The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis

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. 

From the motion picture “Jaws”- The Indianapolis Speech Scene

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.”

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.

To learn more about the history of the USS Indianapolis visit the Naval History and Heritage Command website.

22 thoughts on “The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis

    1. Sir, I am a volunteer researcher for the families of the USS Indianapolis crewmen. They are going to publish a memorial book with a page for each of the 1196 crewmen of the USS Indianapolis.
      The lack of information on the young heroes dropped me to my knees and I was compelled to ask if I could volunteer. I pray for guidance on the quest for photos, family and stories for each and every one of “My Boys”. The reunion this year was held in Fredericksburg TX at the Nimitz Museum for the first time in 77 yrs to accommodate the last 2 survivors, previously held at the memorial in Indianapolis. I can say I was able, since joining last August to put approximately 30 faces to names on the list who had been faceless name.
      It is so heavy a task, that I have to step back a few days and get my emotions in check, take a deep breath and get back at it.

  1. That scene in Jaws was haunting. I think that’s what it really came home for me on what happened and started researching the USS Indianapolis more. Great article and a fantastic & memorable scene.

    1. Absolutely real. Had a very close family friend who actually survived the horror. He never spoke about it

  2. SHAME On The US Navy & Our US Government That With the Successful Mission With Help End The War The Captain was put on trial & found guilty of not following Nat protocol AKA ZIG ZAG many shios during ww11 were destroyed by enemy subs when JFK small Navy ship was split in two the made him a hero I call it dereliction of dutyThe Captian of the USS Indianapolis is a HERO a GOOD Man RIP Sir Greg Leary USMC

    1. The entire purpose of not sending the escorts, not informing the captain of the enemy subs, and not sounding an alarm when they didn’t arrive was in hopes that they would be destroyed. They were nothing but pawns to be sacrificed.

  3. This page doesn’t tell the whole story. Communications errors and sloppiness resulted in the destination port, and Navy command in the Pacific, not raising any alarm when the Indianapolis failed to reach Leyte. Furthermore, intelligence reports showed enemy sub activity in the area to be traversed by the Indy, but these were not provided to the commander or the routing staff. Finally, these errors also combined with a lax attitude with respect to escorts; the Indy should never have set sail for Leyte without a destroyer escort.

    1. I agree with you Mr. Brady My Dad was on the Destroyer Escort USS French 367 one of the first ships to help with the rescue He wouldn’t talk about it around my mom or two sisters but he told me it was the worst thing anybody could breaks my heart just to think about the things he told me. The Navy Brass screwed up!

  4. It was 316 survivors. A Seaman Donner was marked as deceased and a telegram was sent to his parents notifying them of his death. They wrote the Secretary of the Navy and said he called us from school. The Navy then marked him as a survivor but he never left on the ship. He was on it but was pulled a half hour before departure to go to Officer Candidate school. The Captain ended up shooting himself on his porch in 1968 after parents that lost loved ones hounded him with late night phone calls for 23 years telling him to burn in hell.

  5. My wifes uncle was Willian Joseph Emsley Service # 8176120-Born in Philadelphia Pa in 1924. was a seaman 1st class. Did not survive.
    I am a VietNam vet US ASA 1965-1969–PHU Bi Viet Nam/Thailand 4/67 thru 5/69.
    I am 76 and have started to research Williams service.
    All of Williams siblings are dead. My wife does not remember anything or any memtion of him.
    When Williams sister visited Indianapolis for the dedication of the Indy Memorial -was the only and last mention him.(My wifes first knowledge of him)

    Lest he not be forgotten! I will seek out all info about him and pass it on to the current generation
    of his relatives.
    If you have any info please forward it to me:
    TKY JM

  6. I travel the US telling the USS Indianapolis story. If anybody is interested in learning more about the USS Indianapolis and aftermath, I’d be honored to share it with you or your group/organization. I can be contacted via the USS Indianapolis Legacy Organization website. or through one of the USS Indianapolis Facebook groups on the subject. I live in Virginia but travel coast to coast. I’m an Honorary Survivor, son of a Survivor and military veteran. Feel free to reach out if you, your organization or school are intersted. Jim Belcher, Jr Waynesboro VA

    1. Mr. Belcher,

      I am trying to find information about PBY-2 Catalina Pilot Bill Kitchen and the rest of his flight crew who flew over the USS Indianapolis with PV-1 Ventura Pilot Gwinn on 8/2/45, but I am finding very few references regarding their contribution to the rescue. Do you know where I can find additional information on this plane and crew – I am trying to locate a crew member’s family who might currently live or previously lived on Long Island, NY.

      Jim Valenti

  7. To whom it may concern,

    My brother-in-law, Herbert Joseph Biderberg, also survived!! He is 95 years old & lives in Avalon, NJ with his wife (my sister). He has never ever talked about that awful experience.

    God bless our veterans????

    All the best,

    Carol Ann Sternlieb

  8. Though a lose of a life under any circumstances is a tragedy, but that’s part of engaging in war and violence. Why not let the heads of the countries get together in an arena and go at it. Last man standing wins

    1. I’ve wondered the same thing. They’re more than willing to send in the population, but not get their own hands dirty. Sadly, many of the population see going to war as some honor or heroic duty. Only to come back wounded & scarred, if they come back at all.

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