Blog 07/28/2021 - The Fate of the USS Indianapolis

The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) departed San Francisco's Hunters Point Naval Shipyard on 16 July 1945 on a Top-Secret Mission. It sailed only hours after the Trinity Test, the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear device, conducted by the U.S. Army at 5:29 AM as part of the Manhattan Project. The test was conducted in the Jornada del Muerto desert about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, on what was then the USAAF Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range (today part of White Sands Missile Range.)  She set a speed record of 74.5 hours from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, an average speed of 29 knots (33 mph.)

Arriving at Pearl Harbor on 19 July, she raced on unaccompanied her mission of the utmost significance to national security proceeding to Tinian in the Marianas Islands carrying enriched uranium (about half of the world's supply of uranium-235 at the time) and other parts required for the assembly of the atomic bomb codenamed "Little Boy", which would be dropped on Hiroshima a few weeks later. 

How did the USS Indianapolis come to be the bearer of the “Little Boy” to Tinian? Four months earlier, the Indianapolis was assigned to Task Force 54 (TF 54) for the invasion of Okinawa. TF 54 began the pre-invasion bombardment for Operation Iceberg on 24 March, the Indianapolis spent 7 days pouring its 260 pound 8-inch shells into the beach defenses. During this time, Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and Army (IJA) aircraft repeatedly attacked the U.S. Navy & Coast Guard ships off Okinawa. Indianapolis shot down six planes and damaged two others. On 31 March, the day before the Tenth Army (six combined U.S. Army and Marine Corps Divisions) started its assault landings, the ship’s lookouts spotted an IJA Nakajima Ki-43 "Oscar" fighter as it emerged from the morning twilight and dived vertically towards the bridge.

The ship's 20 mm anti-aircraft guns opened fire, but within 15 seconds the plane was over the ship. Tracers converged on it, causing it to swerve, but the pilot managed to release his bomb from a height of 25 ft as his plane crashed into the sea near the port stern. The 550-pound bomb plummeted through the deck, into the crew's mess hall, down through the berthing compartment, and through the fuel tanks before crashing through the keel and exploding in the water underneath. The concussion blew two gaping holes in the keel which flooded nearby compartments, killing nine crewmen. The ship's damage control parties and watertight bulkhead doors prevented any progressive flooding. Indianapolis, settling slightly by the stern and listing to port, steamed to a salvage ship for emergency repairs. A thorough inspection revealed that her propeller shafts were damaged, fuel tanks ruptured, and water-distilling equipment ruined. The Indianapolis under her own power commenced the long trip across the Pacific to the Mare Island Navy Yard for major repairs and an overhaul.

After delivering the “Little Boy” atomic bomb components to Tinian on 26 July, the Indianapolis was sent to Guam, where a number of crewmen who had completed their tours of duty were relieved by other sailors. Leaving Guam on 28 July, she began sailing toward Leyte, where her crew was to receive training before continuing on to Okinawa to join VADM Jesse B. Oldendorf's Task Force 95. She sailed with a crew of 1,194 sailors, Marines and one passenger, CAPT Edwin M. Crouch, USN (for many years a second passenger Clarence Donnor, Radio Technician 2nd Class, USNR, was counted as a passenger but he had ferried from Treasure Island and was on the ship for only 30 minutes before being recalled to Camp Shoemaker known as Fleet City, the Naval Training and Personnel Distribution Center in Dublin, CA & never sailed from San Francisco.)

Enroute to the Philippines, the seas had been moderate, the visibility fluctuating but poor in general, and the Indianapolis had been steaming at 17 knots (20 mph) having discontinued zig-zag course shifts earlier on the 29th. At 0005 on 30 July, the Indianapolis was struck on her starboard side by two Type 95 torpedoes, one in the bow and one amidships, from the IJN I-58, a type B3 cruiser submarine captained by LCDR Mochitsura Hashimoto, who initially thought he had spotted the New Mexico-class battleship Idaho (BB-42.) The two explosions caused massive damage & the ship took on a heavy list (a great deal of armament and gun-firing directors were added as the war went on making her top-heavy) and she settled by the bow. Twelve minutes later, she rolled completely over as her stern rose into the air and she sank into the deep. Approximately 300 of the 1,195 sailors aboard went down with the ship. At 0008, the Commanding Officer, Captain Charles B. McVay III instructed the Navigator to deliver the following message to Radio I: “We have been hit by two torpedoes, Latitude ____N, Longitude ____E, we are sinking rapidly and need immediate assistance.” Captain McVay believed both that message and the one sent from Radio II did not get our due to loss of power. With few lifeboats and many without life jackets, the remainder of the crew abandoned ship and were set adrift in eight groups from 1 to 300 men.

