Most of us first heard about the USS Indianapolis in a movie – Jaws. In that classic action film, crusty seadog Quint talks about his experience as a young sailor on the World War II warship. It’s a harrowing scene in which Quint recalls the life and death struggle of crewmen forced to abandon their sinking ship, only to face brutal conditions and an ever-growing army of hungry sharks.
Far from being a work of movie fiction, this event really did happen. Except as you'll learn, the horrors that the men on the real Indianapolis endured were far worse than any movie could conjure.
It’s a story about brave and desperate men who delivered the atom bomb and then were forgotten or ignored when their ship succumbed to Japanese torpedoes.
It’s not surprising that the Indianapolis tragedy was largely overlooked for years. The war had just ended, and America wasn't in a mood to hear about more death and wartime tragedy.
As well, this story was…different. In an era of daily war atrocities, the tragic fate of the USS Indianapolis was as uniquely horrifying as it was heroic. Here are just a few of its disturbing details.
15 Disaster In The Making
The USS Indianapolis was a Portland-class heavy cruiser that entered World War II on the very day Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941.
A favorite ship of President Roosevelt – who traveled on it several times - the Indianapolis had a crew of just under 1200. In the course of the war, the cruiser would participate in battles off the coasts of New Guinea, Okinawa and Tokyo. Though the Indianapolis was damaged and some crew members were injured and killed during these conflicts, its combat record was largely successful until late July 1945.
It was then - after delivering atomic bomb components that would be used on Hiroshima in a week – things went terribly wrong. Indianapolis Captain Charles McVay asked for an escort for the ship's return voyage and was refused. Not long after, the ship was sunk by two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine. The attacked killed 300 men almost instantly. But it was its delayed and inept rescue that would turn the tragedy into the biggest maritime disaster in U.S. Navy history and the largest shark attack on record.
14 The Sinking
Much of the crew was sleeping when The Indianapolis was struck in its bow by a deadly torpedo just after midnight on July 30. The blast blew a 65-foot hole in the bow and ignited a tank containing 3,500 gallons of plane fuel. A second torpedo nearly broke the ship in two. The Indianapolis went down in less than 12 minutes. A distress signal was sent but never acknowledged.
Of the 1,996 men on board, only 900 made it into the water, many of those badly burned, injured or covered in oil. “The first thing that was horrible was the fuel that was in the water,” recalled survivor Maurice Bell. “Every breath I took made me so sick. I vomited.” But for many of the men who survived that first night, things would only get worse as they waited in vain for rescue.
13 Sharks Everywhere
“That first morning, we had sharks,” recalled survivor Edgar Harrell, a native of Kentucky. Though estimates vary, it’s generally thought that over 1,000 sharks were attracted to the area by the blood and the struggles of the men, many of whom had not had time to don life jackets.
The sharks quickly tired of eating the dead in the water and began to prey on the living. Those who didn’t succumb to injuries on that first night formed large groups as a way to fight off the sharks. It only worked occasionally.
Harrell, in a group of 80 men on that first morning, recalled that the sharks tended to attack the men who would stray from the group. “And then you hear a blood-curdling scream. And then the body would go under, and then that life vest popped back up." Harrell says that by the fourth day in the water, his group of 80 men had dwindled to 17.
12 Faulty Flotation Devices
The time between the first torpedo hit on the Indianapolis and when the ship disappeared below the surface amounted to only 12 minutes. As well, much of the crew stayed at their post till the Captain's order to abandon ship, leaving them only seconds to seek out a life jacket before hitting the water. No surprise that many sailors dove into the ocean without a flotation device.
Still, the kapok jackets that many of the survivors did wear proved woefully inadequate. The life jackets were designed to only last 72 hours, at which point they became saturated with water and useless. Several survivors recalled watching men being dragged below the surface by their water-logged jackets. Those lucky enough to find debris to float on took to wringing out their jackets to buy themselves more time.
11 The Sharks Weren't The Only Danger
Beyond the deadly dangers of the sharks lurking below, the survivors of the Indianapolis faced many other obstacles. The heat ranged from 100 to 110 degrees during the day, beating down on the oil-soaked men. The men got severely dehydrated. Their bodies became covered in sunburns and bleeding ulcers as they coughed endlessly due to the lack of saliva.
