Seventy-five years ago this month, the first nuclear weapon ever deployed in combat decimated the Japanese city of Hiroshima. A week prior to the attack, the USS Indianapolis had delivered key bomb components to a strategically located island in the North Pacific.
But a few days after completing its top-secret mission, the vessel became involved in the biggest naval disaster in U.S. history — a tragedy made even worse by shark-infested waters.
10. The Ship
The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) was first launched in 1931 and received a commission the following year. Named for the capital city of Indiana, the 10-ton Portland-class heavy cruiser served President Roosevelt as ship of state (a similar function of today’s Air Force One) and later became the 5th Fleet flagship.
While participating in military exercises near Johnston Atoll, the Indy narrowly missed the attack on Pearl Harbor. The crew, under the command of Captain Charles B. McVay III, later took part in several major campaigns throughout the Pacific theatre, including the crucial battle of Iwo Jima.
In late March 1945, the warship sustained severe damage during the invasion of Okinawa but managed to limp back to Mare Island Navy Yard in Northern California for repairs. It became operational three months later and headed back out to sea. What followed next would make history. Twice.
9. “Little Boy”
The United States Army conducted the first detonation of a nuclear device at a remote desert location in southern New Mexico on July 16, 1945. Code-named “Trinity,” the successful test completed one of the final stages of the Manhattan Project, an elaborate program tasked with developing the first atomic weapons.
Less than an hour after the Trinity blast, Indianapolis departed San Francisco’s Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. The ship’s cargo included a 15-foot-long crate and two small but heavy, lead-lined containers painted black. Unbeknown to most of the crew, they were transporting uranium-235 for a bomb code-named “Little Boy” — the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen.
8. The Mission
Captain McVay had received orders just four days before shipping out. His superiors provided only scant information about the secretive plan mission. Still, they were confident the 46-year-old officer — a graduate of Annapolis and the son of a well-respected Admiral — was the right man for the job.
As one of the fastest ships in the U.S. Navy, the Indy set course for Tinian, a B-29 base in the Mariana Islands. The heavy cruiser covered the 5,300 nautical miles in record time and arrived a day early on July 26, 1945. Having successfully delivered the lethal cargo, McVay briefly docked in nearby Guam, where several crew members who had completed their tours of duty were relieved by other sailors.
The captain was then ordered to the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines as part of preparations for Operation Downfall — the planned invasion of Japan. Traveling without an escort or equipped with sonar, 1,196 sailors would soon enter into a dark oceanic abyss.
The old saying, ‘Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good’, is often related to the sporting arena and typically attributed to former New York Yankees pitcher and Hall of Famer, Lefty Gomez. The phrase could apply just as easily to warfare.
By late summer of 1945, Japan’s armed forces lay in ruin. Its Navy counted only a handful of submarines, including I-58, under the command of Captain Mochitsura Hashimoto. The B3 type cruiser sub had spent most of the previous months in evasive actions from an increasing presence of American warships. But Hashimoto’s plight suddenly changed thanks to a moonbeam flash on an otherwise gloomy night.
When I-58 surfaced in the middle of the Philippine Sea to scout for activity, a quarter-moon peeked through the clouds to reveal a silhouetted speck on the horizon located roughly nine miles away. Hashimoto quickly ordered the vessel to dive as he watched the object grow larger in his periscope. He gave the order to load six torpedoes and waited for the enemy to move into range. It would be an easy target.
Shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945, two torpedoes slammed into the hull of the Indianapolis. The first struck the starboard bow just below the waterline and was followed by a second hit near midship. A series of fiery explosions erupted, ignited by well-stocked ammunition stores and ruptured fuel tanks.
A hurried distress signal was broadcast but would be ignored by other ships, believing it might be a ruse by the Japanese. Several men burned to death or drowned after getting trapped below when sailors began sealing hatches while trying to prevent the boat from sinking.
Further attempts proved futile. The massive 610 foot-long craft that the men affectionately called “Indy Maru” capsized and sank in just 12 minutes. Meanwhile, the submerged crew of I-58 celebrated their first and only kill. It also marked the last Japanese naval success of the war.
5. Hell on the High Seas
Over 300 sailors perished with the Indy. The rest of the crew — some 900 men — plunged into the water and waited for help to arrive. At first, they relied on life jackets and a few rafts to stay afloat in the frigid, choppy sea. But the nightmare had just begun.
Most of the survivors were scattered within a mile radius of where the ship sank. At sunrise, the oil-covered seamen began to organize into groups. The Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Lewis Haynes, set out to find the wounded among the floating dead bodies. “The only way I could tell they were dead was to put my finger in their eye. If their pupils were dilated and they didn’t blink, I assumed they were dead. We would then laboriously take off their life jacket and give it to men who didn’t have jackets,” said Haynes.
