The torpedoes had torn into the Indianapolis forward of the
bridge with a horrendous volcanic blast, bursting through the steel hull
and collapsing the bulkheads. One hit had severed forty feet of the
vessel's bow. As the ship continued its forward motion its pointed bow
which once served as a sea knife was now falling through the depths of
the dark ocean while the vessel plowed through the sea scooping in water
in devastating quantities flooding compartments and drowning the crew
below deck. The warship had been in condition "Yoke Modified", a
situation below deck where only some of the water tight hatches were
"Dogged", (closed and sealed). The jagged hole released a raging flood
into the vessel's interior. Those crewmen not sleeping topside on deck
to avoid the suffocating heat of air-less, sealed sleeping quarters
below were mangled in the crushing, collapsing bulkheads Those resting
in their bunks were tossed to the steel deck. Below deck men rushed to
put on their kapok filled life jackets and from force of habit rushed to
their battle stations amidst the clanging din of a blaring klaxon. It
was too late to fight back. The sea tiger had drawn first blood and it
would be the only blood spilled that morning. The inclinometer on the
bridge started registering the vessel's list in degrees and the angle of
tilt was increasing rapidly to the starboard side. It was just a matter
of minutes before the gallant ship would turn in on itself and, with its
own ordnance exploding, devour what was left of the once mighty cruiser.
Erupting fuel tanks and uncontrolled exploding ordnance for her guns
hastened the death of the Indianapolis. Unknown to anyone at the time,
the disaster taking place at that moment would result in the most tragic
loss in American naval history and would be the last major warship lost
by the United States Navy in World War Two. Radiomen had attempted to
alert American forces in the vicinity of the disaster but did not know
if their SOS distress signal had been received. It wasn't.
Men walked down the port side of the flaming ship, which was now
horizontal with the surface of the sea, and simply stepped into the
water before it capsized. Hundreds of men endured the shock of the dark
waters of the Pacific. Little did they realize that this would be the
first and mildest of the terrible fate that would overtake them in the
hours and days to follow. Hampered by the life saving buoyancy of their
Mae West life jackets they swam with all their strength to quickly place
as much distance as possible between themselves and the ship which was
now listing to starboard as water poured into compartment after
compartment from ugly, gapping holes in her side. They instinctively
knew that to remain close to the vessel meant to be sucked down with the
wreck as it slid beneath the waves. In a short while some 800 of the
officers and crew were in the water, among them the captain of the ill
fated war machine. Flailing in the dark, head and chest above water,
faces black with fuel oil, their legs dangled beneath the surface as
they attempted to keep as close together as possible, all the while
bobbing like corks with each wind swept sea swell. Some were suffering
from horrible burns and others were bleeding and all were in shock.
Still they were relatively well off as compared to what they would soon
be forced to endure.
It had only been several minutes after the ship’s mid-watch which
had come on duty only to be shocked by the terror and impact of two
successive explosions followed shortly by a third and then a forth. The
vessel was sinking rapidly and the men below decks that were not
immediately killed by the force of the explosion or dead of concussion,
were now drowning or being burned to death in the flaming cauldron while
others in the engine room were soon to be scalded horribly by
super-heated steam from ruptured boilers. Many were crushed against the
bulkhead as heavy machinery and equipment tore lose from their mounts
as the ship listed on its starboard side. Others were suffocated by the
pungent smoke from burning paint. Their screams could be heard by those
lucky enough to be in the water and away from the flaming disaster. At
first the ship listed to starboard as the on-rushing sea entered the
interior of the vessel flooding compartment after compartment below the
main deck. Damage control had no time to stop the watery onslaught.
Unable to stay afloat, the gray hulk turned over on its side like a
dying animal and the sea flooded through the stacks pouring water into
the engine room. Then the ship flipped over and debris fell from the
main deck to the sea floor below. The bottom of the capsized vessel
glistened briefly until it sank, broken bow first, in the glow of a
It was gone. Sliding beneath the surface and falling through the
black depths, its grave was first marked by the ugly froth of dirty
white swirls mixed with oil slick and flotsam. The great ship with its
ten battle stars sank ever deeper into the Pacific abyss until it came
to rest on the ocean’s floor to forever remain hidden in the great depth
of the western Pacific, its life-giving support system now only a
memory. All those floating on the surface looked in horror at the spot
where the vessel had been only minutes before. The tomb of the ship
would be marked only by geographic coordinates on the vast expanse of
the Pacific at 12 degrees - 2 minutes north by 134 degrees - 48 minutes
east. It would also be marked on the Japanese navigational chart carried
aboard the the submarine now cruising below the surface. The Japanese
sub did not pick up any prisoners.
