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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
Fights broke out, and more than one man was stabbed by others who had knives.
When Dr. Haynes attempted to calm the ravings of the wildest men, two of them thrust him under the water, and he had to fight his way to the surface. While the shrieking and babbling continued, the ship’s doctor swam away from his group for safety.
“They weren’t themselves,” Donald McCaIl, then a seaman first class, remembers. Among his group he heard the cries, “He’s a Jap! There’s a Jap!” as men attacked each other. He, too, swam away from his group.
With dawn the men began their third day in the water. It was Wednesday, August 1. Again the sea was like glass, with a merciless sun overhead. After more than fifty hours in the water, most men spoke gibberish or hallucinated.
There was no more talk of rescue. Most has passed from reality into a world of delusions. Seaman Thelen described his mental condition as a semiconscious state, like coming out of anaesthesia. The all-pervading thought was the need for water.
“Doc, if I dive down real deep will the water be less salty?” a sailor asked Dr. Haynes. The doctor had barely answered when another seaman shouted to him: “I’ve found her! The ship hasn’t really sunk! She’s right beneath the surface! I swear she is!” Others gathered around him. The seaman explained how the ship’s fountains, called scuttlebutts, still worked and poured forth fresh water.
“I dove down and turned on the scuttlebutt. Honest, I did—and it works. When you drink from it, the water is fresh. Fresh water, men! Fresh water!”
While many took off their life jackets to dive down to the ship, Haynes himself saw the vessel. Yet some instinct prevented him from following. But the doctor and others who were still lucid could not dissuade many who dived under for a lethal drink. Another sailor who still had his wits listened to enthusiastic shipmates describing how they had dived down to the ship and “had a good drink.” Donald McCaIl heard but did not believe; trying to stay calm was his plan for survival, and he had not yet begun to hallucinate. Later McCaIl watched those men die in the agony of saltwater poisoning.
The mass hallucinations continued throughout Wednesday. Richard Thelen saw some around him remove their kapok jackets and begin swimming for the “island.” This particular fantasy affected many. One sailor complained to Dr. Haynes of a stomach ache caused by drinking too much tomato juice while on the island. Others saw Seabees on the island drinking tomato juice. Dozens of men swam off in the direction given to them by those who had “visited” the island.
Dr. Haynes came upon a long line of men waiting patiently to take their turn in a one-room hotel “up ahead.” The doctor was urged to get in line, for each man was allowed only fifteen minutes in the sack.
While many men found the Indianapolis or went to a mythical island, others engaged in individual fantasies. Yeoman Victor R. Buckett spent all day Wednesday in a store filled with watermelons where he could eat all he wanted. Lieutenant John Reid sought to retrieve his car keys in order to drive to New Hampshire for some cold milk. Some seamen decided not to wait for rescue any longer; they would simply swim the five hundred and fifty miles to Leyte.
Everywhere men died. They died from the salt water they drank, from the sharks, from exhaustion, exposure, and dehydration—and from being dragged under by their own waterlogged life jackets. By Wednesday morning most men had only their heads above water. As the day progressed, men watched in horror as a few struggled to free themselves after their jackets had reached the saturation point. But more than once the knots were swollen and a seaman fatally trapped.
Some crew members knowingly took their own lives. Thinking rescue would never come, they gave up all resistance. “They haven’t missed us … let’s get it over with in a hurry. ” Electrician’s Mate Sospizio saw many allow themselves to die. One shipmate approached him saying, “I can’t take this,” and beseeched Sospizio to take his wallet and go to his father to explain what happened. The seaman also asked the electrician’s mate to marry his sister. Sospizio tied the man on a line attached to a raft and encouraged him to hang on. The next morning, however, the sailor was gone.
As many succumbed to the ordeal, some found extraordinary reserves of strength and hope. Those with families and other responsibilities struggled to endure. Officers and enlisted men alike expended energy they could have reserved for their own survival encouraging and helping others. When someone died nearby, Dr. Haynes would lead others in the Lord’s Prayer before removing the kapok jacket and allowing the body to sink slowly into the water.