Horror in the Pacific: USS Indianapolis

USS Indianapolis Courtesy Wikipedia

The USS Indianapolis was launched in late 1931 in New Jersey and by 1945 had seen her fair share of action. Commanded by respected captain Charles McVay, the Portland-class cruiser carried nearly 1,200 in crew. After delivering parts for the atomic bomb Little Boy to Tinian on 26 July 1945, Captain Charles McVay proceeded to Guam where he would receive further orders. While in Guam McVay requested an escort to accompany him to his next destination, Leyte. He was told he would not need one and so on July 28th, the good ship Indy set sail for Leyte. The night of July 29th was particularly warm. As a result about 300 sailors had decided to sleep on the deck. Throughout the ship hatches and doors had been opened to allow air to circulate though the interior. Under the briny sea the I-58 skulked looking for prey. Shortly before midnight, the I-58 under Lieutenant Commander Machitsua Hashimoto, sighted the Indianapolissteaming along. She wasn’t zig-zagging, but it wouldn’t have made a difference if she was (McVays orders said he was to zigzag at his own discretion). Hashimoto ordered 6 torpedoes fired. Two found their mark. At 12:05 AM, July 30th, one of the most terrible sea dramas broke loose that would not come to an end until 5 days later. Explosions down below killed a number of sailors, either blowing them apart or burning them to death. Some of those that had decided to sleep on the deck that night were killed almost instantly. Throughout the ship men had been picked up and thrown down thanks to the torpedoing. Those trapped below had to contend with incoming water to one side of them and fire on another. The prospects of escape were grim.

I-58 Courtesy Wikipedia

On the bridge, officers wanted to contact the engine room to tell them to stop the engines. No need to force more water into the ship by pushing on. But due to the loss of power and communications on the forward part of the ship (she had nearly been severed), the message didn’t get through. Instead, down in Engine Room 2, the chief engineer was pushing the ship on. He thought it best to get away from the sub that had torpedoed them. The ship was taking on a growing list to starboard.

McVay learned that Radio Shack 1 had been obliterated. A distress message was sent from Radio Shack 2 and was received by different stations. Clair Young delivered the distress message to his superior and was told if anymore messages were received, to inform him. A second message was acted upon and an officer sent two tugs out to aid the Indianapolis. But the man’s superior, who was away, ordered the tugs back. The third message was ignored. Why? The Japanese had been sending out fake distress messages. As a result, if a distress message couldn’t be verified it was not acknowledged. The two radiomen stayed in Radio Shack 2 until the very last minute, before abandoning ship.

McVay was soon informed that the damage was bad and few minutes later he gave the order to abandon ship. Sailors jumped overboard, most with lifebelts on. Very few of the Indianapolis’ life rafts made their way off of the ship and two whaleboats remained in their davits. Fuel in the water enveloped swimmers, making it difficult for them to get around. Those that waited until the last minute to leave the Indianapolis and jumped from the stern, slammed into the rotating propeller blades. After the Indianapolis disappeared beneath the waves, about 900 men were left struggling on the surface. Wails carried through the night air as terrified and injured men swam about. Others vomited the fuel and saltwater they had swallowed.

The next morning the men hoped that rescue would be within a day or two, especially since they were now overdue. But due to a combination of circumstances, the rest of the world was completely unaware of what had befallen the Indianapolis. McVay had survived and along with a group of survivors, boarded a raft. Throughout the day a number of planes were seen, but apparently their crews didn’t notice the humanity scattered in the water. With daylight came the hot temperatures. Dr. Lewis Haynes had sailors make blindfolds for themselves to protect their eyes. As they floated free of the oil, survivors traded one disadvantage for another. Drifting across the sea, sea creatures began feeding off of the miserable swimmers. Saltwater poisoned their systems as it unwillingly entered their mouths. Survivors sometimes seen or felt something in the water brush by. It wasn’t until the attacks began they realized what it was. Swimmers started to disappear when the sharks found them. One man swam out to help a terrified comrade and almost became a shark’s lunch himself. The shark attacks never stopped and screams pierced the night.