In this distressed state, many of the men in the sea began to hallucinate. They saw Japanese spies or dreamed they were back home with their friends and family. Others took off their life jackets and swam towards phantom islands they saw in the distance. They were quickly attacked by the waiting sharks.
Seeing no option, some of the more desperate survivors took to drinking the salt water, quickly succumbing to its poisonous effects.
10 Floating Dead
While the life jackets kept them afloat initially, it led to a macabre drama played out over the Indianapolis crew’s five days in the water. Most famously recalled by the character of Quint in the movie Jaws, sailors would awake from their semi-comas to find a fellow shipmate floating away from the group. In an attempt to return the man to the relative safety of the group, sailors would heroically swim out to the man, only to find they were too late. As was recalled by many of the survivors, these drifting shipmates had already succumbed to the elements or the predators swimming below.
“After a while, you go and check who your buddy might have been, you find out his bottom torso is gone,” recalled survivor Edgar Harrell.
Men found to have died usually had their life jackets removed by the other survivors, allowing their bodies to sink below the waves.
9 Fighting Amongst Themselves
Suffering from the heat and a lack of water and food, it was inevitable that the men would turn on each other.
The rapid nature of the ship’s sinking meant that few lifeboats had been dispatched before the ship sank below the waves. What few lifeboats there were quickly filled with survivors. Men in the water attempting to get on these lifeboats were often violently pushed away for fear they would capsize the tiny crafts. And when the sharks arrived the first morning, the need to get out of the water became more desperate. Some men in the lifeboats paddled away from the other men, distancing themselves from the chaos.
With no rescue in sight and the men suffering the hallucinatory effects of exposure, the sailors turned on each other with increasing violence. Some men pulled jack knives on their buddies in their desperation to survive. Others saw Japanese spies in their midst and lashed out at the phantom enemy.
8 A Rescue That Never Came
What kept many of the men alive after the sinking of the Indianapolis was the belief that they would be rescued the next day. Not so. The first torpedo had knocked out the ship’s power. Though Captain McVay was able to send an initial distress signal, no follow up was sent. No ships in the region responded to the one distress call. And though the navy did intercept a Japanese sub message claiming the sinking of an allied battleship, they interpreted it as a ruse.
As desperation grew, survivors in the water began to swim towards phantom lights in the distance that they interpreted as rescue ships. Planes flying overhead were frequently heard, but they were flying at such a height as to not see the men in the water.
As the days passed, some men chose to take off their life jackets and sink below the surface. Others remained confident they would survive, refusing to give up hope. “If you gave up, you didn’t make it,” recalled survivor James O’Donnell.
7 Hero From The Sky
An undeniable hero in the USS Indianapolis tragedy is pilot Adrian Marks, who commanded the PBY Catalina, a “floating boat” capable of landing on calm water. Alerted that men had been spotted in the ocean, Marks sped to the scene only to be horrified by what he witnessed. He later referred to his experience as a “sun-swept afternoon of horror”.
Spying a man being attacked by a whitetip shark, Marks made a decision to ignore orders and land on the high seas – something that was extremely dangerous. Once in the water, he powered the plane over to individual survivors – reasoning the men in groups had a better chance of survival. In all, 56 men were pulled onto the plane. When space ran out, several survivors were lashed to the wings with parachute cords.
Unable to take off, the plane and its survivors would spend a harrowing night on the sea as they awaited rescue from the destroyer Cecil J. Doyle. Thirty years later, Marks addressed the survivors, telling them “I met you 30 years ago,'' he said. “I have known you through a balmy tropic night of fear. I will never forget you.”
6 The Final Toll
Of the estimated 880 who went in the water on July 30, 1945, 321 men were rescued on August 2nd and 3rd. Only 317 of those men survived. Most experts conclude that the majority of those who died in the water perished due to dehydration and exposure. The Indianapolis tragedy is also considered to be the largest shark attack on humans ever recorded.
