- 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
Yet others abaft and distant from the tremendous damage in the bow and amidships were able to escape safely and even to take time for last-minute niceties. One sailor packed a ditty bag with valuable possessions; another continued clipping his toenails; a third finished writing a letter and sealed it in an envelope. Electrician’s Mate André Sospizio, after helping burn victims coming from the forward deck, heard a verbal order to abandon ship and immediately went to his quarters. Determined to prepare himself properly, Sospizio retrieved six hundred dollars in cash, a pair of flashlights, and two lifejackets. He swallowed a sandwich whole, washing it down with as much water as he could consume; then, believing a can of lard would be valuable in the sea, he made his way to the galley. However, an internal explosion rocked the cruiser, showering the electrician’s mate with cans. Deciding at last that it was time to leave, Sospizio finally went overboard.
With the stricken vessel in its final agony, crewmen struggled to cut loose life rafts and kapok jackets. Seaman Louis P. Bitonti was thrown from his bunk by the torpedo blasts but quickly put on clothes and went above to cut loose bags of life jackets and pass them out to his shipmates. Seaman Henry T. McKlin and others around him threw jackets, rafts, and kegs of fresh water overboard, hoping shipmates could retrieve and use them. Dr. Haynes saw several sailors vainly fighting against the ship’s severe list to release life rafts. Seeing men going over the side without life jackets, Captain McVay ordered two seamen to free floater nets stored near the bridge. But the sailors couldn’t do it. In the end only a dozen life rafts and six floater nets were released from the cruiser before she went down.
From the beginning the captain’s prime concern had been to send out a distress signal. When no one returned from the radio shack, the skipper went himself. But before he got there, the ship rolled over to a full ninety-degree list. Clinging to lifelines from the vertical communications deck, McVay pulled himself up to one of the bulkheads and hung there, looking down at the massive, red-painted bottom of the ship. In a few seconds the vessel dipped farther into the water, and Captain McVay was washed into the sea.
The men near the bow and on the starboard side of the cruiser slid or were swept off. Seaman McKlin found that sliding down the oil-covered deck and over the side into the water was similar to going down a ski slope. Men stationed on the port side had to walk onto the keel and then jump clear of the ship’s hull; several were caught in the screws. Many leaped into the water in total darkness, but Electrician’s Mate Sospizio waited until the moon came into view for a few seconds before jumping clear. Most of the men who had been in the cruiser’s gang showers when the torpedoes struck had no choice but to go into the water naked. Some seamen left the ship clad only in underclothes; a supply officer abandoned ship with a bathrobe and a bottle of Scotch.
Of the ship’s company of 1,196 men, approximately 850 were able to get clear before she sank. Spread out over thousands of yards because the cruiser continued moving after she was hit, many sailors did not see the ship go down. But the majority of her crew left the vessel at the very last and saw the ship’s stern rise vertically a hundred feet from the water before plunging down. Many, including Captain McVay, thought the towering hulk would fall on them, but she did not; the cruiser vanished in a wisp of smoke. As the ship slid under, many heard a sound they would never forget: the screams of their shipmates inside the hull.
The cruiser had sunk in only thirteen minutes. It was a little before midnight, Sunday, July 29, 1945.
The sea around the men was covered with thick fuel oil from the ship’s tanks; it burned their eyes, clogged their nostrils, and choked their throats. Unable to swim away from this slick area of the sea and lashed by twelve-foot swells, the men could not avoid swallowing water and oil. Soon there was violent retching throughout the scattered groups, and as men vomited, the hateful scum kept splashing into their mouths.
While most of the sailors had kapok jackets, some swam unaided. Soon those more fortunate paired off with their helpless shipmates. For the most part the men were dazed and quiet, though when a few wondered aloud if an SOS had been transmitted, a radioman near Dr. Haynes shook his head. The medical officer began to wonder how long the men would have to remain in the water before they were rescued.