For those survivors in the water, it was time to take stock of the
situation. The first thing was to keep the floating group together as
much as possible and hope any rescue effort would not be long in
locating them. Hunger had not yet overtaken them since chow had been
served some seven hours earlier. The only thing that could be done now
was to wait -- wait for the sunrise to push the darkness over the
western horizon and hope for a search party to locate them under the
lifesaving rays of daylight. They would wait and hope a long time. A few
life rafts had been cut loose and several had broken away but, as would
soon be revealed, they had inadequate food and water.
The cool night was their only blessing, but this would soon end in
about six hours, after-which a blazing and relentless sun would first
break over the horizon and begin its tortuous climb across a cloudless
sky. Advancing 15 degrees each hour, by 1000 hours the heat from the
flaming ball would start the process of dehydration as their water
soaked bodies were already were being tormented by the thought of a
single cooling, life giving, quench of fresh water. Since entering the
water many had ingested mouth-fulls of salty sea water which only made
the desire for potable water more intense.
That morning, officials in Tokyo rejected the Potsdam ultimatum
calling for unconditional surrender of the Empire even though food
shortages had become so acute in Japan that the government requested
the civilian population to collect two and one half million bushels of
acorns for conversion into food. Food was not yet something on the minds
of those floating on the sea west of the Marianas.
On Tinian, servicemen began the assembly of the final components
of the device which would become known as “Little Boy”. In a short while
the world would learn of the first Uranium bomb dropped in anger on an
unsuspecting city in Japan.
The Naval Base at Leyte remained under routine war time conditions
and no distress signal had been received to alert the facility to launch
search and rescue missions. As far as was known, the vessel was due in
two days when it would then be reassigned, probably somewhere north off
the coast of Japan to support the planned invasion of Japan's home islands.
On Tinian, the secret cargo that had been delivered was being
inspected and placed in position for use in the immediate future.
General Curtis LeMay, or "Old Iron Pants" as he was called by his men,
was conferring with his staff for the purpose of selecting primary and
secondary targets in Japan. They were unaware of the fate of the
Indianapolis some 660 nautical miles southwest of the Guam.
Toward the east the first rays of the new day broke over the
horizon. The morning sunrise revealed a mass of hundreds of sailors
scattered over a relatively large area some of whom had been carried by
the currents well beyond the main concentration of floating survivors.
As the flaming sphere began its long, slow climb across the heavens, its
burning rays, magnified by the reflection on the water began to burn
into their oil blackened faces. Their skin was burned and blistered and
after awhile baked by the unrelenting rays. Those without headgear, and
there were many, became dizzy and light-headed, then racked with
painful, mind-numbing head aches.
Thirst was the first torment to overcome the helpless bobbing
seamen as their tongues swelled to fill their mouths. Even knowing that
it meant certain death, some were wracked by delirium and could not
resist the desperation and distressful feeling of a tortuous urge to
drink sea water, an act that only magnified their agony leading to an
uncontrollable desire to consume even greater quantities of the deadly
liquid only to be relieved by death after a prolonged period of insanity.
Several men had entered the water with bleeding wounds. It must
have been the blood that attracted the huge black, sinister beasts. The
first sharks that appeared circled the group. Then, they were joined by
more and the horrible feeding frenzy began. Men screamed and flailed
their arms as one after the other was pulled underwater in a swirl of
blood and froth only to bob to the surface for an instant before being
dragged down, never to be seen again. An arm floated to the surface and
was snatched again by a huge gapping mouth filled with rows of razor
sharp teeth. The men were thrashing the water and shouting in a
desperate attempt to keep from being eaten alive while watching
shipmates being carried off in a nightmare only the Devil himself could
conceive. The carnage was shocking and beyond belief. Everyone in the
water was in a state of panic and shock. Then it was over and despair
overtook those that remained -- some bleeding after having deep chunks
of flesh torn from their bodies. This was occurring at a time when
Japanese authorities were told by United States military officials that
eight of its cities would be leveled if it did not surrender.