Despite all that, the tragic events were largely ignored by the public in the days and weeks that followed. The war ended just a week after the sinking. As well, the navy took two weeks to announce the sinking of the ship, choosing to do so on the day the war ended. Needless to say, most celebrating Americans did not notice.
5 Surviving The Rescue
The men of the USS Indianapolis had been through an unimaginable and horrific ordeal. But it did not end with the arrival of rescue ships. Many of the men described how the worst moment of the nightmare came waiting for their turn to be lifted out of the water. Some, unfortunately, didn’t make it.
Spending so much time in the salty water meant that the survivor’s skin had become loose and soft. Survivor James O’Donnell later recalled that during his rescue, he watched as another sailor had his flesh ripped to the bone by well-meaning rescuers.
Malnourished and exhausted, none of the survivors were able to board the ship on their own. So rescuers had to use straps with which they could lift the injured out of the water. After being cleaned and fed, most slept all the way to the hospitals in Guam and the Philippines.
4 Finding Blame
USS Indianapolis Captain Charles McVay would eventually take the blame for the tragedy. Less than six months after the ordeal, the captain became the only World War II captain to be court-martialled for allowing his ship to be sunk.
The trial is considered by many to be a sham. McVay was charged with not sending a distress signal and not zig-zagging the ship to avoid submarine fire. But during the trial, it was revealed that he had indeed sent a distress signal which had been received by three ships. All ignored it.
As well, submarine experts – including the Japanese captain of the sub that sank the Indianapolis – testified they could easily hit a ship that zigzagged.
Despite that and the support of all the survivors, McVay was convicted, and his rank was reduced. A year later, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Nimitz countermanded that order and promoted McVay to Rear Admiral.
McVay would spend the rest of his life being hounded by the families of the men who perished in the tragedy. McVay committed suicide in 1968. In 2000, McVay was cleared of any wrongdoing by a special act of Congress.
3 Breaking Their Silence
For years, the survivors of the USS Indianapolis didn’t want to talk about what they had experienced. That’s no surprise. War veterans can take years before they feel comfortable talking about their experiences with family or friends.
The crew did come to the defense of Captain McVay during his court-martial and in the years that followed. Most felt McVay was railroaded by the navy brass who needed a scapegoat to cover up for their own ineptitude. The treatment of McVay only increased the survivors' reluctance to speak publicly about what had happened.
A book, 1958’s Abandon Ship!, seemed to break the silence. Several men came forward with their stories. A reunion for the survivors was organized in 1960, a practice that continues to this day. Nearing the end of their lives, many survivors agreed to print and TV interviews, providing vivid, horrifying personal insight into the tragedy.
2 I'll Never Put On A Life Jacket Again
For much of the public, the story of the USS Indianapolis first came to light with the blockbuster movie Jaws (1975). In the Steven Spielberg movie about a killer shark, the character of Quint (Robert Shaw) recounts his experiences as a crewman on the Indianapolis.
The Quint speech uses many of the tragedy's disturbing details (Bodies bitten in half by sharks/Men forming groups to protect themselves/The rescue via PBY). Writers Howard Sackler, Carl Gottlieb, and John Milius are said to have contributed to the monologue, though Gottlieb later cited actor Shaw as making the most important contribution.
Jaws success brought a lot of renewed attention to the USS Indianapolis. More books, documentaries, and movies (2016’s USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage being the most recent) have followed.
1 Delivering The Bomb
Not to be forgotten when talking about the USS Indianapolis was its role in ending the war. The ship was responsible for delivering parts of the atom bomb Little Boy to Tinian in the Mariana Islands. That bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, not yet a week after the Indianapolis was sunk, and only days after the survivors were rescued.
Between 90,000 to 146,000 Hiroshima citizens are estimated to have been killed immediately after the bomb was dropped. Tens of thousands more Japanese citizens would die when a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later. Japan officially surrendered on August 15th.
The justification for the bombings tends to focus on the cost of the alternative – an invasion of Japan. Many military experts contend that such a bloody battle would have resulted in the death of 5-10 million Japanese and possibly as many as 800,000 allied soldiers. The two nuclear bombs made an invasion unnecessary, ending the war in just over a week.