August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
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?
On July 16, 1945, the heavy cruiser Indianapolis departed the California coast for the Pacific island of Tinian. On board was a heavily guarded top-secret cargo destined to end the war. Only hours before the Indianapolis began her high-speed journey, the first successful atomic detonation had ushered in the nuclear age. The cruiser itself carried vital elements of the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima. Even Captain Charles B. McVay III, in command since November 1944, did not know the contents of his mysterious shipment. He had been assured, however, that every hour he cut from travel time would shorten the war. Captain McVay took this admonition seriously, and the vessel made the five-thousand-mile voyage in only ten days.
After delivering her lethal cargo to the American base at Tinian on July 26, the Indianapolis proceeded to Guam and prepared for the final leg of her voyage across the Pacific to the Philippine island of Leyte. There the ship was to complete two weeks of training in preparation for joining Naval Task Force 95 at Okinawa, where plans were under way for the expected invasion of Honshū in November of 1945.
While at Guam, Captain McVay inquired about an escort for his ship to the Philippines; naval headquarters replied that none was needed. The response was not considered unusual: the Indianapolis was a fast cruiser and had traveled alone before; she would be sailing through a rear area where danger was considered minimal; and in any event, escort vessels were scarce, due to heavy kamikaze attacks at Okinawa and the extensive preparations for the invasion of Japan. On the other hand, the cruiser had no sonar gear to detect enemy submarines; she had to rely solely on radar and lookouts. And during a recent inspection, Admiral Raymond Spruance had warned that were the ship torpedoed, her “topheaviness” would make her “sink in short order.” The Indianapolis left Guam on July 28. She was due to dock at Leyte July 31.
On Sunday evening, July 29, the Indianapolis was traveling at seventeen knots through the Philippine Sea, thirty-nine hours out of Guam. The day had been overcast, and by evening the sea had become rough. Just before 8:00 P.M. Captain McVay instructed the officer of the deck, Lieutenant Charles B. McKissick, to cease the zigzag course the ship was maintaining, because of poor visibility. Although zigzagging was of dubious value—many submariners claimed a ship could be sunk despite it—standing fleet orders specified that a ship should zigzag during good visibility. Usually, zigzagging ended at twilight “except on clear nights and in bright moonlight.” Lieutenant McKissick thought nothing unusual of the captain’s order; he too believed visibility was limited. When Mc Vay retired to his emergency bunk twenty feet from the bridge at 11:00 P.M. , he noted that visibility was still poor despite the moonrise. Nevertheless, he issued orders that officers could resume zigzagging at their own discretion and were to wake him if there were any weather changes.
Aboard the Indianapolis that torrid Sunday evening, most crew members slept on deck. Commissioned in 1932, the cruiser originally had been intended for service in the Atlantic. Therefore, the ship did not have air conditioning as did other vessels in the Pacific, and many crew members preferred a hammock or blanket above deck to their sweltering quarters below.
By 11:30 P.M. individual watches began to change throughout the ship, some men heading above deck or below, some making for the showers before turning in. Commander Stanley W. Lipski replaced Lieutenant McKissick as officer of the deck. The cruiser sailed on into the night on true course, with more than one hundred men on watch, while officers on the bridge remarked on the lack of visibility.
That same Sunday evening Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, skipper of the Japanese submarine I-58, decided visibility had so deteriorated by 7:00 P.M. that his vessel could not continue on the surface. Hoping for improved conditions at moonrise, Hashimoto raised his periscope at 10:00 P.M. , but his view “was pitch black,” and the Japanese commander, like his American counterpart, retired to his bunk for a nap. Returning to the conning tower at 11:00 P.M. , Hashimoto found the visibility improved; in his own words he “could almost see the horizon.” Ordering the 1-58 to surface and bringing his crew to battle stations, the Japanese skipper made for the bridge just in time to hear his navigator exclaim, “Bearing red 9-0 degrees, a possible enemy ship. ” Despite the heavily overcast sky, Hashimoto could see the black spot on the horizon silhouetted by one of the intermittent rays of moonlight. The Japanese immediately ordered his vessel to dive.KeepKeeping close watch on his target through the periscope, Commander Hashimoto ordered torpedo tubes and his one-man human torpedoes, called kaitens , readied for firing. The time was 11:08 P.M.
Although Hashimoto could make out the distant outline of a ship, he was unable to determine the type of vessel. At first the submariner believed it might be a destroyer making a depth-charge run, since it was sailing toward the 1-58. When the approaching ship slowly veered away from the submarine, however, the Japanese commander decided he could easily sink it. Now the Japanese skipper believed he had either a cruiser or battleship of the Idaho class in his sights.
