The Tragedy of the USS Indianapolis

The day wore on and the sharks were around, hundreds of them. You’d hear guys scream, especially late in the afternoon. Seemed like the sharks were the worst late in the afternoon than they were during the day. Then they fed at night too. Everything would be quiet and then you’d hear somebody scream and you knew a shark had got him.

We were hungry, thirsty, no water, no food, no sleep, getting dehydrated, water logged and more of the guys were goin bezerk. There was fights goin on so Jim and I decided to heck with this, we’ll get away from this bunch before we get hurt. So he and I kind of drifted off by ourselves. We tied our life jackets together so we’d stay together. Jim was in pretty good shape to begin with, but he was burned like crazy. His hand was burned, he couldn’t hold on to anything, couldn’t touch anything. 

Coxswain Woody James, USS Indianapolis survivor

The Indianapolis on July 10, 1945, just twenty days before its sinking by Japanese submarine I-58.

In the movie Jaws, the character Samuel Quint gives one of the greatest and most haunting of monologues in the history of cinema.  He tells the story of the cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) the ill-fated ship that was sunk by the Japanese submarine I-58 on July 30, 1945, after delivering components of the atom bombs to the island of Tinian.

In the course of Quint’s narrative, he speaks in a grizzled New England fisherman’s accent of the “black eyes, like a doll’s eyes,” of the sharks that attacked him and his buddies while they floated in the ocean.  Speilberg had a writer come in to add weight to this speech.  In reality, a movie about the Indy itself would have been more terrifying than Jaws, which now seems a bit dated and corny (not to mention Quint gives the wrong date of the sinking as June 29th)!  Hollywood often fails to realize they have stories out there that need no embellishing.  That of the Indianapolis is the kind of story most horror writers could only ever dream of.  Stephen King himself couldn’t write a better story than the true tale of what the sailors of the Indy endured.

The survivors of the initial explosions on the Indianapolis abadoned ship soon after two of six torpedoes launched by the skipper of the Japanese submarine, Lt. Cdr. Mochitsura Hashimoto, found the ship on its return from Tinian.  It was Hashimoto’s first hit on an Allied ship in four long years of war.  It took all of twelve minutes for the Indy to sink.  Of a crew of 1,196 sailors, some 300 were killed outright, leaving some 900 men in the water.  Four days later, after a floatplane spotted the exhausted sailors, only 321 remained.  Not long after being rescued, four more servicemen died.  What they endured became the stuff of legend.  Burns, dehydration, exhaustion, and sharks.  The sharks came in among the groups of survivors, many with failing lifejackets and treading water, only to bite and terrify the men. 

Since there was no drinking water or food, some men suffered horribly from thirst.  Those who couldn’t stand it soon began drinking the ocean’s saltwater, further dehydrating them.  It wasn’t long before these men began hallucinating, some claiming they were going down to the scuttlebutt’s (water fountains) onboard the ship, which were now under the sea. Those men were never seen again.  Fighting broke out between many former friends and shipmates.  One man on a raft accused his buddy of having drinking water he wouldn’t share.  When his friend said he had none, the man pulled a knife. The friend grabbed the knife away and threw it into the water.  Things eerily became quiet again, each man absorbed in his own misery and gloom.

One man began yelling that the Japanese were all around them and that they should kill them.  Others told him to be quiet and eventually the man did. Things became so bad that some men may have even committed murder in their deranged state.  The sharks instilled a horror unknown by many a sailor of World War II, as most were farm boys and city boys that had previously had little knowledge of the sea.

As a former sailor myself, I know that the thing a swabbie fears most is the sinking of his ship, his home. Falling overboard or just being in the ocean for any length of time is a close second.  I remember in the Indian Ocean when my friends pointed out to me some Hammerhead sharks that were following the ship, feeding off the refuse we threw overboard.  I stared in a fascination that bordered on horror as I watched them swim around in the clear blue water.  That was their home, not mine, and I had no intentions of invading their home. That was as close as I ever wanted to get to them.

But being in the water and among them is an entirely different nightmare.  Some men were bitten, some more than once.  Occasionally a man was eaten in half by one of the larger ones (which, it has been determined, were tiger sharks, not the oft-thought Great Whites) and were found by a shipmate, the torso bobbing up in the water to show the gruesome evidence of being torn in two by these prehistoric predators.

The survivors (321 of them, four of whom later died) were picked up after their four day ordeal in the ocean.  Captain Charles B. McVay III, whom had the misfortune of surviving, was court-martialed by the Navy, ruining his career and reputation.  The haunted skipper had received hate mail from families of dead sailors and in 1968 committed suicide.  The Navy, needing a scapegoat for the single largest loss of life in U. S. naval history, accused McVay of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag,” which was standard practice for ships attempting to outrun and confuse any lurking enemy subs.  At his trial, former Lt. Cdr. Hashimoto testified that even had McVay done so, it wouldn’t have mattered.  An amendment by Congress was passed on October 12, 2000, exonerating McVay, but not expunging his court-martial conviction from his record.  Captain Hashimoto, who supported the efforts by the surviving Indy crewmen to clear their skipper, died shortly after learning of the amendment.  Apparently horrified by the war and his actions in it, he had become a Shinto priest later in life

 The tragedy of the Indianapolis has all but passed into legend.  The sailors that survived never forgot their experience, but seldom spoke of it.  By the time their beloved ship had been sunk, the war was winding down and the atomic bombing of Japan just weeks away.  They were not front-page news for very long.  Expected to put the past behind them, they went on living in a victorious America which they had helped build, not only for themselves, but for all of the shipmates that had died so horribly and so young.

