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.

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