- 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
One seaman guarded two stacks of four life rafts with a .45 automatic. Nobody could go near one, he said, until he got official word to abandon ship.
At first most men were chiefly afraid of being left alone. They gathered into groups, some of only a few dozen sailors, but three containing more than a hundred. By far the largest group was made up of the men who were last to leave the ship, among them Dr. Haynes, the ship’s chaplain, Father T. M. Conway, and the assistant medical officer, Lieutenant Melvin W. Modisher. Haynes estimated that there were between three and four hundred men around him. Although this group had no rafts, a cork life ring with a long line attached was found. Soon one hundred and fifty men had gathered about it. A severely injured sailor was placed across the ring, and for no apparent reason the lifeline slowly coiled itself around his resting place. Two officers swam around the group, preventing those who fell asleep from drifting away. Commander Lipski, his eyes burnt to a crisp and the flesh on his hands seared to the tendons, was held above the salt water and oil by a dozen men.
The cries of the wounded were everywhere. Seaman Robert McGuiggan, with another group of men, spent the entire night beside his division officer, who had been burnt beyond recognition when the aviation fuel ignited. Sailors like him watched helplessly as their comrades endured the effects of the salt water on their already hideous wounds. By daybreak, however, death had freed most of the wounded from their suffering.
While men in the largest group of survivors were compelled to hang onto the lifeline or drift alone in their kapok jackets, several smaller groups gathered around floater nets released before the cruiser sank. Each of these nets had buoyant blocks of canvas-covered balsa wood attached around the edge. Seaman McGuiggan and one hundred and fifteen shipmates collected in a double circle around one floater net. The sailors put the wounded in the center to give them a chance to rest, then gave themselves more support by tying their life jackets to each other and to the net.
Electrician’s Mate Sospizio found himself in a group of nearly one hundred and forty men gathered around a single raft and floater net. The canvas-covered rafts were designed to hold sixteen men. The wounded went on the raft while those in better condition clung to its sides or to the floater net.
Seaman Henry McKlin and his close friend Seaman Sam Lopetz gathered with another dozen sailors around a small net. There, as nearly everywhere, what little talk there was centered around the hope that a distress signal had been transmitted. One seaman maintained that this was improbable, since all power had been knocked out; but another insisted that batteries existed for just such an emergency. Seaman McKlin and others chose to put their faith in the latter’s logic; hope was as necessary as a kapok jacket.
While most men had only a jacket or net, a few were luckier. A sailor had pulled Seaman Louis Bitonti to the surface by the hair after he jumped from the ship. As Bitonti and four others clung to a floater net, a raft appeared not far away. The men swam to the small craft and hoisted each other aboard.
Captain McVay, swimming away from the ship as she went down, soon came upon two empty life rafts. Shortly after climbing into one, the skipper helped a sailor haul in two seamen nearly overcome with oil and salt water. Several hours later they spotted another raft containing five men, and McVay ordered the three tied together. Paddles, rations, flares, and other emergency gear were secured to the rafts, and this offered some solace. At this point Captain McVay believed he and the nine other men were the only survivors of the Indianapolis .
Another group of four rafts and nineteen men, hundreds of yards away from McVay, was commanded by Ensign Ross Rogers. Those in the rafts were unable to see the vast majority of swimmers. Because a man low in the water can see very little, the twelvefoot swells diminished the likelihood of discovery. In addition nearly all the survivors were partially or totally blinded by the fuel oil. By daybreak the possibility of those in the rafts sighting the large groups of swimmers had vanished: the swimmers were carried in a southwesterly direction by the current, while the men on rafts were sent to the northeast by a ten-knot wind.
As Monday morning dawned clear and sunny, most groups found their ranks thinner. Some sixty men had died during the first night; their life jackets were removed and their bodies allowed to slip away. Many were happy to see the sun rise, but with no breeze the sea was calm and soon the day became intolerably hot. The rays of the sun reflecting on the fuel oil created a new affliction: photophobia. Dr. Haynes remembered it as worse than snow blindness. Even when men closed their eyes, they still felt “two hot balls of fire” burning through their eyelids.