“Japanese sub- marine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. We’d just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail….. And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’… until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then… ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ those sharks come in and… they rip you to pieces. You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men….. At noon on the fifth day, a Lockheed Ventura swung in low and he saw us,….. and a few hours later a big fat PBY come down and started to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a life jacket again. So, 1,100 men went into the water, 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”
This is the most spellbinding moment in a movie that was full of them. Robert Shaw’s character of “Quint” tells the characters of “Hooper”, played by Richard Dreyfus, and “Chief Brody”, played by Roy Scheider about his World War II experience aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis (a “YouTube” video of that moment in the film can be accessed by clicking on the highlighted name “Robert Shaw’s” above). This portion of the dialogue was based on survivors accounts so it is accurate save in one detail: the date. It was actually on today’s date of July 30 in 1945 that the U.S.S. Indianapolis was sunk by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine.
The U.S.S. Indianapolis is Sunk. Period.
That really is the long and the short of it. Or it ought to be. The heavy cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis (above) had been carrying a top-secret cargo of fissionable urnanium along with several other parts that were vital to the production of the atomic bomb which was several days later dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. But that had only been the first part of the story. When she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine a few days later, it was bad luck. Period. That the resulting explosions should cause the death of about 300 men was certainly tragic, but those are the fortunes or misfortunes of war. That the remaining survivors should go into the water, there to float in shark-infested territory could also be called one of the misfortunes of war. BUT.. that they should be left floating there for FOUR DAYS because nobody noticed that they had not arrived was outrageous. That the commanding officer of the Indianapolis, Captain Charles B. McVay should be court-martialed for having failed in his primary duty to protect his ship was inutterably criminal and something the for which the U.S. Navy should be ashamed.
The Sun, the Sharks, Exposure All Converge Upon the Crew…
Day 3 :The sun finally did rise and it got warmed up again. Some of the guys been drinkin salt water by now, and they were goin bezerk. They’d tell you big stories about the Indianapolis is not sunk, its’ just right there under the surface. I was just down there and had a drink of water out of the drinkin fountain and the Geedunk is still open. The geedunk bein the commissary where you buy ice cream, cigarettes, candy, what have you, “it’s still open” they’d tell ya. “Come on we’ll go get a drink of water”, and then 3 or 4 guys would believe this story and go with them.
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.
This was the memory of Woodie E. James, a Coxswain aboard Indianapolis, and one of the lucky few who survived four hideous days of floating in the Pacific Ocean at the mercy of the unrelenting sun. This caused sun burns and eventually the dehydration from lack of fresh water caused dementia. And the sharks which frequent these warm waters swarmed about and mercilessly tore at the men. Most of the men had life-preservers, but these had become water-logged by the fourth day. And some of the men had managed to find rafts to float in (above), but some did not. And many of these men fell prey to these sharks. Of a crew of 1,196, about 900 men survived the sinking of the ship, which went down in twelve minutes. But because of the sun, the sharks, and exposure, only 321 of those in the water survived to be rescued on August 2, when a navy PBY on a routine patrol happened to see the survivors.
Then the U.S. Navy Converges Upon Captain McVay
The reason for the delay of almost three full days in any rescue effort, and the fact that that had only come about by accident was that nobody had even noticed that the Indianapolis had failed to show up at Leyete in the Phillipines on time. To make a very detailed story short, there was a kind of gap in the system of whom the Indianapolis was supposed to report to upon her arrival in Leyete. As historian Richard F. Newcomb wrote in his book “Abandon Ship!” : “Herein lay the seed of the Indianapolis tragedy. There was no operational control procedure for reporting combatant vessels overdue. The instructions were explicit on departures. And they were explicit on arrivals, but they said nothing about non-arrivals. If a combatant vessel arrived it was to be reported. But what if a combatant vessel did not arrive? Silence.” At first the publicity about the sinking of the Indianapolis was muted, as it competed with news of the wars ending (click on NY Times above). But in Indianapolis, the news got bigger play. In the Indianapolis Star on Aug. 15, 1945, directly below the news of the war ending and in print almost as large went the headline:
“Nip Sub Sinks Cruiser Indianapolis Carrying Atom Bomb Load; 883 Killed
Announcing this today, the Navy said the famous vessel was lost shortly after completion of her last mission, sailing from San Francisco, Cal. on July 16 on a high-speed run to Guam to deliver essential atomic bomb material. She was lost after delivering her cargo safely.
The Navy gave no details of her final, fatal action. “
On an inner page:
” ‘By a turn of fate Indianapolis and Indinana suffered heavily tonight as we join the nation in observance of the victorious ending of the war with Japan.’ Gov. Ralph F. Gates said last night. ‘We are tremendously saddened by the belated news of the loss of the cruiser Indianapolis, flag ship of the hardest hitting fleet the world has ever known. , and her gallant crew. It is a loss which comes close to us here in Indianapolis and throughout Indiana for we were proud of the wonderful ship and her crew’.”
But as events came and went, eventually the questions being asked about the last major surface vessel to be lost in combat became more pressing, and over the privately expressed objections of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz the Navy conducted a Court Martial proceeding against the Captain of the Indianapolis, Charles B. McVay (above). McVay was a fine officer who did everything that a Captain could have done to protect his men and his ship. He had in fact been given instructions to “Zig-zag” his ship’s course (an evasive maneuver), but this was to be done “at discretion”, meaning if visibility was low, he was free to proceed on a straight course. Visibility that night was in fact low, so Captain McVay did order a straight course. There had been virtually no reliable reports of Japanese submarine activity in this area for many months…this should have been a routine order. Unfortunately for the Indianapolis, the Japanese submarine I-59 commanded by Lt. Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto happened to be in that exact spot at that moment. It was just plain bad luck for the Indianapolis to have been there at that moment. Nevertheless, the Navy, seeking a scapegoat for the loss of life found Captain McVay responsible for the tragedy which was in fact caused by its own failure to notice that one of its capital ships had not shown up, and was in fact three days late! The Naval court even took the unprecedented step of calling upon the Japanese Commander, Hashimoto to testify. And he in fact testified that given his position relative to the Indianapolis, it would have made no difference if the cruiser had been zig-zagging… he would have had a clear shot. But McVay was convicted of hazarding his ship. Admiral Nimitz vacated the sentence of the court, and restored McVay to active duty. He retired in 1949, but the sense of guilt which he felt finally overcame him, and he committed suicide in 1968, using his navy service revolver. In October 2000, the United States Congress proposed a resolution that Captain McVay’s record should state that “he is exonerated for the loss of Indianapolis.” The resolution was easily passed and signed into effect by President Bill Clinton.
by Richard F. Newcomb, Harper Collins, New York, 1958, 2003
The Indianapolis Star, August 15, 1945, Vol.43, No. 71