Hypothermia was setting in, as was hyernatremia. Dr. Haynes pleaded with sailors to stop drinking saltwater, but driven by their great thirst they ignored the well-intentioned appeals. The next day on August 1, insanity took over. The more dead than alive men began hallucinating. Thinking their comrades were Japanese, they lashed out killing one another. On one raft PFC Giles McCoy and four other men cut loose of the others drifted away from the insanity. McVay and his crew were doing rather well, considering, although they were still plagued with circling sharks.

Survivors Courtesy Wikipedia

Hallucinations and shark attacks continued to run rampant. The sailors and marines couldn’t last much longer. Lack of freshwater, constant exposure to the elements and nature and waterlogged lifebelts were doing a number on them. When would rescue arrive? On August 3rd the Playmate 2 flew overhead and spotted an oil slick. Thinking it had come from a submarine, Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn followed it and arrived at the most confusing site ever. In the Pacific Ocean people covered in oil aboard rafts, in floater nets and swimming buoyed only by willpower and waterlogged lifebelts, were splashing around and waving to the plane. The plane dropped equipment to the wearied survivors and sent out a message. Soon more amphibious planes and ships were sent to the disaster site. Without orders to, the USS Cecil J. Doyle changed course and proceeded to the area. Lieutenant Adrian Marks made the decision to land his amphibious plane. After a rough landing, Marks and his crew started plucking survivors from the sea (and bailing the plane out as it filled with water). In all 56 men were rescued and piled in and on the plane. From one of the rescued, Marks learned that they were the survivors of the Indianapolis.  Eventually, everyone was taken aboard a ship and the plane had to be sunk.

English: USS Indianapolis' last Commanding Off...

McVay after the disaster Courtesy Wikipedia

Around midnight the rescue ships arrived. It wasn’t an easy task for the rescuers. The swimmers were afraid that the Americans were really Japanese sailors. Among the last to be rescued were McVay’s and McCoy’s groups. They had drifted farther on ahead of the others but were thankfully spotted. In all 321 men were rescued, four of which would later die due to the ordeal. The search would continue in an effort to recover and bury bodies. It ended on August 9th. In the aftermath, McVay became a scapegoat and was court-martialed. After receiving much hate-mail from the families of the dead sailors, McVay couldn’t take it anymore. In 1968 McVay made his way out to his front yard holding a toy sailor and a gun and…committed suicide.

Source: Stanton, Doug. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors.


39 thoughts on “Horror in the Pacific: USS Indianapolis

    • It had to be a horrifying experience. This is a very sad story, but one that should be remembered. I promise that next week’s post won’t be nearly as gruesome! Thanks for your comment.


  1. While the Captain of a ship is ultimately responsible for his ship and crew, McVay was scapegoated and then railroaded. No doubt one can point to mistakes made by the Indianapolis but there were more egregious and tragic mistakes made by headquarters and communications units. Failure to properly inform the ship of sub activity would likely have led to a more watertight condition being set. Proper handling of Indianapolis’ distress calls by just one of the receiving stations could have started a search as could have if prompt action had been taken when the ship failed to arrive as scheduled. Even though it came far too late for Captain McVay, he was thankfully exonerated in 2000.

    The way the Indianapolis investigation was handled particularly rankles me compared to how Halsey’s two typhoon incidents were handled. There was just as much if not more cause to court martial and discipline Halsey over those two incidents as there was to court martial and discipline McVay but not doing so was the more politically expedient thing to do.


    • Oh yes, wouldn’t that have been awful? Sick is right, I tried not to include many of the gory details here in the post for those of us with weak stomachs (like myself for instance).


  2. When something goes wrong, it seems that humanity continues to play the blame and shame game. It is so much easier than to ask questions, review the facts of the case, and introduce protocols to avoid recurrence. Sometimes (actually most of the time) truth discredits and embarrasses those who are truly responsible. A lesson to all of us to think deeply and carefully…


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