July 30, 2020, marks the 75th Anniversary of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock, archives technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.
Sometimes a movie can provide a history lesson in its story arc—an event that few in the audience are familiar with. Such is the case in the motion picture Jaws. We all remember the summer blockbuster from 1975 that scared us straight out of the ocean and introduced us to Quint, the salty sailor hired to hunt down the toothy predator that was menacing swimmers on Amity Island.
During a moment of gravitas, miles from shore aboard the fishing vessel Orca, Quint explains the origin story of his nautical tattoo. He reveals to the others that he was a survivor of the USS Indianapolis, the heavy cruiser that shipped the first atomic bomb to the tiny island of Tinian and was subsequently sunk by two Japanese torpedoes. It was a bleak scene steeped in maritime tragedy.
The USS Indianapolis was a Portland-class heavy cruiser of the United States Navy, named for the city of Indianapolis, Indiana. It launched on November 7, 1931, and during World War II it served as the flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance in 1943 and 1944 while he commanded the 5th Fleet in battles across the Pacific.
What distinguished this ship from any other at that time was its objective. In late July 1945, USS Indianapolis had been on a special secret mission, delivering parts of the first atomic bomb to the Pacific Island of Tinian, where American B-29 bombers were based. With its task completed, on the night of July 30, 1945, two weeks before the end of the war, while sailing from Guam to Leyte, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed twice by a Japanese submarine. The crew of 1,199 men ended up in the waters of the Pacific. Accounts of the disaster are preserved in oral histories of those who survived. One man, Captain Charles B. McVay, who commanded the ship, remembers it this way:
On Sunday night, the 29th of July . . . approximately five minutes after midnight [30 July], I was thrown from my emergency cabin bunk on the bridge by a very violent explosion followed shortly thereafter by another explosion. I went to the bridge and noticed, in my emergency cabin and charthouse that there was quite a bit of acrid white smoke. I couldn’t see anything. . . . I asked the Officer of the Deck [senior officer on duty] if he had had any reports. He said “No, Sir. I have lost all communications.” Within another two or three minutes the executive officer [second in command on the ship] came up . . . and said, “We are definitely going down and I suggest that we abandon ship.”
Charles B. McVay from his Official Military Personnel File. (National Archives Identifier 145761402)
The first torpedo struck just after midnight on July 30, 1945. The second torpedo fired from the Japanese submarine almost tore the ship in two. As fires raged below, the vessel began to list onto its side. Then, the order came to abandon ship. Approximately 900 sailors, survivors of the initial torpedo attack, were left drifting in groups in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Beneath them, a far more sinister danger was lurking. Hundreds of sharks, drawn by the carnage of the disaster, moved toward the survivors.
After feeding on the dead from the explosions, the sharks turned their attention toward those still alive, bobbing in the large swells of the ocean surface. Some of the men pounded the water, kicking and yelling when the sharks approached. Many decided that grouping together was their best defense but with each attack came clouds of blood in the water followed by more screaming and splashing which only encouraged more sharks to strike.
Desperate to survive, and with no drinking water and many hallucinating, survivors were finally spotted days later by a U.S. Navy plane. Shortly after 11 a.m. on the fourth day, the survivors were accidentally discovered by Lt. Wilbur C. Gwinn, flying his PV-1 Ventura bomber on routine antisubmarine patrol. He radioed his base at Peleliu and sent out the alert, “many men in the water.”
A PBY seaplane under the command of Lt. R. Adrian Marks took off to provide assistance and report on their status. En route to the scene, Marks overflew the destroyer USS Cecil Doyle (DD-368) and alerted her captain of the emergency. The captain of the Doyle, on his own authority, decided to reroute to the scene. Arriving hours ahead of the Doyle, Marks’s crew dropped rubber rafts and supplies as they witnessed continuing shark attacks. Disregarding orders not to land at sea, the pilot touched down and began taxiing to pick up survivors.
As darkness set in, and as Marks waited for rescue vessels, he pulled men from the water into his aircraft. When the plane’s fuselage was at maximum capacity, survivors were tied to the wings with parachute cord. The pilot and his crew rescued a total of 56 men. Once signaled, a total of seven Navy ships converged on the site and rescued the remaining men. Only 317 sailors survived.
Shipmates escort the body of a sailor from the USS Indianapolis to his final resting place, 8/1945. (National Archives Identifier 148728698) Survivors of the USS Indianapolis, 8/1945. (National Archives Identifier 148728700) Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, Commander of the Fifth Fleet, pinning a Purple Heart on Clarence E. McElroy, survivor of the USS Indianapolis, ca. 8/1945. (National Archives Identifier 148728694)
To learn more about the history of the USS Indianapolis visit the Naval History and Heritage Command website.