The Headquarters of Commander Marianas on Guam and the Commander Philippine Sea Frontier (PHILSEAFRON) on Leyte kept Operations boards on which were plotted the positions of all vessels within their Area of Operations. However, it was assumed that capital ships as large as the cruiser Indianapolis would reach their destinations on time, unless reported otherwise. Therefore, their plotted positions were based on predictions of course and speed and not on reports. On 31 July, when she should have arrived at Leyte, the Indianapolis was removed from the board in the Headquarters of Commander Marianas. She was also recorded as having arrived at Leyte by the Headquarters of Commander PHILSEAFRON. LT Stuart B. Gibson, USN the Operations Officer under the Port Director, Tacloban, PI was the officer responsible for tracking the Indianapolis’ movement. It was found that the vessel's failure to arrive on schedule was known to Gibson, who failed to investigate the matter and failed to report the fact that the ship was overdue to his superiors. Gibson would receive a letter of reprimand in connection with his dereliction of duty. The Commander and Operations Officer of the PHILSEAFRON also received reprimands, while Gibson's immediate superior received a letter of admonition. In the first official statement, the Navy said that distress calls "were keyed by radio operators and possibly were actually transmitted" but that "no evidence has been developed that any distress message from the ship was received by any ship, aircraft or shore station." Declassified records later showed that three stations received the Indianapolis SOS signals but none acted upon the call. One commander was drunk, another had ordered his men not to disturb him, and a third thought it was a Japanese trap. Due to no report was made that she was overdue, the Navy created the Movement Report System to prevent such disasters in the future.

Many of the survivors were injured, and all would suffer from lack of food and water leading to dehydration and that lead to hypernatremia, an excess of sodium from the survival food rations of Spam and crackers. The hot sun exacerbated the dehydration and draining hypothermia at night, as well as severe desquamation (skin loss) due to continuous exposure to sun, saltwater and bunker oil induced various states of delirium and hallucinations causing some to kill themselves or other shipmates. Those that drank seawater were doomed as human kidneys can only make urine that is less salty than salt water. Therefore, to get rid of all the excess salt taken in by drinking seawater, you have to urinate more water than you drank making you thirstier. Eventually, you die of dehydration quicker. The other problem was hundreds of sharks were drawn to the wreck by the noise of the explosions and the scent of blood in the water. After feeding on the corpses of the dead, they moved to the wounded and they finally began attacking survivors. The number of deaths attributed to sharks ranges from a few dozen to 150. "Ocean of Fear", a 2007 documentary episode on the Discovery Channel TV series “Shark Week,” states that the sinking of Indianapolis resulted in the most shark attacks on humans in history, and attributes most of the attacks to the Oceanic Whitetip Shark species. Tiger Sharks were also involved in the attacks but the show attributed most of the deaths to exposure, salt poisoning, and thirst/dehydration, with the dead being dragged off by sharks.

Even though the sinking of the Indianapolis was publicized before the end of WWII, the actual horror of floating in shark infested waters wasn’t given visceral shape to most Americans until the fictional Captain Quint conveyed what occurred in Director Steven Spielberg’s movie “Jaws.” “[It was] a very little credited writer who made the biggest breakthrough on Jaws,” Spielberg said about playwright Howard Sackler. Sackler never got credit for his contributions to the screenplay of Peter Benchley’s bestseller Jaws, it was Sackler who insisted “you must explain why this man (Quint) has a biblical vengeance against sharks.” As Spielberg told “The Shark is Still Not Working” documentary, “[Sackler] suggested what became a Rosetta Stone for Quint’s entire character” something Benchley never broached in his source material novel. Spielberg said, “I remember sending it to my friend John Milius and saying, “John, read the script and maybe you can help me.” Milius actually made a lot of interesting changes and adjustments having been influenced by another large sailor-versus-animal classic, “Moby Dick” plus he wrote a brilliant 8 or 10-page Quint soliloquy about the sinking of the Indianapolis.” Milius, something of a history buff with an interest in red meat storytelling, saw the immediate potential of turning what was Sackler’s two short paragraphs about the Indianapolis into a spotlight on an overlooked moment in history. Keep in mind he knew action tales having already written the first two “Dirty Harry” movies and turned in early drafts for his idea of setting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into the Vietnam War (the future film “Apocalypse Now” to his buddies George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.) Milius returned to Spielberg a powerful speech written in longhand.