Death came in many ways. Hot days and cool nights resulted in dehydration, hypothermia, and saltwater poisoning that induced hallucinatory madness. Some men even drowned after being pulled down by sailors who mistook their shipmates for the enemy. However, the most gruesome fatalities occurred by a relentless onslaught of shark attacks.
Based on eyewitness accounts, experts believe the predators were Oceanic White Tips — a particularly aggressive type of the species. Although it’s impossible to know how many men were ultimately killed in this manner, the combination of blood, screaming and splashing exacerbated the dire situation by attracting swarms of additional white tips.
4. Delayed Rescue
During the next four days, with almost no food or water, the crew desperately clung to life as life jackets became increasingly waterlogged and hope quickly faded. The ship was now long overdue at its next port of call, but the Navy inexplicably failed to dispatch a search party. But once again, luck would play a critical role in the ordeal.
On August 2, an American anti-submarine plane on routine patrol happened to spot what appeared to be men floating adrift in a large oil spill and radioed for assistance. A closer look revealed men being attacked by sharks. An amphibious PBY-5A Catalina patrol plane was the first to make contact. The pilot, Lieutenant Commander Robert Adrian Marks, defied standing orders not to land in dangerous open seas and proceeded anyway, transforming the aircraft into a makeshift floating hospital.
The destroyer escort USS Cecil J. Doyle arrived after nightfall and began picking up more survivors. Six more ships eventually joined the rescue operation, scouring the area for any signs of life. Out of nearly 1,200 crewmen from the Indy, a total of 316 were found alive, including Captain McVay.
3. Blame Game
Three historical events took place in the days that followed the sinking of the Indianapolis: the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s unconditional surrender that ended World War Two. Oddly, the U.S. government waited over two weeks to release information about the loss — an action which some historians have viewed as a blatant exercise in damage control.
In the end, the Navy needed a scapegoat and pinned the blame for the debacle solely on the boat’s skipper for failing to elude the attack. Top brass even dragged Capt. Hashimoto to Washington D.C. to testify at the trial in early December 1945.
The Japanese commander, whose entire family had been killed during the bombing of Hiroshima, confirmed that his target didn’t attempt a “zigzag” maneuver to avoid the torpedoes. The tactic, however, wouldn’t have mattered. Hashimoto revealed that the I-58’s favorable positioning also featured a back up plan if needed: manned kamikaze “Kaiten“ torpedoes.
Nonetheless, McVay became the only U.S. captain court-martialed for losing a ship in the war. He later had his sentence countermanded (and fully exonerated in 2001), but his once stellar career had been ruined. In 1968, while dressed in his Navy uniform and clutching a toy sailor he always carried for good luck, McVay pulled out his sidearm and committed suicide.
2. A Surviving Legacy
During the summer of 1975, Universal Studios released a thriller-horror film by a young director (and college dropout) based on a Peter Benchley novel about an enormous killer shark. The movie, of course, was Jaws — a blockbuster hit that became the highest-grossing film to date and launched the career of Steven Spielberg.
In addition to the compelling storyline, a haunting soundtrack and scaring the hell out of audiences worldwide, the film also features a chilling scene that evokes the Indy’s tormented tale. A crusty old salt named Quint (brilliantly played by Robert Shaw) recounts surviving the fateful event and his first encounter with sharks. Despite taking liberties with some of the facts, the narrative paints a vivid description of the terror that occurred and showcased Spielberg’s command as a master filmmaker.
A wide variety of other movies, books, and documentaries about the tragedy have surfaced over the years, including the most recent effort, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, starring Nicolas Cage. In short, critics weren’t impressed. Neither were audiences, ranking the film somewhere between Jaws III in 3D and Sharknado V: Global Swarming.
1. War Grave
The vast and spectacularly deep Pacific Ocean floor is home to countless shipwrecks from WWII. The majority of these long-forgotten steel tombs will never be found, buried undisturbed in a watery grave. But not always. In August 2017, a dedicated team of researchers and explorers located the Indy’s final resting place more than 18,000 feet below the surface.
A little over 72 years after its sinking, the wreckage was discovered by Vulcan, Inc., a private company owned by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen. The find wasn’t easy. With the help of their research vessel, the Petrel, and special subsea equipment, the arduous search eventually paid off. “There is a 2,500-meter-tall mountain range with extreme slopes, peaks and cliffs that put our equipment to the test both physically and technically,” said expedition director Robert Kraft.
Per U.S. law, the remains of the Indy will be kept confidential and treated as a war grave. “Knowing the location of the wreck provides some level of closure to survivors and a memorial of those that were lost,” Kraft said.