On board the Indianapolis , no telltale “blip” appeared on the radar screen; the I-58’s periscope did not protrude far enough above the surface to be detected by the cruiser’s main antisubmarine defense. Scanning the horizon for the escorts he believed must be following such a large ship, Hashimoto gave his orders. Despite the pleas of his kaiten crews that they be used, the captain decided on conventional torpedoes. He waited until the vessel was fifteen hundred yards away and then fired a spread of six torpedoes. The projectiles hurtled toward the unsuspecting ship at a speed of fortyeight knots, each carrying a lethal 1,210-pound explosive charge.
Hashimoto saw the dark sky erupt as huge columns of water and bright red flames enveloped the cruiser’s numberone turret, followed by another explosion amidships. Then a final column of water rose from the number-two turret and appeared to cover the entire ship. “A hit, a hit!” Hashimoto shouted as crew members danced jubilantly. Several secondary explosions followed, resounding enough to make the submarine’s crew believe they were being depth-charged.
The first blast shook the Indianapolis at 11:35 P.M. The tremendous explosion sent a column of water rising higher than the bridge; seconds later the next burst closer to the bridge. Because of the explosions that followed, it is unclear whether two or three torpedoes struck the vessel; some survivors remembered three initial blasts, others only two.
Two would have been enough. The first blew off the ship’s bow forty feet back to the forward turret, while the second knocked out the vessel’s power center, touched off an ammunition magazine and supply of aviation fuel, and tore away great sections of the cruiser’s bottom. Everywhere on board men found the ship’s communication system dead. With the bridge unable to contact the engine room, the cruiser continued plowing ahead at seventeen knots, scooping up tons of seawater through the gaping hole forward.
As secondary explosions rocked the vessel, the Indianapolis began listing to starboard. On the bridge the officer of the deck, John I. Orr, ordered a coxswain to ‘go below and pass the word, ‘All hands topside.’”
Thrown from his bunk by the second torpedo blast, Captain McVay scrambled to the bridge to receive a report from Lieutenant Orr. Although informed that communications were dead, the skipper’s first thought was to send a distress signal; he sent Orr below to relay the ship’s position and report its torpedoing. Returning to his emergency cabin for clothes, McVay ordered that additional damage reports be carried by runners. When the captain made his way back to the bridge, dressing as he went, he received his first report from Lieutenant Commander K. C. “Casey” Moore. Commander Moore explained that most forward compartments were flooding quickly, then asked the dread question, “Do you want to abandon ship?”
Captain McVay believed the vessel’s list was still slight and that she could possibly be saved. He ordered Moore to make a further check below. The commander obeyed—and was never seen again. With no word yet from Radio Shack I, McVay ordered Commander John H. Janney to the ship’s communications center to make certain a message was sent. Janney, too, disappeared.
Radio I, containing the ship’s receivers, was a shambles after the second hit. “We can neither send nor receive—no power,” watch officer Lieutenant Dave Driscoll reported to the ship’s radio officer, Lieutenant N. P. Hill. Despite this, Hill ordered the transmitters warmed up and a distress signal sent. Although the message was dutifully tapped out on the brass keys, no one believed the signal was transmitted.
After sending Janney to Radio I, Captain McVay spoke with Commander Joseph A. Flynn, just up the ladder from below deck. Flynn’s advice: abandon ship. He told McVay that the bow was down and the ship taking water fast, with extensive damage elsewhere. Unable to see from the bridge because of flames and smoke, the captain agreed with his trusted subordinate. “Okay, pass the word to abandon ship.”
With communications knocked out, orders from the bridge had to be sent by messenger. Most men had reported to their battle stations or gone topside with the initial blasts. Many had to abandon ship, however, before being given the order to do so. Seaman Richard P. Thelen did not have to leave the ship. “The ship left me,” he recalls. Sleeping topside near the number-one turret, Thelen could see immediately that the Indianapolis had been dealt a mortal blow. While he and other shipmates quickly donned kapok life jackets, the cruiser began turning nose-down into the sea. Cutting loose life rafts and throwing them over the side, Thelen and those about him felt water swirling first around their ankles and then their knees. Men near the bow were the first to be forced off the ship.
Other officers felt the ship was sinking and, with no way of communicating with the bridge, decided on their own authority to give the order to abandon ship. Seaman Robert M. McGuiggan was nearly rolled out of his hammock by the shock of the explosions. Rushing to his gun position sixty feet away, McGuiggan and others were issued life jackets at their battle station. Stationed aft, where damage was least visible, he thought the ship could be saved. But the cruiser quickly listed to almost forty-five degrees. Life rafts nearby could not be cut loose, and several men attempting to free one of the cruiser’s two 26-foot motor whaleboats were killed when the ship lurched to starboard at an even greater angle and the lifeboat crushed them against the deckhouse. Ordered by the battery officer of his antiaircraft gun to abandon ship, McGuiggan and other crew members walked down the vessel’s keel and jumped into the water. Not all of them made it. Seaman McGuiggan saw more than one shipmate mangled in the spinning blades of the number-three screw. No message had reached the engine room to cut power.
