- Historic Sites
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
With communications knocked out, orders from the bridge had to be sent by messenger. Most men had reported to their battle stations or gone topside with the initial blasts. Many had to abandon ship, however, before being given the order to do so. Seaman Richard P. Thelen did not have to leave the ship. “The ship left me,” he recalls. Sleeping topside near the number-one turret, Thelen could see immediately that the Indianapolis had been dealt a mortal blow. While he and other shipmates quickly donned kapok life jackets, the cruiser began turning nose-down into the sea. Cutting loose life rafts and throwing them over the side, Thelen and those about him felt water swirling first around their ankles and then their knees. Men near the bow were the first to be forced off the ship.
Other officers felt the ship was sinking and, with no way of communicating with the bridge, decided on their own authority to give the order to abandon ship. Seaman Robert M. McGuiggan was nearly rolled out of his hammock by the shock of the explosions. Rushing to his gun position sixty feet away, McGuiggan and others were issued life jackets at their battle station. Stationed aft, where damage was least visible, he thought the ship could be saved. But the cruiser quickly listed to almost forty-five degrees. Life rafts nearby could not be cut loose, and several men attempting to free one of the cruiser’s two 26-foot motor whaleboats were killed when the ship lurched to starboard at an even greater angle and the lifeboat crushed them against the deckhouse. Ordered by the battery officer of his antiaircraft gun to abandon ship, McGuiggan and other crew members walked down the vessel’s keel and jumped into the water. Not all of them made it. Seaman McGuiggan saw more than one shipmate mangled in the spinning blades of the number-three screw. No message had reached the engine room to cut power.
The lack of communications increased the chaos. At some stations officers and enlisted men took it upon themselves to issue the men kapok jackets and give the order to abandon ship; at others it was a different story. One seaman guarded two stacks of four life rafts with a .45 automatic, decreeing they be left alone until official word came to abandon ship. Men on the starboard side, however, needed no order; as the ship rolled over, they were pitched into the sea.
Crew members above deck when the torpedoes hit were better off than those below. Pitched from his bunk onto his desk by the first explosion, Lieutenant Commander Lewis L. Haynes, ship’s medical officer, got to his feet only to be knocked down when the second torpedo burst beneath him. Everywhere there was smoke and flame; the doctor could hear his hands sizzle as they touched the burning deck. Clad in pajamas, he rose and stumbled aft toward a wardroom already filled with acrid smoke. As he sank into an armchair, gasping for breath, the doctor heard a voice cry, “My God, I’m fainting,” and a body fell across him. Realizing he too would soon be overcome, Dr. Haynes heard someone shouting, “Open a port! Open a port!” and forced himself up to grope for a porthole. His hands were too badly burned to force the catch, but he finally discovered an open one and thrust his head through to suck in the fresh air. A rope dangling from a floater net above him slapped against his face. Desite the agonizing pain in his hands, Haynes climbed overhand up to the fo’c’sle deck. Hearing the cry of “Doctor!” from the quarterdeck, he picked his way toward it through the shambles topside. He could see that the cruiser’s bow was gone and that the crippled vessel was dipping lower and lower to starboard.
Dr. Haynes heard someone shout, “Open a port!” His hands were too badly burned to force the catch, but finally he discovered one open.
Arriving in the port hangar, the doctor found thirty badly burned men being treated by Chief Pharmacist’s Mate John A. Schueck. As the ranks of the injured continued to swell—many suffering from burns caused by the exploding aviation fuel—the doctor and pharmacist’s mate could do little more than inject morphine into those “most crazed with pain.” When a sailor arrived with kapok jackets for the wounded, one horribly burned seaman, folds of skin hanging from his arms, pleaded, “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch my arms, doc! Please don’t!” Haynes ignored the pleas, tying the life jacket on. Others screamed in agony as jackets were put around them.
Like Haynes, Ensign John Woolston had to crawl out a porthole to escape the inferno below, and other officers were also burned severely in their quarters just above where the second torpedo hit. Lieutenant Richard B. Redmayne scorched his hands after being thrown to the deck by the blast, while Lieutenant McKissick, wrapping a wet towel about his face to avoid being overcome by smoke and flames, burned his hands climbing a ladder to get above deck.