USS Indianapolis: the tragic story of men of courage
Reading any books lately? I’ve just finished reading “In Harm’s Way” by Doug Stanton. The book recounts the true story of the USS Indianapolis, an American cruiser that in 1945 was torpedoed and consequently sunk by a Japanese submarine belonging to the Imperial Japanese Navy. 1196 men went into the water but only 317 men survived. The USS Indianapolis sinking was the largest loss of life at sea in the history of the US Navy.
The story of the Indy might sound familiar to anyone who has seen the 1975 “Jaws” movie by Steven Spielberg. Quint, played by actor Robert Shaw, explains to Matt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) that the tattoo they asked about is in memory of the USS Indianapolis, a ship he was on board of. In case you don’t remember, here is his famous monologue:
The Indy was the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance while he commanded the Fifth Fleet in battles across the Central Pacific in World War II. On July 30th, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was steaming through the South Pacific, on her way home having delivered components of the atomic bomb that was to decimate Hiroshima seven days later, when she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Of a crew of 1196 men an estimated 300 were killed upon impact; the remaining 900 sailors went into the sea. The ship, which was about 610ft long, sunk in just 12 minutes.
Undetected for almost five days, the survivors struggled to stay alive, fighting off sharks, hypothermia and dementia. By the time rescue arrived, only 317 men were left alive. Doug Stanton, after thorough research and interviews of the survivors, brings this incredible human drama to life in a narrative that is once immediate and timeless. A must read!!!
In my opinion, this incident was the perfect example of Murphy’s law as anything that could go wrong, actually went wrong. Let’s see the numerous events that contributed to this tragedy:
- Captain McVay asked twice for a destroyer escort: once before leaving for the mission and a second time after delivering the bomb components, for the return trip. In both cases his request was declined.
- The USS Indianapolis was not equipped with sonar to detect submarines so denying the request for an escort was a tragic mistake.
- The US Navy failed to pass on information that Japanese submarines were still active in the area. On 24 July 1945, just six days prior to the sinking of the Indianapolis, the destroyer Underhill had been attacked and sunk in the area by Japanese submarines. Yet McVay was never informed of this event, and several others, in part due to issues of classified intelligence. McVay was warned of the potential presence of Japanese subs, but not of the actual confirmed activity.
- The Indianapolis was all alone in the Pacific Ocean when it sank.
- Most water tanks on the life rafts hadn’t been filled prior to the accident so the survivors were left with no drinking water.
- The accident happened at midnight, in the dark, so you might imagine the chaos of not being able to see anything on deck and therefore making it almost impossible to deploy life-saving equipment.
- The several SOS sent by the Indianapolis before it sank were discarded or not taken seriously by the Navy: there had been times when the Japanese Imperial Navy had sent fake distress signals and they thought this might have been the case too.
- There was no coordination between the departure and the arrival harbors where the Indianapolis was expected so nobody kept track of the ship’s whereabouts.
- When the ship did not arrive on time at the designated harbor, no one wondered where it was and carelessly thought it would just arrive the next day, and then the following day and so on.
- The carnage in the water attracted hundreds of sharks from miles away. At first the sharks fed on the corpses of those who died but soon they started coming for the living. The sailors weren’t trained to defend themselves against sharks so some thought that splashing around and screaming might keep them at bay when it was actually the opposite. It became a vicious circle. The more they attacked the living, the more blood got into the water, the more sharks arrived in the area.
- Those that were resting during the attack didn’t have enough time to dress properly: some jumped into the water in their underwear. It seems that sharks were mostly attracted but those that were almost naked as their light skin stuck out more in the water.
- The lifejackets had a lifespan of about 48 hours while the sailors where in the water for almost five days.
- The spilt fuel oil made it hard to breath and caused irritations to the skin, among other problems.
- Hallucinations were caused by different factors: from drinking salt water (which lead to a swift death) and from the extreme fatigue caused by the scorching sun, lack of food and water. This led some sailors to either commit suicide, harm or kill their comrades.
Captain McVay did all he could in this terrible situation and, despite all of the adversities, he managed to keep safe those that were close to him in the water and gave them continuous hope, evne when he was losing it. Unfortunately, once the crew was rescued following this horrible accident, a new ordeal started for Captain McVay. Of all captains in the history of the US Navy, he is the only one to have been subjected to court-martial for losing a ship sunk by an act of war, despite the fact that he was on a top-secret mission maintaining radio silence (the testimony of the Japanese commander who sank his ship also seemed to exonerate McVay). They were looking for a scapegoat and they found one. McVay was charged with failing to zigzag and failure to order abandon ship in a timely manner. He was convicted on the former. His crewmen, led by Private Giles McCoy, began the effort to clear McVay’s name in 1960 but to no avail.
Following the court-martial, McVay was harassed by phone and by mail for years by the relatives of those who died. They accused him of being a murderer and wished him to die a horrible death. This hatred had severe repercussions on his mental health. After his first wife died in 1961 he remarried within a year and moved from Louisiana to Litchfield, Connecticut. After years of self-restraint, he began to fall apart. In 1968, on a cold November morning, Captain Charles Butler McVay III stepped out onto his front steps with a gun and consigned himself to history.
The exoneration of Captain McVay’s story began in 1991, started by a young Hunter Scott from Pensacola. In October 2000, the US Congress passed a resolution that McVay’s record should reflect that “he is exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis”. President Clinton also signed the resolution. Commander Hashimoto, who supported McVay’s exoneration, died five days before he could witness it (on 25 October). Still, it was only on July 13th, 2001 (56 years after the sinking of the Indy) that the Department of the Navy, made public their decision to exonerate the court-martialed captain: Secretary of the Navy Gordon R.England ordered McVay’s official Navy record purged of all wrongdoing. Justice was finally delivered to the captain and crew.
Those who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis came back as changed men. Many couldn’t detach themselves from the real-life nightmare they had experiences and decided to change careers and become regular civilians. Still, the tragedy of the Indy never left their minds: some always kept a glass of drinking water at hand, scared to ever experience again the thirst of those endless days at the mercy of the sea. Others had disturbing nightmares of being lost in the sea, surrounded by sharks. Another issue was survivor’s guilt having seen so many men die and feeling helpless in saving them.
As I was writing this blog post, I came across this tweet:
72 years after being torpedoed, precisely on 19 August 2017 a search team, financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, located the wreckage of the sunken cruiser in the Philippine Sea lying at a depth of approximately 18,000 feet (5,500 m). Here you can see the video of what was found at the bottom of the Ocean. As Paul Allen stated: “To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling. As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances. While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming.”
Today, about 22 survivors are still alive. Those who were fit for traveling took part to the USS Indianapolis 72nd Anniversary Reunion which took place from July 27th-30th in Indianapolis.
Want to learn more about the USS Indianapolis and its crew? You can read the book “In Harm’s Way” by Doug Stanton (mentioned at the top of this blog post) and then watch the 2016 movie “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” with Nicholas Cage.