Some of the 321 survivors picked up from the ocean arrive in Guam for medical treatment.

Being bombed by your own guys


GIs look up at American bombers on their way to bomb German lines at the onset of Operation Cobra.

I missed it by a day, but yesterday, July 25th, was the 68th anniversary of the kick-off of Operation Cobra.  Cobra was the codename for the Allied breakout from the bocage country of Normandy.  The Allies had been bogged down for 7 weeks prior to this, desperately trying to push those stubborn Germans back (this is a shot at my fiance, who is German, and is extremely stubborn)! 

Imagine yourself as a young infantryman in the hedgerows of Normandy, France.  You’re dug in, hunkered down in your foxhole, awaiting the order to move forward to engage the enemy and push the Germans back. You’re exhausted, dirty, tired, hungry, scared, and on edge. And you know deep down that every day, every minute, could be your last. You also know there will be a big artillery bombardment that precedes your attack, to soften up German positions. Your Air Force has been carpet bombing them also, and you eagerly watch the big bombers come over to pound the Hell outta the Krauts. But then you notice some of those bombs start to look like they could land right on your head!  So you hit the ground and pray to God the things won’t land right on top of ya and blow you to kingdom come. The ground shakes as the bombs fall, and hot shrapnel zip-zaps around  You hear some of your buddies scream out in pain and horror, and the realization that your own countrymen have just bombed you sends you into indescribable feelings of rage and helplessness.  You’re not just ready to kill as many Germans as you can, you want to rip the heads off those damn pilots too!

My grandfather, PFC Guy I. Wetherell, was wounded about a week prior to Cobra, as the 9th Infantry Division was moving along the Perriers-St. Lo Road (not by friendly fire, but by shrapnel from a German 88).  In his later years, my grandfather’s best friend was fighter ace (having shot down or destroyed 8.5 enemy aircraft) William E. Bryan, Jr., of the 339th Fighter Group.  My grandfather would often kid the retired Major General during a round of golf about the US Army Air Forces having bombed the ground troops during Cobra, which unfortunately wasn’t very funny and happened more often than it should have.  But Bryan, a fighter pilot, thought it was funny in the way that old soldiers find macabre jokes about death  and destruction funny.  Escaping death numerous times as young men will tend to warp your sense of humor.

But being killed by friendly fire is never funny.  The 8th Air Force was responsible for having accidentally killed 111 Americans and wounding another 490 on July 25th alone (after having killed 25 and wounded 131 on the previous day).  Among those killed on the 25th was Lt. General Lesley McNair, the highest ranking American soldier to be killed in the ETO.  McNair was a classmate and good friend of Lt. General Omar Bradley, who was the commander of the First US Army during the operation.  Bad weather was the cause of the casualties on the 24th.  Misunderstandings, a breakdown in communications, and an error in the flight direction of the bombers caused the horrendous friendly fire on the 25th, despite clear weather that day.

Cobra was ultimately a success, and the Allies were finally able to break out from the Normandy countryside and into France.  The Germans lost their hold on northwestern France and would almost be completely decimated in the Falaise Pocket-but once again managed to live to fight another day. But that is for another post.

New Photo Book on Normandy

One thing I don’t ever like to do is name-drop (which of course should alert you that I’m about to do just that), but I have a good friend on the other side of the pond, Dr. Simon Trew, whom has just come out with a photobook on Normandy.  I have not yet ordered it, so will reserve comment until I buy it and have a chance to read through it, but I can, in all honesty, say I know Simon poured his heart and soul into this book.  He doesn’t know I’m doing this, and I apologize for being a shameless shill, but if you like photographs of the Second World War and you like the history of D-Day and the Normandy campaign, check it out on Amazon.

Dr. Trew is a professor at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Great Britain, and is the author of several books on the Second World War.  He is an expert on the subject and a first class English gentleman.  So I guess you could say he’s both a gentleman and a scholar.

D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: The Photographic History


Bloody Omaha

American GIs storm Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. This photo is very moving, because these guys were the first wave, and probably very few of them survived. Photo by Robert Capa

New Blog About World War II!

This is my first post for my new blog, Americans in WWII.  I work in the history field and have had a lifelong fascination with the war.  I wanted to discuss the label that has been bestowed upon the guys that fought in the war, perpetuated mostly by Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose, that the Americans that fought WWII were the “Greatest Generation.”  I have had a long-continuing conversation with a colleague about this topic.  We both are of the opinion that labeling any generation “the Greatest,” is simply a marketing gimmick to sell books.  I’m not saying the men and women that worked, fought, suffered, or paid the ultimate price were not exceptional people.  Most of them were.  But in all armies, in all branches of the armed forces, just as in every segment of society, you had your shitbags and your cowards and liars, crooks, and sociopaths.  You had officers that got many men killed as sure as you had your young Corporals and Machinist Mates that suddenly found themselves in positions of leadership and got the job done.  We often idealize those that have come before us, and occasionally forget that historical figures were just people like us.  While I grew up with a hero-worship of all veterans of World War II, I didn’t realize until I was older that my grandfather and the people of his generation were human.  They made mistakes, hurt people close to them, screwed up.  They swore, spit, lied, cheated, and stole.  They killed, often because they had too, but one has to also recognize that there were those that enjoyed it to some extent, while the majority had that most human of instinct when it boiled down to survival: Better him than me.  Greatest Generation?  Maybe.  Maybe not. There are arguments that could be made for other generations of Americans just as noble, just as heroic, and just as human.  But this is why I love history-because the debate can never be settled, but only go on and on, and nobody knows all the answers.