The sun had long since passed overhead and was now setting in the
west, marking the coming of dusk, then the blackest of night. All hope
of rescue from the dark sea was abandoned and many men where now
relinquishing all hope of being found. Then the orange ball slid below
the horizon, its disappearance marked by colors of orange, purple and
the blood red of a beautifully obscene sunset over the Philippine Sea.
It was the second night of darkness and dread. It was a long night as
men fought off fatigue and tried to keep alert to fight off more
man-eating shark attacks while searching the horizon for any sign of a
dark object which might signal the sign of a rescue vessel. None were
seen and the long night wore on.
Tuesday, July 31st dawned, and the ship still had not appeared as
scheduled at Leyte, Philippines where its non-arrival had not been
questioned. Hundreds of miles east of Leyte men waited and wept in the
water. With a blazing sun beating down many were beginning to
hallucinate and were being driven mad . The insanity led some to speak
of imaginary islands and they would swim off never to be seen again.
Heat, thirst, fear, depression and hopelessness drove those the sharks
didn't carry away to self-destruction. Hundreds of the crew had now
drifted away, some carried away by monstrous sharks. Others died of
wounds or thirst. Many were going insane. Some were dead of
dehydration or from drinking salt water. Several committed suicide by
untying their life preservers and slipping under water. Those that still clung
to life by the thinnest of threads were dazed, weak, sick, tired and afraid
as they drifted hopelessly toward death. The only horror they had not yet
experienced at sea was to be helpless in the water during a typhoon. God
had spared them that. (When the full force of a raging Pacific typhoon
is upon you, all distinction between the ocean and the atmosphere is
lost in a world of water and wind. As the barometer falls, waves are
transformed into mountains of water. A screeching, howling wind of up to
120 miles per hour is punctuated by moments of eerie calm only to rise
again to its former crescendo of shrieking violence. The gusts of the
storm will peak and then drop to a relative lull. After the initial
thrust of high wind and rain, which can last for hours, a period of calm
follows when the wind slackens and frequently, during daylight, the sun
shines -- this is the center of the storm when the "eye" is passing. The
force of the wind and rain will quickly resume to full fury with the
only difference being a change in the direction of the wind -- it blows
in the opposite direction of the first phase of the typhoon. This will
be the only horror of the sea that the survivors of the Indianapolis
will be spared. The only horror.)
Throughout the night, men babbled their maddening, imaginary
thoughts, their minds now unable to distinguish reality from insanity.
There were fewer in the water now but no one knew how many as all count
had been lost. Their confused and numb brains were beginning to cease
imagining green meadows; cool, fresh water; dry beds, food and memories
of loved ones. As their minds began to shut down to block out the
unspeakable horror that had overtaken them, they drifted in and out of a
state of semi-consciousness. They were too weak and exhausted to do
anything but continue to maintain the basic animal instinct for survival.
All sense of sensation and emotion was being drained away as
unconscious heads bobbed back and forth with each movement of the rise
and fall of the waves. This scene continued through the third night and
still there was no sign of a savior as they waited for the relief of death .
Again the sun broke over the eastern horizon bringing with it the
familiar scorching heat and unbearable rays beating down on the
remaining blackened, blistered faces. The nearest land was hundreds
of miles to the east. On the island of Tinian, huge B-29 Superfortresses
were roaring down runways prepared to drop 6,600 tons of bombs on five
Japanese cities. In a few hours the entire city of Toyama would be
destroyed. These aircraft would not see the men in the water as they
were headed in a different direction. Even upon the return flight of
the aircraft to Tinian and Saipan, when sometime they would fly at low
altitudes searching for downed pilots and crew members of crashed
aircraft, the shipwrecked men would still not be seen. They were too far
southwest of the airfields.
Late in the afternoon of August 2nd Lieutenant Robert A. Marks,
flying a Catalina PBY 5A, spotted some of the survivors bobbing in the
water and at great risk to himself, his crew and the plane, landed the
amphibious aircraft in the water near the men. There were strict
regulations against landing this type of aircraft on the open sea as the
hull of the "Dumbo", as it was known, was weakened by construction
necessary for placing its landing wheels. Lt. Marks and his crew taxied
to the area where some of the survivors were being attacked by sharks.
