the far side of the ship, those men simply stepped off the starboard rail into the water with which it was level and swam away. Many of the men were forced to swim through the oil slick which had pooled around the stricken vessel. It stuck to them like thick black treacle, coating their skin, getting in their mouths and up their noses and then began to burn.

Radio room number one had been put out of action, all the wires and antennae destroyed. But radio room two was still viable. Unfortunately the equipment in this room was for receiving messages, not transmission. After watching Chief Radio Electrician L. T Woods for a minute or two, young radio technician Jack Woods understood that by flicking a switch on the incoming transmitter, they were able to transmit a series of signals, using Morse code. They worked rapidly, hoping someone at the other end was receiving their S.O.S. call, giving their co-ordinates.

Unknown to them, three of these messages were received. One was given to a sailor on security detail for Commodore Jacob Jacobson, at Tacloban, Leyte. He read it and delivered it urgently, waking Jacobson up to read it to him by torchlight. Jacobson asked if a confirmation had been sent, and a reply received. Young confirmed that they had sent a request to confirm the details from the Indianapolis, but no response had been received. Jacobson laid back down and instructed Young to wake him again when they heard back from the ship. The second message was received 12 miles away from Tacloban in Tolosa, and given to an officer who read it and immediately despatched two navy tugs to go to the co-ordinates. Commodore Gillette in command of Tolosa heard of the decision as he played bridge on a nearby island and order the return of the tugs, now seven hours out, as he hadn’t given the order. Another 14 hours would have seen them arrive on scene and rescue could have begun. The third message was received by a landing craft on Leyte harbour, after eight minutes a duplicate message was received. It was forwarded through standard channels and subsequently ignored.

300 men were estimated to have been killed in the initial impact of the torpedoes. 900 men went into the water. As they watched their ship sink, in just twelve minutes, in the darkness, praying for help to arrive, the I-58 in the distance did a cursory check to confirm the hit. They found nothing. After an hour they gave up and moved on. As the sun came up, and the survivors were able to see more, many of them realised they were not alone. Effort were made to regroup as others were met. Many men were suffering horrific injuries, some were weak, and later drowned. The first day, Monday was spent organising themselves into bigger groups, and watching the passing debris for anything useful, food, flares, water, life-jackets.

As darkness fell again, they were somewhat comforted in the knowledge that the next day they had been due to arrive at Leyte. When they failed to appear, they were certain a rescue party would be sent. They were unaware of the confusion on the island as to the date or accuracy of the Indianapolis’ arrival at all. As they drifted off to sleep, against the rocking of the ocean, and the bumps of their companion’s legs in the water, they were also unaware that these weren’t limbs banging against limbs, but the inquisitive nudges of the sharks that were moving in.

On the first day, they had feasted on the dead bodies as they sunk under the water. Or picked off the single survivors, isolated from the larger groups now forming. But on the second day, they moved on to the main congregated survivors. As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, those on Leyte moved the marker for Indianapolis from the expected slot to the arrived list. Her departure marker likewise had been moved at her starting point. Nobody checked whether she had actually arrived, but for one man who went around the berths each day marking the ships as they arrived from his list. Noticing the absence of Indianapolis, she was recorded as overdue. Nothing was reported. Those aware, presuming her arrival had been delayed by other orders.
Wednesday drifted into Thursday and the survivors decreased in number hourly. Many succumbing to their injuries and drowning, some gone mad from the heat, the lack of water, the terror. Now surrounded by a flotsam of half eaten bodies and chewed limbs, many started to hallucinate, turned violent, turned on each other. Several chose to commit suicide, taking off their lifejackets and swimming out a way before calmly stopping and allowing the ocean and the predators to take them. Through the day they waited, watching as the sharks swam through lunging at the tattered remains of what were once men. Many of the survivors were missing limbs, already victims to the endless circling mass of hundreds of sharks.

As Thursday drifted into Friday, Indianapolis had still not been acknowledged as missing. Patrol bomber Lieutenant Chuck Gwinn, flying a Lockheed Ventura PV-1 over his routine patch between Peliliu Island and the Japanese Mainland flew over what he initially thought to be a small oil slick left behind by some unknown ship. He got a little excited thinking there could be an enemy submarine in the area and began preparations to ready his bombs. Suddenly the slick grew bigger and he noticed something else in the water. He flew around and in lower and was astonished to see a small group of men, caked in oil, clinging to the remains of a life raft. He gave the order to abort the bombing and did several circles of the group. Dipping his wings to acknowledge he had seen them, away in the distance he began to pick out more of these groups. It suddenly occurred to him that there must have been a substantial wreck, for the numbers of men he was seeing. As Japanese submarines carried less than 100 men, this could in no way be enemy survivors. But he hadn’t been detailed of any American ship being damaged or sunk in the area. Nobody had.

Gwinn gave his co-ordinates and outlined a possible shipwreck with many survivors. He circled and dropped everything the plane carried. As he watched and circled, he saw that the men were encircled by hundreds of sharks. For as long as he was able he watched horrified as the sharks picked off the men. One attack saw thirty sharks take around 60 men from a raft in one violent frenzied raid. Gwinn’s signal and message back at his base confirmed that some disaster had happened and rescue would be needed. A squadron of Catalinas – able to land on water – were fuelled and ready to be despatched. Gwinn’s superior officer telephoned and requested one be sent immediately to relieve Gwinn who was getting low on fuel, the duty officer, having not had official word of any catastrophe denied the request. Lieutenant Attebury, not having had time to notify Admiral Murray in Guam, in whose jurisdiction the wreck was, sent word and readied his Ventura, with a crew of four and set off. It was now midday on Friday 2nd August, five days after the Indianapolis had sunk.

Attebury, once up in the air received another message from Gwinn, requesting naval support for a rescue of an approximate 150 survivors. He wasn’t able to pass on the message, but he figured seeing as he was only an hour away, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, as the message was picked up by Peleliu and on its receipt the Navy went into over-drive. The biggest rescue mission of the US Navy was underway.

The first person to receive the notification was Captain Granum, whose superior officer Commodore Gillette had received one of the SOS calls five days before as the Indianapolis sank, and chose to recall the tug boats that had been sent to search for and rescue the survivors. Granum, now concerned, called down to Gibson at Tacloban, who had two days earlier ignored the non-arrival of the ship when it was already one day overdue. The other person to receive word was Vice Admiral Murray on Guam. He immediately sent two ships. An amphibious navy plane on a routine flight went over the rescue area, and saw the life-rafts and Gwinn’s plane in the distance. He requested to put down and pick up survivors. His request was denied. He flew over the spot and dropped everything he had that could help.
As Attebury reached the disaster area, he sent Gwinn back to base. Whilst circling, he heard the voice of Lieutenant Marks over his radio. Marks had been one of the Catalina crew that Attebury had requested to assist. He had taken it upon himself to fly out with the emergency plane. After hearing what the situation was during his flight, he had contact with a destroyer in the area, who asked Marks about his mission. Captain Graham Claytor aboard the USS Cecil J. Doyle was only 200 miles away but had received no word about the rescue mission. Operating without further command, Claytor turned his ship around and headed for the survivors. It would take him 10 hours at full speed to reach the mission.

Survivors aboard Bassett
Survivors aboard Bassett

Finally CINCPAC in Manila radioed all ships to break radio silence and report their positions. Three turned out to be missing from Leyte, Indianapolis was one of them. Gillette, McCormick and Granum nervously messaged between themselves, requesting correlating information on her movements. Once confirmed, they took a deep breath and launched all available resources. Marks meanwhile had put the Catalina down, in what can only be described as a rough landing, which damaged some of the seams. He then began the process of loading the survivors on board. Once full, he wrapped further men in parachutes and lashed them to the wings of the plane, and as darkness fell, with no further room, sat back and prepared to wait the night out.
Other survivors, had managed to fight their way to some of the inflatables which had been dropped by the passing planes. 300 survivors were still adrift. At just before midnight, the Cecil J. Doyle arrived, closely followed by the Bassett, the Ralph Talbot and by dawn the Madison and the Dufilho were also in the area. The vessels spent the majority of the next day searching, with the aid of reconnaissance planes, for firstly survivors, and once all possibilities had ended, began the grim task of collecting what remains they could for identification, before giving them burial at sea. The survivors were transported by boat to hospital, where the long recovery process for many of them began. Burns, kidney malfunctions, broken or missing limbs, malnutrition. For some, complete mental breakdown. Telegrams were sent out notifying families, but a media blackout was placed on the incident, until after the Japanese surrender some days later.

Captain Charles McVay survived the Indianapolis sinking and the following days forgotten about at sea. But he never forgot the crew members he lost. Following his recuperation, McVay was made a scape-goat, despite witness accounts of his conduct, the poor visibility which enabled his decision to stop zig-zagging, as per naval directives, including testimony from Hashimoto who was flown in especially to give his evidence at McVay’s court-martial. Hashimoto stated that zig-zagging would not have made a difference to his ability to torpedo the Indianapolis that night. This was backed up by an expert who cited that the benefits of such a manoeuvre were actually negligible. In the first court-martial of an officer as a result of an act of war, McVay was found guilty. His career was over, the sinking and the aftermath were officially his fault. Of 1196 men on board, with 300 estimated killed on impact, 321 survivors were picked out of the water five days later. Four more of these would die in the next few days.

Mention was not given to the catalogue of errors committed by those in charge who failed to highlight the ship’s non-arrival at Leyte, the SOS messages being disregarded, and the initial lack of official rescue efforts when the disaster became known. Those involved received letters of admonishment and other restrictions. Charles McVay was publicly held up to be responsible. Relatives of the dead now had someone to blame. Hate letters arrived daily for him, he kept each and every one that his wife was unable to intercept. Each and every one served to remind him that he had failed his men. In November 1968, aged 70, after losing his wife to cancer, and his grandson a few years earlier, and following a new, perhaps knee-jerk marriage in response, Charles McVay laid down on the front step of his lodge in a quiet town in Connecticut, and with his beloved dog to witness his final moments, shot himself in the head.

He was found with his head reclining on the step, his hands by his side and his toes facing down the path, giving all the appearance of a man floating in the sea.