The USS Indianapolis had just completed a Top Secret mission, delivering parts of the “Little Boy” atom bomb that was later to be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. She was en route to the Phillipines On July 30, 1945 when she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine at 14 minutes past midnight.
An estimated 300 men were killed upon impact; 900 were cast into the ocean. Because of the Top Secret classification of the mission, no distress signal was made from the doomed vessel and no search party sent.
As the men regrouped into clutches of around 100 – 150, they knew they were in trouble. Though the water temperature in that part of the South Pacific was relatively warm (around 72 degrees Fahrenheit), they had no food, no fresh water, and few had life preservers. The sun was hot and soon caused painful sunburns. At night, the air temp dropped into the 50s. A survivor later wrote:
“So the day passed, night came and it was cold. IT WAS COLD. The next mornin the sun come up and warmed things up and then it got unbearably hot so you start praying for the sun to go down so you can cool off again.”
So the men were cold, sunburned and waterlogged. Then the sharks arrived. On morning of day two the sharks attacked the men from below; men who were getting tired and sagging under the surface were their targets. The sailor’s screams grew more and more frequent over the next days as hypothermia, hyperthemia and sunburn overcame them. Some had started drinking seawater and hallucinating that the ship was still ok - they swam down to it to get fresh water and were attacked.
To add to the men’s frustration and misery, planes had been flying over the region every day. Not one had spotted them until day four when a seaplane pilot looked down in time to see a huge oil slick. On his second flyby (with bomb bay doors open and ready to drop depth charges in case of enemy craft) he saw the survivors. He called his home base and set in motion one of the largest rescues in Naval history.
It took a week for the total search area to be combed and for crews to be identified. By the time the rescue was done, all but 321 men had lost their lives.
Captain Charles McVay was court-martialed for "hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag". The Navy even brought Mochitsura Hashimoto, the commander of the Japanese sub that fired the torpedoes, to testify against McVay. Though Hashimoto swore that he would have sunk the ship whether or not the Indianapolis had taken action, Captain McVay was convicted. In 1968 he committed suicide.
In 1976, the movie Jaws brought the USS Indianapolis back in the news. In the film, the student (Richard Dreyfuss), the sheriff (Roy Scheider) and Captain Quint (Robert Shaw), a gruff old sea dog, had this monologue based on the disaster:
Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. It was comin' back, from the island of Tinian Delady, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen footer.
You know, you know that when you're in the water, chief? You tell by lookin' from the dorsal to the tail. Well, we didn't know. `Cause our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. Huh huh. They didn't even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, chief. The sharks come cruisin'. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know it's... kinda like `ol squares in battle like a, you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo.
And the idea was, the shark would go for nearest man and then he'd start poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got...lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin' and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin' and the hollerin' they all come in and rip you to pieces.
Y'know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men! I don't know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don't know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin' chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player, bosom's mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top. Up ended. Well... he'd been bitten in half below the waist
Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. He'd a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.
For years, the Indianapolis' survivors have sought to clear Captain McVay's name. There have been letters and publicity urging the conviction be expunged from his record.
On November 24, 1999, less than a year before his own death, Mochitsura Hashimoto wrote a letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee:
I hear that your legislature is considering resolutions which would clear the name of the late Charles Butler McVay III, captain of the USS Indianapolis which was sunk on July 30, 1945, by torpedoes fired from the submarine which was under my command.
I do not understand why Captain McVay was court-martialed. I do not understand why he was convicted on the charge of hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag because I would have been able to launch a successful torpedo attack against his ship whether it had been zigzagging or not.
I have met many of your brave men who survived the sinking of the Indianapolis. I would like to join them in urging that your national legislature clear their captain's name.
Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences. Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction.
former captain of I-58
Japanese Navy at WWII
On July 13, 2001, thanks to the hard work of the families and survivors of the disaster, Captain McVay's record was finally amended to exonerate him for the loss of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the lives of those who perished as a result of her sinking.
The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb