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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
A new terror was added to the group containing Seaman McGuiggan. With daylight men could see flotsam about them: ammunition cans, a toilet seat, and some bits of food. A seaman near McGuiggan left the group, swimming toward a crate of potatoes nearby. The sailor never reached his destination. As men stared in horror, a shark attacked their shipmate, and he disappeared.
Sharks were lurking everywhere. Dr. Haynes’s group discovered that as long as the men remained grouped together, the sharks would not attack. Yet every group’s experience with the predators was different. In one group every sailor splashed and flailed the water to frighten the attackers away; in another the decision was made to remain perfectly still and quiet. Seaman Donald McCall’s common sense as a fisherman told him to remain motionless whenever a shark approached. He remembers many coming so close he could have reached out and touched them, but he was never once harmed.
Seaman Henry McKlin’s fourteenman group also chose to remain quiet and still. Clinging to their floater net, with one knife their sole defense, the seamen determined the weapon would be passed to the man closest to the shark if one approached. When McKlin saw a dorsal fin slicing toward him, he held his breath; none of his companions uttered a sound. The twelve-foot-long intruder came close but left the sailors unmolested.
Electrician’s Mate Sospizio had drifted away from his group when he saw a shark approach and then dive, apparently intending to come up under him. Sospizio swam toward the group as the seamen beat the water to frighten the attacker away. He never has fully understood how he did it, but Sospizio was in the midst of his companions before the shark could get him.
Many crew members were not so fortunate. Seaman Richard Thelen remembers seeing some twenty-five men attacked, while, in the largest group, Dr. Haynes eventually counted eighty-eight of the dead mutilated by the creatures. A few seamen actually survived attacks. One sailor swam up to Seaman McKlin, showing him the wound he received from a shark. McKlin remembers the huge pieshaped gash in the man’s side. The sailor later swam away, never to be seen again.
Lone swimmers seemed to be most susceptible to the sharks. A man would disappear with a startled cry in the midst of thrashing water. One sailor lost both his legs to a shark and, suddenly top-heavy, turned upside down in the water to drown. Seaman Joseph Dronet saw several shipmates snatched screaming from their floater net and pulled beneath the surface. Dronet remained motionless when the attackers approached, and he lived.
The threat of being devoured by sharks was only one misery. Under the sun’s blinding rays, men tore strips of cloth from their scant clothing to bind their eyes or shield their heads. Seaman McGuiggan ripped his pants legs off to cover the head of a naked sailor delirious from the sun. On board the rafts men soon returned to the water to avoid the intense heat. The hated diesel oil now was appreciated as a sunscreen. Dr. Haynes recalled the tropical sun failing “to burn through the fuel oil coating our bodies. ”
While most soon suffered greatly from sunburn—eyelids swollen, lips puffed and cracked—the most urgent problem was thirst. Having retched out much of their body fluids, the men suffered from dehydration. But thanks to repeated warnings in training, no one had yet been tempted to drink salt water.
On that first day American patrol planes passed directly overhead. One sailor shouted, “Blind aviators, mates! Just a bunch of blind aviators!”
Despite sharks, thirst, and sunburn, most men expected rescue that first day in the water. Many still believed a distress signal had been sent. Those who knew that no SOS was sent nevertheless felt help would be forthcoming when the cruiser was missed on Tuesday morning.
In fact, on that first day U.S. patrol planes did pass directly over the survivors. Flying at more than a thousand feet and by instrument, not eyesight, the pilots and crew never noticed the frantic men in the water. One sailor shouted, “Blind aviators, mates! Just a bunch of blind aviators!” Soon others picked up the call, which lifted their spirits slightly. But the stark reality was inescapable; no one had seen them, and no one appeared to be looking for them.
That Monday evening most men were glad to see the sun go down, but the choppy sea made sleep impossible, and men clung to each other, fearful of becoming separated.