- 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
On board his group of rafts, Captain McVay also led seamen in the Lord’s Prayer each evening. Everywhere men prayed, seeking deliverance from their living hell. Despite the dead and dying around them, Dr. Haynes recalled, “We [had] not lost everything. To the contrary, we … found one comfort—a strong belief to which we could cling. God seemed very close.” The ship’s doctor attributed much of their faith to the Indianapolis ’s young chaplain. Although not physically a strong man, Father Conway swam from “one group to another to pray with the men. ” The encouragement and good will he offered appeared limitless. Yet, like so many others giving help and solicitude, the ship’s chaplain literally laid down his life for those around him. He died delirious Wednesday night. Captain Edward L. Park, commander of the cruiser’s Marine detachment, also slipped beneath the surface that night after wearing himself out trying to hold his group together.
The surviving men endured Wednesday night, their fourth evening in the water, with chills, fever, and still more delirium. While some in rafts fared slightly better because of a few rations, those men in the three rafts led by Lieutenant Redmayne were piled on top of each other to such a degree that some were smothered.
Thursday morning, August 2: For most the nightmare had ended. In the largest group, fewer than one hundred of the original three hundred and fifty seamen were alive. That morning, a quartermaster led twenty-five men in an attempt to swim to Leyte. A few tried to dissuade them, but they swam away. The rest waited for the end. Only by bumping into a sailor to see if he opened his eyes could Dr. Haynes determine who still lived.
Shortly after 11:00 A.M. they heard a plane overhead. Dr. Haynes and three others prayed they were not suffering another “tortuous dream.” Overhead, Lieutenant W. Charles Gwinn, U.S.N., and two crew members of his PV-1 Ventura, attempting to repair an antenna in the rear of the plane, noticed an oil slick on the water. Believing he might have spotted an enemy sub, Gwinn turned the Ventura as the crew readied for action. Diving to one thousand feet, Lieutenant Gwinn saw heads bobbing in the water and men feebly waving and splashing. At last the crew of the Indianapolis had been found. It was 12:05 P.M. , August 2, more than eightyfour hours after the cruiser had gone down.
As the Ventura circled, some of the swimmers motioned for drinking water. Soon life jackets and cans of water tumbled from the aircraft, and the seamen mustered their remaining strength to swim to the jackets and recover the cans—which, they found, had burst after hitting the surface. Continuing to circle, Gwinn and his crew counted more and more men in the water. Their first message to the base at Peleliu reporting the sighting was garbled by the plane’s faulty antenna. However, as the Ventura continued sending reports, it became apparent something big was under way. At 12:40 P.M. a huge amphibious PBY commanded by Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks took off from Peleliu carrying a full load of survival gear.
While Gwinn continued circling, other planes arrived. A PBM flew overhead dropping three life rafts and radioing Guam about the men in the water. Another Navy Ventura relieved Gwinn, who was low on fuel, at about 2:15 P.M. While Lieutenant Marks flew north, he was contacted by the destroyer escort Cecil J. Doyle . Informed by Marks of the situation, Lieutenant Commander W. Graham Claytor decided not to wait for orders but changed course and steamed full speed toward the survivors. By late afternoon, seven vessels were sailing to the rescue.
Beneath the planes the survivors’ reactions were much alike; those still aware knew rescue was now at hand and sought desperately to hang on, some praying, “God, give us strength.” Electrician’s Mate Sospizio remembers seeing Gwinn’s plane overhead and crying out, “I don’t believe it … it’s an angel!”
With a single knife to defend themselves, the seamen would pass the weapon to the man nearest the shark. McKlin saw a dorsal fin slice toward him.
As life rafts, kapok jackets, and other survival gear dropped from the planes, the men attempted to retrieve the precious material. Rescue was certain now, but another twenty-four hours would pass before naval vessels could pluck the survivors from the sea, and many died in those last hours.
Seaman Robert McGuiggan and three other shipmates left their floater net and swam to a life raft dropped nearby. McGuiggan hoisted himself in and looked back to see dorsal fins all around and his companions gone. Seamen who were pulling shipmates aboard their rafts had them snatched from their hands by sharks.
Some could not grasp what was happening around them. One sailor believed the Japanese were about to take them prisoner; another thought the survival gear was plane parts being dropped so the men could assemble their own rescue craft.