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The Agony Of The Indianapolis
She was the last major American warship sunk during World War II, and her sinking was the single worst open-sea disaster in our naval history. How could it have happened?
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
Those who reached the life rafts could barely manage to inflate them. Dr. Haynes and others in the largest group found two rafts and hauled eleven seamen who were suffering the most into them. Once aboard, the “naked, emaciated” forms reminded the doctor of “cadavers in the dissecting room.” Both rafts were pulled together, and those unable to come aboard hung onto the sides. Finding a pint can of water, Dr. Haynes distributed an ounce of fluid to those in most need. He was amazed that the small plastic cup passed from hand to hand with no one giving in to the tremendous temptation to cheat. Other survivors were not as restrained. Seaman Richard Thelen swam to a nearby raft to find that those who had arrived before him had destroyed the food and water containers in their delirium.
All suffered from mental anguish. In his enfeebled condition, Dr. Haynes was unable to operate the saltwater converter in the raft and he even overlooked additional cans of drinking water. A sailor on another raft that had been dropped by the planes did manage to detoxify some salt water with a converter. Seaman McCall remembers the foul-tasting liquid: “It was terrible, but it was wet.”
Though he saw that some men had reached the supplies dropped to them, it was clear to Lieutenant Marks in his PBY that many could not help themselves and would perish before the rescue ships arrived. At 4:25 P.M. Marks radioed his base that he would attempt a landing on the open sea. Although the PBY was an amphibious craft, she was not built for landing in rough water with twelve-foot swells. Nevertheless the Navy pilot brought down his huge plane between the swells. The seaplane disappeared in a cloud of spray, bouncing three times before coming to a halt, but she remained afloat. Damaged by the rough landing and taking on water, the PBY still managed to taxi around while the copilot, Ensign Morgan F. Hensley, reached from the plane’s port blister to pluck in swimmers.
Passing by groups of survivors who appeared able to endure a few more hours, Marks sought out the most desperate. André Sospizio heard the pilot explain that help was on the way and to remain in the water if possible. Sospizio obeyed, although he was only a few feet from the plane, and soon had a life raft to himself as others went aboard the PBY.
By midnight Lieutenant Marks had collected fifty-six survivors. Soon they had kicked holes in the wings and fuselage of the overcrowded seaplane. In a short time the sixteen gallons of drinking water aboard the craft had been consumed.
At 9:30 P.M. the Doyle was still sixty miles from the area. Despite the threat of enemy submarines, Commander Claytor ordered a twenty-four-inch searchlight turned on. Pointed to the sky, the beacon became literally a ray of hope to those awaiting rescue.
Although there were visible signs of coming rescue, the survivors continued to hallucinate. As Seaman Henry McKlin and those around him went through their fifth night clinging to their floater net, the young seaman decided to “go below deck” where he could see coffee brewing in one of the ship’s large urns. Fortunately for McKlin, his close friend Sam Lopetz was at hand to slap him back to reality and point out the light shining from the Doyle . “There’s a boat out there with a spotlight. They’re going to get us.” Like so many others, McKlin credits a fellow shipmate with saving his life.
Shortly after midnight on Thursday the rescue ships reached the survivors. After four full days in the water, a total of ninety-six hours, the pitifully small number who remained were beginning to be rescued.
Scanning the sea with searchlights and putting out whaleboats to comb the area, the Doyle began picking up men suffering from blindness, pneumonia, shark bites, and acute dehydration; their bodies were covered with immersion ulcers, and in some cases the flesh was so badly burned by sun and flame that it fell away in the rescuers’ hands.
At approximately 4:00 A.M. on Friday, August 3, the Doyle located Dr. Haynes’s group of survivors. The men stared in silence as a searchlight shone on them; most were unable to comprehend what was happening. A naked sailor called to an officer on the bridge, “Y-you-you got any drinkin’ water aboard?” When told there was plenty, the disbelieving seaman asked, “You sure you got water—you ain’t foolin’ me?” Assured he could have all he could drink, the man concluded, “If you ain’t got no drinkin’ water just shove off and leave us alone.” After persuading the sailor to come aboard, the doctor reported to Commander Claytor, “This is all that is left of the Indianapolis .” Claytor was stunned.