Said Spielberg, “When Robert Shaw read Milius’ monologue, he said, ‘I can’t go on for 10 to 15 minutes just talking. Let me have a crack at it.’ Shaw took it and edited it down to five pages.” Or as Spielberg summarized in the movie’s 25th anniversary “Making of” documentary: “The speech in the movie is basically Shaw’s version of Milius’ version of Sackler’s version.”

For the most part, Quint tells the real tragedy of the horrifying mass shark attack and the U.S. Navy’s greatest loss of life event at sea. The stars Quint (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) & are in a battle of one-upmanship comparing shark scars until Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) makes the faux pas of asking about the scar on Quint’s arm. The long take of Shaw and Dreyfuss allows the scene to breathe, but it turns out to only be a deep breath before Quint says it’s a removed tattoo of the words “USS Indianapolis.” Suddenly, the good-natured ribbing’s oxygen vanishes from the room, and even smartass Hooper is instantly chilled by the ship’s mention, signaling to unsuspecting audiences that they’re about to hear something sobering.
Brody is looking at a small white patch on Quint's forearm.
BRODY: (pointing) What's that one, there?
QUINT: (changing) Tattoo. Had it taken off.
HOOPER: (laughing) Don't tell me -- 'Death Before Dishonor.' 'Mother.' 'Semper Fi.' Uhhh...'Don't Tread on Me.' C'mon -- what?
QUINT: (patting Hooper’s arm) 'U.S.S. Indianapolis.' 1944.
BRODY: What's that, a ship?
HOOPER: (incredulous) You were on the Indianapolis? In '45? Jesus…

QUINT: Yeah. The U.S.S. Indianapolis. June 29th, [Incorrectly listed as June the 29th not July the 30th] 1945, three and a half minutes past midnight, two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine slammed into our side. Two or three. We was still under sealed orders after deliverin' the bomb...the Hiroshima bomb...we was goin' back across the Pacific from Tinian to Leyte. Damn near eleven hundred men went over the side. The life boats was lashed down so tight to make the bomb run we couldn't cut a single one adrift. Not one. And there was no rafts. None. That vessel sank in twelve minutes. Yes, that's all she took. We didn't see the first shark till we'd been in the water about an hour. A thirteen-footer near enough. A blue. You measure that by judgin' the dorsal to the tail.

What we didn't know... of course the Captain knew...I guess some officers knew... was the bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signals was sent. What the men didn't know was that they wouldn't even list us as overdue for a week. Well, I didn't know that -- I wasn't an officer -- just as well perhaps. So, some of us were dead already -- in the water -- just hangin' limp in our lifejackets. And several already bleedin'. And the three hundred or so laying on the bottom of the ocean. As the light went, the sharks came crusin'. We formed tight groups -- somewhat like squares in an old battle -- You know what I mean -- so that when one come close, the man nearest would yell and shout and pound the water and sometimes it worked and the fish turned away, but other times that shark would seem to look right at a man -- right into his eyes -- and in spite of all shoutin' and poundin' you'd hear that terrible high screamin' and the ocean would go red, then churn up as they ripped him.  Then we'd reform our little squares. By the first dawn the sharks had taken more than a hundred. Hard for me to count but more than a hundred. I don't know how many sharks. Maybe a thousand. I do know they averaged six men an hour. All kinds -- blues, makos, tigers. All kinds.

In the middle of the second day, some of us started to go crazy from the thirst. One fella cried out he saw a river, another claimed he saw a waterfall, some started to drink the ocean and choked on it, and some left our little groups -- our little squares -- and swam off alone lookin' for islands and the sharks always took them right away. It was mainly the young fellas that did that -- the older ones stayed where they was. That second day -- my life jacket rubbed me raw and that was more blood in the water. Oh my. On Thursday morning I bumped up against a friend of mine -- Herbie Robinson from Cleveland [fictitious crew member] -- a bosun's mate – it seemed he was asleep but when I reached over to waken him, he bobbed in the water and I saw his body upend because he'd been bitten in half beneath the waist. Well Chief, so it went on -- bombers high overhead but nobody noticin' us. Yes -- suicides, sharks, and all this goin' crazy and dyin' of thirst. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura swung
around and came in low. Yes. He did that. Yes, that pilot saw us. And early evenin', a big fat PBY come
down out of the sky and began the pickup.  That was when I was most frightened of all -- while I was
waitin' for my turn. Just two and a half hours short of five days and five nights when they got to me and took me up. Eleven hundred of us went into that ocean -- three hundred and sixteen got out. Yeah. Nineteen hundred and forty-five. June the 29th [Incorrectly listed June the 29th not July the 30th.]
Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