He radioed his location and began filling the aircraft's fuselage with
fifty-six men who were later transferred to naval vessels which began
arriving on the scene between midnight and three a. m. One such vessel,
the U. S.S. Ringness, APD 100, picked up Captain Charles B. McVay,
III and thirty five others and sent a secret dispatch while proceeding to
Peleliu which stated that the Indianapolis had not been zigzagging.
Rescue operations continued for six days, until August 8th, and covered
a radius of one hundred miles of open ocean saving 316 of the crew.
Eight hundred eighty three men were lost in the sinking.
The Destroyer U.S.S. Helm DD 388 was one of several naval vessels
participating in the search for survivors and any remains of the crew.
On August 6th the ship's captain reported, “All bodies were in extremely
bad condition and had been dead for an estimated 4 or 5 days. Some
had life jackets and life belts; most had nothing. Most of the bodies were
completely naked, and others had just drawers or dungaree trousers on.
Only three of the 28 bodies recovered had shirts on. Bodies were
horribly bloated and decomposed -- recognition of faces would have been
impossible. About half the bodies were shark-bitten, some to such a
degree that they more nearly resembled skeletons. From one to four
sharks were in the immediate area of the ship at all times. At one time,
two sharks were attacking a body not more than fifty yards from the
ship, and continued to do so until driven off by rifle fire. For the
most part it was impossible to get finger prints from the bodies as the
skin had come off the hands, or the hands were lacerated by sharks.
Skin was removed from the hands of bodies containing no identification,
when possible, and the Medical Officer dehydrated the skin in an attempt
to make legible prints. All personal effects and the Medical Officer’s
Reports, were forwarded to the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery and the
Personal Effects Distribution Center, Farragut, Idaho, on the assumption
that such effects will be assembled from all ships participating in the
rescue. After examination, all bodies were sunk, using two inch line and
a weight of three 5”/38 cal. projectiles. There were still more bodies
in the area when darkness brought a close to the gruesome operations
for the day. In all, twenty-eight bodies were examined and sunk”.
After his rescue, Captain McVay was interviewed for purposes of
recording his experiences associated with the sinking of the
Indianapolis. He stated, “On Sunday night, the 29th of July, we had been
zigzagging up until dark. We did not zigzag thereafter. We had
intermittent moonlight, as I am told, but it was dark from about 2330
until sometime earlier the next morning.
“At approximately five minutes after midnight, I was thrown from
my emergency cabin bunk by a very violent explosion followed shortly
thereafter by another explosion. I went to the bridge and noticed, in my
emergency cabin in the chart house, that there was quite a bit of acrid
white smoke. I couldn’t see anything.
“I got out on the bridge. The same condition existed out there. It
was dark; it was this whitish smoke. I asked the Officer of the Deck if
he had had any reports. He said, ‘ No Sir, I have lost all
communication. I have tried to stop the engines. I don’t know whether
that order has ever gotten through to the engine room.
“So we had no communication whatsoever. Our engine room telegraph
was electrical and that was out, sound powered phones were out and all
communications were out forward. As I went back into the cabin to get my
shoes and some clothes, I ran into the damage control officer, Lieutenant
Commander Casey Moore, who had the mid-watch on the bridge as
supervisory watch. He had gone down at the first hit and came back on
the bridge and told me that we were going down rapidly by the head, and
wanted to know if I desired to pass the word to abandon ship. I told him,
'No'. “We had only about three degrees list. We had been through a hit
before and we were able to control it quite easily and in my own mind I
was not at all perturbed. Within another two or three minutes the
executive officer, Commander Flynn, came up and said, ‘ We are
definitely going down and I suggest that we abandon ship’. Well,
knowing Flynn and having utter regard for his ability, I then said, 'Pass
the word to abandon ship' ."
Captain McVay continued, “The people who had the kapok life
preservers on tied themselves together to try to keep themselves
together during the night. They also had quite a long piece of manila
line they had taken off a ring life preserver which they used to secure
their ties on their kapok life jackets and they managed to keep together
during the night. Most of those people within 48 to 60 hours went out of
their head. Some of them lived through the period, but those who went
out of their head earlier than, say 48 to 60 hours, didn’t last. The
people that were in that group felt quite sure that a number of people
just gave up hope because they would be with the bunch at sundown and
in the morning they would be gone, so they feel that people just slipped
out of their life jackets and just decided that they didn’t want to face
it any longer”.
Photo courtesy of: U.S.