The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis

Some readers may be most familiar with the events that followed the sinking of the heavy cruiser the USS Indianapolis from the vivid account given by the character of Quint from the 1975 film Jaws, a jaded shark hunter driven to pursue the animals after his experiences as a survivor of the disaster. While the character is fictitious, the events he described were all too real. Of nearly 900 men that entered the water after the Indianapolis was torpedoed by the Japanese Navy in the Philippine Sea, only 316 were rescued. The others succumbed to a combination of exposure, dehydration, hypernatremia and the largest mass attack by sharks on humans in recorded history.

The Pacific Theatre

Launched in November 1931, in the lead-up to the Second World War the USS Indianapolis served as the flagship of Scouting Force 1, tasked to defend American waters and based off Long Beach, California. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, she became part of Task Force 12, searching unsuccessfully for the Japanese aircraft carriers responsible for the raid. She subsequently served in New Guinea and supported the US attack on the Aleutian Islands. During this deployment, the Indianapolis engaged with and sank the Japanese cargo ship the Akaganu Maru as it attempted to reinforce Japanese defences on the island of Kiska.

The heavy cruiser garnered a lengthy list of battle honours throughout the Pacific theater, taking part in the Battle of Makin, Battle of Saipan, Battle of the Philippine Sea, Battle of Tinian and Battle of Peleliu. In 1945 she was amongst the ships that took part in an attack on Tokyo to draw attention away from Allied attacks on Iwo Jima, before spending a week bombarding Okinawa ahead of a land assault. After her propeller shafts and fuel tanks were damaged by a Japanese bomb the Indianapolis was sent back to California for repairs.

The USS Indianapolis in 1939. Image: US Navy

A Secret Mission

It was after these repairs were completed that the Indianapolis was selected for a top-secret mission: to deliver the enriched uranium and casing to create the Little Boy atomic bomb to the US airfield on Tinian Island. There, it would be subsequently loaded onto the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay and used in the first ever nuclear bombing on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

After completing this task, the Indianapolis docked at Guam to allow some crew who has completed tours of duty to depart, replacing them with fresh sailors. On the 28th July she departed for Leyte in the Philippines to provide crew training. Two days later, she was ambushed by the Japanese submarine I-58.

The Sinking of the Indianapolis

A little after midnight on July 30th 1945, the American heavy cruiser was struck starboard by two Type 95 torpedoes. Taking massive damage from the two explosions the Indianapolis began almost immediately to list, rolling over completely within 12 minutes. Nose-down, she then sank rapidly, dragging some 300 sailors with her and leaving the surviving crew, approximately 900 men, adrift with few lifeboats.

A Type 95 torpedo. Image: Wikicommons/Kk8998982

US Navy Command were unaware of the loss of the Indianapolis until survivors were spotted in the water by patrolling aircraft over three days later. Once notified, all capable air and sea units in the area were dispatched in a rescue mission. An amphibious landing PBY-5A Catalina aircraft was the first rescuer to arrive. An attempt to drop liferafts to the stranded men failed, with one being destroyed on impact and the other landing too far away from the exhausted survivors. After a vote amongst the aircraft’s crew, the decision was made to defy standing orders and to land the plane on the open ocean, pulling 56 men from the water. A further 260 were rescued by a total of seven ships.

Of approximately 580 men that were lost in the time between the Indianapolis being sank and their rescue, the majority died from a combination of lack of food and water and exposure to the elements, both the severe sun during the day and the cold water at night. Saltwater poisoning was also a contributing factor, as was severe skin peeling from continued exposure to both seawater and floating fuel oil.

Sharks and Delirium

Survivors also told of the horrors they experienced in the water. Sharks, believed to be both tiger sharks and oceanic whitetips, preyed on both the dead and the living, particularly stragglers or lone swimmers separated from the huddle. Beginning around dawn on the first day, the predations continued until the men were rescued. Most researchers believe that sharks were responsible for the deaths of between 60 and 80 men. The crew of the aircraft that had been first on the scene also reported witnessing sharks attacking the men.

A Tiger Shark, one of the two species thought to have been involved in the attacks Image: Albert Kok

Perhaps even more harrowing, some men recounted their crewmates descending into madness as they experienced delirium and hallucinations due to the conditions, in some cases killing themselves or others. One survivor, Machinist’s Mate Granville Crane, described men in their desperation drinking saltwater, resulting in delirium. Some would fight amongst themselves, even killing each other. Crane also saw men gripped by the delusion that the Indianapolis was intact in the water below them, serving out fresh water and food, even attempting to swim down to reach it. Once below the relative safety of the crowd on the surface, they would be taken by the sharks.

An Oceanic Whitetip Shark. Image: Thomas Ehrensperger


The failure of the US Navy to realise that the Indianapolis had been sunk for over three days exposed a litany of errors, including in the way that large ships were tracked and amongst operations officers on Leyte that had failed to investigate the Indianapolis‘s failure to arrive on schedule, nor report it to senior officers. Initially it was reported that while radio operators on board has sent distress signals, they had failed to reach any recipients. It was later exposed that three stations had received these S.O.S but had each failed to act: one commander was drunk, a second had ordered his men not to disturb him and the third believed it was a ruse on the part of the Japanese. 

Surviving crew members in Guam. Image: US Navy

The commander the of Indianapolis, Captain Charles McVay, was amongst those rescued. He was controversially court-martialed on two charges, those of failing to order his men to abandon ship and of hazarding the vessel. Later findings showed that the Navy had failed to inform McVay that a Japanese submarine was believed to be operating in the area and an initial conviction was overturned.

Despite this, many families that had lost relatives in the incident continued to blame him, harassing him with mail and phone calls accusing him of causing the deaths of their loved ones. 23 years later, at the age of 70, McVay committed suicide using his Navy service revolver. After a sixth grade student in 1996 conducted a class assignment on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, his findings triggered a Congressional Investigation that finally exonerated McVay of any liability for the loss of the Indianapolis. 

Mochitsura Hashimoto, the commander of submarine I-58 who testified at the original court-martial, was amongst those who campaigned for McVay’s exoneration, despite the loss of his entire family in the Hiroshima bombing. Having become a Shinto priest after the war, Hashimoto passed away at the age of 91, five days before President Bill Clinton signed a resolution that posthumously exonerated McVay.

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