Though Quint’s Jaws USS Indianapolis speech remains one of the great movie monologues of all times, and outline the event correctly, many aspects were modified for cinematic effect. For starters, the researchers get the date wrong as the ship sunk on July 30th, not June 29th. There was also no "Herbie Robinson from Cleveland" aboard, so the half-eaten bobbing body is a mental picture hard to forget. Also, Quint believes their mission was so secretive no one was allowed to send a distress signal, but historically a radio SOS signal was sent and received by three sites. The biggest discrepancy is that sharks were the main cause of death for the men in the water. Quint implies over 500 were killed by sharks, whereas sharks truly took a much smaller amount as most succumbed to hypothermia, suicide, homicide from delusion, starvation or thirst. While the sinking of the USS Indianapolis remains the largest single shark attack on humans, the tragedy’s details were somewhat exaggerated by the writer’s to more effectively convey Quint’s loathing of sharks. It was the cherry on top of the best movie of 1975.

Navy commands did not react to the ship's sinking until survivors were spotted in the open ocean three and a half days later. At 10:25 on 2 August, a PV-1 Ventura flown by LTJG "Chuck" Gwinn, USN and his copilot, LTJG Warren Colwell, USN and a PBY-2 piloted by Bill Kitchen, USN by chance spotted the men adrift while on a routine patrol flight. Gwinn immediately dropped a life raft and radio transmitter. The Navy ordered all air and surface units capable of rescue operations dispatched to the scene at once. 
First to arrive was an amphibious PBY-5A Catalina patrol plane flown by LCDR Robert Marks, (USN.) Marks and his flight crew spotted the survivors and dropped life rafts; one raft was destroyed by the drop while others were too far away from the exhausted sailors and Marines. Against standing orders not to land in open ocean, Marks polled his crew and decided to land the aircraft in twelve-foot swells. He was able to maneuver his craft to pick up 56 survivors. As the plane filled, Marks had men lashed to the wing with parachute cord to await rescue. Other Navy planes began arriving in the area to search and aid in rescue operations.  One whaleboat and several rubber life rafts were dropped.

After nightfall, the Destroyer Escort USS Cecil J. Doyle (DE-368), arrived as the first of seven rescue ships, using its searchlight as a beacon despite the threat of submarine attack to instill hope to those in the water to hold on to dawn. The following rescue ships arrived on the scene at approximately 0030, 3 August to aid the Doyle: USS Register (APD-92), USS Bassett (APD-73) & USS Ringness (APD-100.) After the rescue, Marks' PBY-5 was sunk by the USS Doyle as it could not be recovered. Marks was awarded the Air Medal for his actions, and it was pinned on him by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, CINCPAC.

Navy accounting shows 149 patients receiving treatment at Fleet Hospital #114 on Samar, and 167 survivors at Base Hospital #20 on Peleliu, totaling 316 survivors which were united at Base Hospital #18 on Guam. Only 316 of the nearly 900 men set adrift after the sinking survived. Two of the rescued survivors died in August 1945. The final crew list for that tragic voyage has been corrected to show 1,195 men were on board and 879 lost their lives.

Despite what some have incorrectly suggested, the story of the USS Indianapolis was not a classified report not released until the 1970s. In reality, it was front page news in 1945 when the U.S. Navy attempted to court-martial CAPT McVay, who survived the sinking and the sharks, for what they considered negligence and a failure to evade the IJN torpedoes by steaming in a zigzag fashion. McVay who had commanded Indianapolis since November 1944 through several battles, survived the sinking, though he was one of the last to abandon ship. A Navy court of inquiry recommended the cruiser’s captain be court-martialed for hazarding his ship by failing to take an evasive zigzag course, despite the fact his orders had left zigzagging to his discretion.


