Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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The Disaster of the USS Indianapolis – Podcast #14

And now for today’s story on the USS Indianapolis, which is actually one that I had never intended on putting on his podcast. I was sitting at lunch a couple of weeks ago with some of my fellow colleagues and the subject of the Indianapolis came up and only myself and one other teacher seemed to know anything about it. All of the other teachers seemed to be clueless about this disaster, so I thought maybe there are other people out there who don’t know the story either. So, I thought I would share it with you.

This story begins on July 26, 1945, when the USS Indianapolis, which was a fairly large, heavy cruiser for the US Navy, had delivered critical parts for the first atomic bomb. It was delivering it to Tinian island, which is in the Northern Marianas Islands, which are roughly 800 to 1000 miles east of the Philippines.

The real story, however, takes place on July 30th, just a few days later, at fourteen minutes after midnight, when the USS Indianapolis was struck by a Japanese submarine and sunk. In fact, it was the last U.S. Navy ship to be sunk by enemy action during World War II. There was another submarine that was sunk after this, but the Indianapolis was the last major ship to go down.

It doesn’t take much to figure out that this was a top-secret mission. If you’re delivering parts for the first atomic bomb ever to be built, not too many people are going to know about your mission. This contributed to the problem because no notice was sent to the port of destination that the ship was going to arrive. Since no one anticipated the arrival of the ship, it was not reported as missing.

The Indianapolis sank very quickly. It went down in just under twelve minutes after it was hit by the Japanese torpedoes. The ship lost all electrical power, but it did have enough time to send out an SOS. Unfortunately, these messages were either ignored or not received. As a result, no one knew that the ship had gone down. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it has been estimated that approximately 300 of the 1196 men that were on board the ship either died immediately or went down with the ship.

The remainder, about 880 men, were thrown into the water, most of them with their life jackets on. There were no lifeboats to swim to.

And there they stayed…

Keep in mind that no one knew that the ship was missing. It was scheduled to arrive in port on July 31st, but since this was a top-secret mission, no one noticed that the ship had not arrived. It wasn’t until August 2 at 10:25 in the morning that a routine patrol flight noticed that there were people down in the water. They dropped down a life raft and radio, the little bit that they had on the plane, and then radioed back to headquarters that there were people down in the water.

Almost immediately, the first ship changed course and went to rescue those in the water.

This was a dangerous thing for rescuers to do. It was the middle of a World War and there were Japanese submarines everywhere, so turning on the searchlights at night to find people floating in the water would only help the enemy find you.

They had a search a large portion of the Pacific Ocean because the currents were going to take people away from the location where the ship sank. It took them six days to comb a radius of about 100 miles around the point where the Indianapolis sank. In the end, they were only able to rescue 317 of the 1196 men that were on the ship.

Survivors of the USS Indianapolis sinking in Guam in August 1945. Wikipedia image.

Assuming the estimate that 880 men were thrown into the water, this implies that 563 men were killed while waiting to be rescued by the US Navy.

It was later determined that the men died from the obvious causes such as lack of food, lack of water, exposure to the cold at night, salt poisoning, and thirst. The one thing that was less obvious was that many of them died from shark attacks. In fact, the Discovery Channel stated on one of its programs about the Indianapolis that more people died from shark attacks in this disaster than at any other time in history.

One has to question whether the men were attacked by the sharks and then eaten, or did they die before being eaten by the sharks? That is uncertain.

A disaster of this proportion, where 879 men have perished, would typically make the front page of the newspapers worldwide the next day. Today, CNN and all the other news stations would be on it within one minute, but that wasn’t the case. In the case of the Indianapolis sinking, the US government kept it a secret for about two weeks. They waited until August 15th, until after the Japanese had surrendered to let the world know about the sinking. In addition, the government felt that people would be too busy celebrating the winning of the war and would be less likely to notice that this disaster had happened.

As is typical in just about every disaster that occurs, someone had to take the blame for this. They blamed Charles McVay III, the captain of the ship. He had been commanding the ship since November 1944, survived the sinking, and was rescued along with all of the other men that had survived. He was court-martialed in November 1945 and convicted of hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag. Basically, he went straight when he should have zig-zagged his ship.

It wasn’t long before further information came out. It was determined that he probably couldn’t have done anything to save the ship and was returned to active duty before he retired in 1949. It wasn’t until the 1990s that classified documents were released and it was found out that they had denied his request for destroyer escort. His ship was the only major ship of the entire war that lacked anti-submarine detection during its travels.

On top of that, about 700 ships were lost by the US Navy during World War II. Yet McVay was the only one ever to be court-martialed for the loss of the ship. Based on this lack of evidence and all this newly released classified information, President Clinton exonerated McVay in October of 2000 and his record was cleared.

That concludes the very sad story of the USS Indianapolis, which holds the record for the worst single at-sea loss of life of any ship in the US Navy.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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