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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
Although Hashimoto could make out the distant outline of a ship, he was unable to determine the type of vessel. At first the submariner believed it might be a destroyer making a depth-charge run, since it was sailing toward the 1-58. When the approaching ship slowly veered away from the submarine, however, the Japanese commander decided he could easily sink it. Now the Japanese skipper believed he had either a cruiser or battleship of the Idaho class in his sights.
On board the Indianapolis , no telltale “blip” appeared on the radar screen; the I-58’s periscope did not protrude far enough above the surface to be detected by the cruiser’s main antisubmarine defense. Scanning the horizon for the escorts he believed must be following such a large ship, Hashimoto gave his orders. Despite the pleas of his kaiten crews that they be used, the captain decided on conventional torpedoes. He waited until the vessel was fifteen hundred yards away and then fired a spread of six torpedoes. The projectiles hurtled toward the unsuspecting ship at a speed of fortyeight knots, each carrying a lethal 1,210-pound explosive charge.
The stricken cruiser quickly listed to almost forty-five degrees. Some officers, cut off from the bridge, decided on their own to abandon ship.
Hashimoto saw the dark sky erupt as huge columns of water and bright red flames enveloped the cruiser’s numberone turret, followed by another explosion amidships. Then a final column of water rose from the number-two turret and appeared to cover the entire ship. “A hit, a hit!” Hashimoto shouted as crew members danced jubilantly. Several secondary explosions followed, resounding enough to make the submarine’s crew believe they were being depth-charged.
The first blast shook the Indianapolis at 11:35 P.M. The tremendous explosion sent a column of water rising higher than the bridge; seconds later the next burst closer to the bridge. Because of the explosions that followed, it is unclear whether two or three torpedoes struck the vessel; some survivors remembered three initial blasts, others only two.
Two would have been enough. The first blew off the ship’s bow forty feet back to the forward turret, while the second knocked out the vessel’s power center, touched off an ammunition magazine and supply of aviation fuel, and tore away great sections of the cruiser’s bottom. Everywhere on board men found the ship’s communication system dead. With the bridge unable to contact the engine room, the cruiser continued plowing ahead at seventeen knots, scooping up tons of seawater through the gaping hole forward.
As secondary explosions rocked the vessel, the Indianapolis began listing to starboard. On the bridge the officer of the deck, John I. Orr, ordered a coxswain to ‘go below and pass the word, ‘All hands topside.’”
Thrown from his bunk by the second torpedo blast, Captain McVay scrambled to the bridge to receive a report from Lieutenant Orr. Although informed that communications were dead, the skipper’s first thought was to send a distress signal; he sent Orr below to relay the ship’s position and report its torpedoing. Returning to his emergency cabin for clothes, McVay ordered that additional damage reports be carried by runners. When the captain made his way back to the bridge, dressing as he went, he received his first report from Lieutenant Commander K. C. “Casey” Moore. Commander Moore explained that most forward compartments were flooding quickly, then asked the dread question, “Do you want to abandon ship?”
Captain McVay believed the vessel’s list was still slight and that she could possibly be saved. He ordered Moore to make a further check below. The commander obeyed—and was never seen again. With no word yet from Radio Shack I, McVay ordered Commander John H. Janney to the ship’s communications center to make certain a message was sent. Janney, too, disappeared.
Radio I, containing the ship’s receivers, was a shambles after the second hit. “We can neither send nor receive—no power,” watch officer Lieutenant Dave Driscoll reported to the ship’s radio officer, Lieutenant N. P. Hill. Despite this, Hill ordered the transmitters warmed up and a distress signal sent. Although the message was dutifully tapped out on the brass keys, no one believed the signal was transmitted.
After sending Janney to Radio I, Captain McVay spoke with Commander Joseph A. Flynn, just up the ladder from below deck. Flynn’s advice: abandon ship. He told McVay that the bow was down and the ship taking water fast, with extensive damage elsewhere. Unable to see from the bridge because of flames and smoke, the captain agreed with his trusted subordinate. “Okay, pass the word to abandon ship.”