Fleet ADM Chester Nimitz, CINCPACFLT, disagreed with the court’s recommendation and instead issued McVay a letter of reprimand and returned him to duty. The controversy might have ended there were it not for Fleet ADM Ernest King, CIINC U.S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations overturning Nimitz’s decision. King recommended McVay face court-martial on two counts 1) failure to zigzag and 2) failure to issue a timely order to abandon ship.

The postwar proceeding convened in Washington, D.C., in December 1945. Several aspects of the court-martial were controversial, the Navy sought to bolster its case and made headlines by having the I-58’s Captain, LCDR Mochitsura Hashimoto, IJN testify, though to the prosecutors’ surprise he stated that, given the submarine’s position in relation to Indianapolis, zigzagging would not have altered the cruiser’s fate. After the war, it was confirmed Indianapolis was the only ship I-58 had sunk firing six Type 95 torpedoes at her. It was the last Japanese naval success of WWII. Regardless, the court-martial panel found McVay guilty of not having followed a zigzag course. He was not convicted of the charge of not issuing Abandon Ship order in a timely manner. At approximately 0015, the Executive Officer reported to the Commanding Officer that the damage was extremely serious, the ship was going down rapidly by the head, and recommended that the ship be abandoned. McVay immediately gave the order to abandon ship, this order was passed orally as all electric circuits were down. There was evidence that the Navy itself had placed the ship in harm's way. McVay's orders were to "zigzag at his discretion, weather permitting"; however, McVay was not informed that a Japanese submarine was operating in the vicinity of his route from Guam to Leyte. Further, Hashimoto testified that zigzagging would have made no difference.

In view of McVay’s excellent wartime record before the sinking of Indianapolis, in February 1946 Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal remitted the guilty verdict in its entirety and ordered him restored to active duty. McVay remained in the Navy until 1949, when he retired as a Rear Admiral. Many of his surviving crew members believed their Captain was being railroaded and he never went to sea again. While many of Indianapolis's survivors said McVay was not to blame for the sinking, the families of some of the men who died thought otherwise. As one bitter piece of holiday mail said: "Merry Christmas! Our family's holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn't killed my son." The guilt mounted on his 70-year-old shoulders until it became unbearable and he committed suicide using his WWII Navy-issued service revolver in 1968.

In 1975 after Jaws came out there were few books on the Indianapolis, the one I found at the USNA Library was "Abandon Ship!: The Death of the USS Indianapolis" by Richard F. Newcomb from 1960 and has since been reissued with a new name “Abandon Ship!: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster” and an Afterword by another author Peter Maas. Read this masterful recounting of the events or one of the other newer books that have come out more recently.

The one thing I caution is not to see the movie, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (MHT Movie Review 1/2 Star.) It's a showpiece for bad acting, bad plot, wrong ship (battleship vice a cruiser) horrible CGI, brutal historical mistakes (get the side of the ship the torpedoes hit right at a minimum) and a bad screenplay. I would say round up everyone involved in disgracing the Indianapolis sailors and Marines and feed them to the sharks if that wasn’t in such bad taste and obvious abuse to the digestive system of the sharks. Nicholas Cage gives a wooden performance as Captain McVay (if you saw his “Windtalkers” performance you will hope he never makes another war movie) he at least has one decent moment when he shares a knowing look with the Hashimoto character as it had none of the terrible misplaced verbal dialogue. The filmmakers weren't content with the drama of what really happened and added some very improbable fictional elements and forced backstories that rob the film of any potential. At 128 minutes (that seemed like 228) I would have found room for Newcomb’s description of LTJG Gwinn, the Naval Aviator of the PV-1 Ventura who first spotted the men in the water as he is introduced to some of the survivors,

The USS Indianapolis Memorial Indianapolis, Indiana

"Men in all stages of recovery, some weak and hollow-eyed on their beds shouted cheered and whispered. Those who could, crowded around and thumped him on the back, laughing and jumping. Some merely turned their heads on their pillows and cried softly, and the quiet, reticent Gwinn himself broke down under the flood of emotion." If not that powerful scene, use the irony that Hashimoto sinking of the Indianapolis was too late as when he came home to Japan, he learned that his entire family had died in Hiroshima from the “Little Boy” atomic bombing to end WWII.

Above: “Little Boy” Bomb Pit on Tinian. Below: MHT Group on Tinian