Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Guest Blog: Saga of the Lost USS Indianapolis

When I told told my brother John, we had an ancestor who was involved in the rescue of the survivors of the USS Indianapolis, he volunteered (or maybe I politely begged) to write a guest post about the tragic loss of the ship. Today is the 69th anniversary of the day she was torpedoed in seas that were thought to clear of the enemy. In a few days, I'll post about the role our ancestor played in the rescue and how he disobeyed orders to do so and in a moment of pure serendipity, discovering the ship was the Indianapolis, of which his cousin's husband was the commanding officer.

Some of the crew of the USS Indianapolis; photograph provided to Steve
Butler by Sherry Adkins in hopes someone could recognize her uncle, James
McLaurin "Mack" Harrison, who was killed sometime during the loss of
the ship

Over to my brother:

The ultimate fear of any sailor, from the days of the earliest ocean voyages right up to the present day, is to be lost at sea.  To have your ship sink out from under you and to be left alone on the wide ocean expanse is a fate dreaded by all who have ever departed from the security of terra firma.  Such fears became a reality for the crew of USS Indianapolis a few minutes before midnight on the 29th of July 1945.  The cruiser went down fast after being struck by two torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58.  Out of a crew of 1,196 it is estimated that 800 – 850 managed to get off the ship before it slipped beneath the waves.  Only twelve life rafts and six floater nets could be released in time—not enough to accommodate all of the survivors.  Several hundred men were thus cast into the dark empty sea with just a life vest to keep themselves afloat.

At least they had a reasonable hope of quick rescue.  Indianapolis had just completed a high speed run from San Francisco to Tinian to deliver parts of the atomic bombs that would eventually end the Second World War.  At the time of its loss, Indianapolis was making a routine passage across the Philippine Sea to Leyte where it was to join Task Force 95.  A year before the Philippine Sea had been the crossroads of opposing fleets and the scene of two massive sea battles (The Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf), but at this late stage of the war the sea was far to the rear of the combat zone.  The submarine that sunk Indianapolis may well have been the only enemy combatant for miles around.  Indianapolis went down about 300 miles from the nearest land (Palau Islands), an easy day’s sail for most ships.  Furthermore, the area was criss-crossed several times a day by aircraft conducting the routine and administrative drudgery of rear area support tasks.  If the survivors from Indianapolis could just get through the night they would surely be rescued the following day.

Unfortunately, their situation was far darker than they even imagined.  Nobody was looking for them!  Indianapolis radiomen managed to get off two SOS signals before the ship went under.  But despite the fact a distress signal was received by at least three stations, no action was taken to either organize a rescue party or even to investigate.  It seems the Japanese sent fake distress calls so often in attempts to lure out American search vessels that SOS signals were routinely ignored unless the ship’s identity could be confirmed by radio contact.

USS Indianapolis on 10 July 1945 off Mare Island after her final overhaul; photo
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Even worse a breakdown in the routine communications procedure for tracking ships at sea meant that nobody noticed Indianapolis’ failure to arrive at Leyte the morning of July 31st.  The movement of warships was obviously rather secretive so the Navy had established a set of communication guidelines regarding departures and arrivals of warships.  Following protocol there had been an announcement over the radio network when Indianapolis departed Guam, but no announcement would be made upon her safe arrival at her destination.  It was typically up to the commander at a warship’s destination to take appropriate action if a ship was overdue.  However, in the case of Indianapolis on this particular cruise things had become confused.  The operations officer for Task Force 95, to whom Indianapolis was to report upon arrival at Leyte, did not know to expect Indianapolis because his staff had incorrectly decoded the message informing him of the ship’s impending arrival.  When Indianapolis failed to arrive as scheduled, the Leyte port director assumed she had been diverted en route, as warships often were, and took no action.  In other words, the Navy had lost a 10,000 ton ship.

The poor souls drifting in the Philippine Sea paid a heavy price for the Navy’s failure to devise a communications scheme to keep track of its ships.  With little fresh water, food or protection from the elements the survivors faced a horrific ordeal.  Hopes for a rescue faded after the first full day adrift.  Several planes were spotted, but try as they might they could not get the pilots’ attention.  The day of their expected arrival in Leyte came and went and still there was no sign of rescue.  As the long days mounted their suffering became ever more protracted.  Even as the tropical sun scorched them by day, the water gradually sapped their body heat so that hypothermia eventually set in.  Dehydration took its predictable toll.  Some fell to prey to hallucinations or gulped seawater to quench their overpowering thirst.  The ship’s oil made eyes sting and open wounds fester.

Although hypothermia and dehydration undoubtedly claimed more victims, the killer that has become inextricably linked to the Indianapolis disaster is the shark.  Big, aggressive oceanic whitetips, which had probably been following the ship, started circling groups of survivors as soon as the oil slick dissipated.  After first consuming those who had died of wounds the sharks then began attacking the living.  Woody Eugene James tells the harrowing story:

The day wore on and the sharks were around, hundreds of them.  You’d hear guys scream, especially late in the afternoon.  Seemed like the sharks were the worst late in the afternoon than they were during the day.  Then they fed at night too.  Everything would be quiet and then you’d hear somebody scream and you knew a shark had got him.
It is impossible to know for sure exactly how many fell victim to shark attack.  Doug Stanton, author of In Harm’s Way, considers that as many as 200 were eaten.  All told 880 men died as a result of the loss of Indianapolis, around 500 of them having died in the water after abandoning ship.  The survivors were finally spotted—completely by chance—by a passing aircraft on August 2nd.  The last man rescued, pulled from the sea the following day, had been in the water for 112 hours and had drifted 124 miles.

USS Indianapolis survivors aboard the USS Bassett; photograph courtesy
of Steve Butler

There is in fact a double tragedy:  the loss of the Indianapolis and the lost Indianapolis.  Captain Charles McVay was convicted for the first tragedy for having hazarded his ship by failing to zigzag.  It was a raw deal to be sure, which was not corrected until 2001 when his name was cleared of any wrongdoing.  Regardless of whether his actions contributed to the disaster or not, the heavy burden of responsibility for the lives of 880 men under his command tore at McVay for the rest of his life.  Egged on by hate mail from victim’s families, he committed suicide in 1968.  The Navy, on the other hand, never properly explained culpability for the second tragedy—why 316 poor men drifted in the open sea for more than four and a half days while nobody looked for them!

Stay tuned for a future post about the part one of my ancestors played in the rescue of USS Indianapolis survivors.

My brother, John, is writing a book about World War II. The sources he used for this post are:

“A Survivor’s Story, In Woody’s Words.”   Netwide Development (accessed June 24, 2014).
Morison, Samuel Elliot.  Victory In the Pacific 1945, History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol XIV (Castle Books, 1960), p. 319 – 330.

Stanton, Doug.  In Harm’s Way—the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors, (Henry Holt and Company, 2001).


  1. Very interesting, hopefully procedures have improved since then. What a tragedy. Thanks for sharing.

  2. What a terrible tragedy! But I did not know about it! You have educated me with a most dramatic story that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Great story telling of a terrible event.

    1. Helen, did you ever see Jaws? When they are hunting sharks, the captain of the boat told why he hated sharks. That scene was based on the USS Indianapolis.