- 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
During the night another plane flew overhead. Captain McVay and others in the rafts with flares fired them into the darkness. Above them Captain Richard G. LeFrancis, piloting an Army Air Force C-54, saw the flares but thought they were star shells, tracers, and heavy gunfire. After landing at Guam the pilot reported to his superiors that he had seen a naval action involving three ships. He was told, “If it was a naval action, the Navy [knows] about it.” Incredibly this attitude was not unusual; naval battles were not the concern of the Army Air Force. Thus the survivors of the Indianapolis were seen but not seen. If only a Navy plane had sighted the flares, a tremendous number of lives could have been saved.
With the dawning of Tuesday morning, the groups of survivors were smaller still. Despite the efforts of those who patrolled groups looking for strays, some had drifted away during the night. Many more had died of their wounds, while others had been taken by sharks, which appeared most often at night or in early morning.
Tuesday brought a calmer sea and still hotter sun. In the water for more than thirty-six hours, the men were exhausted. Thirst obsessed everyone.
“Doctor, if I hold this water in my hands to the sun and evaporate it a bit, will it be safe to drink?” a man asked Dr. Haynes.
“No, son, that will only make it more salty. You must not drink.”
Tuesday, they hoped, would at least bring the search planes; surely they would be missed after not arriving at Leyte. But no planes flew overhead. As the day progressed, hopes grew dimmer.
The kapok jackets were becoming increasingly waterlogged. Dr. Haynes remembered they were designed to hold a man in the water for only forty-eight hours. As time went by, chins sank closer and closer to the surface. Some men had left the ship with rubber life belts strapped around their waists rather than life jackets. The belts were old, and the deteriorating effect of the fuel oil caused them to rupture and deflate. Many of the panic-stricken men were able to don a kapok jacket recovered from a dead shipmate, and Dr. Haynes recalls one man in his group, who was labeled a misfit before the sinking, taking it upon himself to help those desperate sailors find a jacket to wear.
Although some of the men drifting on the rafts had a smattering of rations—a few malted-milk tablets, biscuits, or Spam—no one had any drinking water. On Tuesday the hallucinations began. Some aboard the rafts wanted to “go below deck” for some milk or take a swim with the Hollywood beauties they saw nearby.
Despite warnings from Dr. Haynes and others, some thirst-crazed swimmers gave in to the temptation to drink the sparkling clear water surrounding them. The saline solution soon brought on severe diarrhea, which in turn caused further dehydration and an even greater craving to drink. The vicious cycle brought on acute dehydration and delirium. “Those who drank became maniacal and thrashed violently,” said Haynes, “until the victims became comatose and drowned.” Even some who did not drink the water lost their lives struggling to save their raving shipmates.
As Tuesday drew to a close, the strain on the men was painfully evident. Bickering started over whose turn it was to be on board the rafts, where it was possible to rest a bit and not worry about sharks.
By the evening of the second day photophobia from the blinding sun and infections caused by salt water and fuel oil had rendered nearly all the swimmers blind. Skin exposed to the sun had been terribly burned, and even the lifesaving kapok jackets added to the misery: they rubbed the men’s flesh raw, and soon the swimmers were covered with immersion ulcers.
After nearly forty-eight hours in the water, their bodies drained by exhaustion and dehydration, the men faced a third night in the sea. Not long after sunset they were plagued by severe chills. In André Sospizio’s group men fought to get aboard the single raft. He remembers the loud chattering of teeth as chills wracked their bodies. Sospizio put a rope between his teeth, which he found he had nearly chewed through by daybreak. As for the rest of the night: “It was so awful, I don’t even want to talk about it.”
Everywhere the night was one of incomprehensible horror. “High fever gripped our shaking bodies,” said Dr. Haynes. “It consumed our reason, and in a little while we became a mass of delirious, screaming men.” Men who only a short time before had aided and supported their shipmates now saw the oil-covered unrecognizable beings beside them as the enemy returned to finish the kill.
The hallucinations began on Tuesday. Some wanted to “go below deck” for milk or take a swim with the Hollywood beauties they saw nearby.
“There’s a Jap here! He’s trying to kill me!”
“There’s Japs on this line!”
“There he goes! Get the Jap! Kill him!”