The lack of communications increased the chaos. At some stations officers and enlisted men took it upon themselves to issue the men kapok jackets and give the order to abandon ship; at others it was a different story. One seaman guarded two stacks of four life rafts with a .45 automatic, decreeing they be left alone until official word came to abandon ship. Men on the starboard side, however, needed no order; as the ship rolled over, they were pitched into the sea.
Crew members above deck when the torpedoes hit were better off than those below. Pitched from his bunk onto his desk by the first explosion, Lieutenant Commander Lewis L. Haynes, ship’s medical officer, got to his feet only to be knocked down when the second torpedo burst beneath him. Everywhere there was smoke and flame; the doctor could hear his hands sizzle as they touched the burning deck. Clad in pajamas, he rose and stumbled aft toward a wardroom already filled with acrid smoke. As he sank into an armchair, gasping for breath, the doctor heard a voice cry, “My God, I’m fainting,” and a body fell across him. Realizing he too would soon be overcome, Dr. Haynes heard someone shouting, “Open a port! Open a port!” and forced himself up to grope for a porthole. His hands were too badly burned to force the catch, but he finally discovered an open one and thrust his head through to suck in the fresh air. A rope dangling from a floater net above him slapped against his face. Desite the agonizing pain in his hands, Haynes climbed overhand up to the fo’c’sle deck. Hearing the cry of “Doctor!” from the quarterdeck, he picked his way toward it through the shambles topside. He could see that the cruiser’s bow was gone and that the crippled vessel was dipping lower and lower to starboard.
Arriving in the port hangar, the doctor found thirty badly burned men being treated by Chief Pharmacist’s Mate John A. Schueck. As the ranks of the injured continued to swell—many suffering from burns caused by the exploding aviation fuel—the doctor and pharmacist’s mate could do little more than inject morphine into those “most crazed with pain.” When a sailor arrived with kapok jackets for the wounded, one horribly burned seaman, folds of skin hanging from his arms, pleaded, “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch my arms, doc! Please don’t!” Haynes ignored the pleas, tying the life jacket on. Others screamed in agony as jackets were put around them.
Like Haynes, Ensign John Woolston had to crawl out a porthole to escape the inferno below, and other officers were also burned severely in their quarters just above where the second torpedo hit. Lieutenant Richard B. Redmayne scorched his hands after being thrown to the deck by the blast, while Lieutenant McKissick, wrapping a wet towel about his face to avoid being overcome by smoke and flames, burned his hands climbing a ladder to get above deck.
Yet others abaft and distant from the tremendous damage in the bow and amidships were able to escape safely and even to take time for last-minute niceties. One sailor packed a ditty bag with valuable possessions; another continued clipping his toenails; a third finished writing a letter and sealed it in an envelope. Electrician’s Mate André Sospizio, after helping burn victims coming from the forward deck, heard a verbal order to abandon ship and immediately went to his quarters. Determined to prepare himself properly, Sospizio retrieved six hundred dollars in cash, a pair of flashlights, and two lifejackets. He swallowed a sandwich whole, washing it down with as much water as he could consume; then, believing a can of lard would be valuable in the sea, he made his way to the galley. However, an internal explosion rocked the cruiser, showering the electrician’s mate with cans. Deciding at last that it was time to leave, Sospizio finally went overboard.
With the stricken vessel in its final agony, crewmen struggled to cut loose life rafts and kapok jackets. Seaman Louis P. Bitonti was thrown from his bunk by the torpedo blasts but quickly put on clothes and went above to cut loose bags of life jackets and pass them out to his shipmates. Seaman Henry T. McKlin and others around him threw jackets, rafts, and kegs of fresh water overboard, hoping shipmates could retrieve and use them. Dr. Haynes saw several sailors vainly fighting against the ship’s severe list to release life rafts. Seeing men going over the side without life jackets, Captain McVay ordered two seamen to free floater nets stored near the bridge. But the sailors couldn’t do it. In the end only a dozen life rafts and six floater nets were released from the cruiser before she went down.
From the beginning the captain’s prime concern had been to send out a distress signal. When no one returned from the radio shack, the skipper went himself. But before he got there, the ship rolled over to a full ninety-degree list. Clinging to lifelines from the vertical communications deck, McVay pulled himself up to one of the bulkheads and hung there, looking down at the massive, red-painted bottom of the ship. In a few seconds the vessel dipped farther into the water, and Captain McVay was washed into the sea.
The men near the bow and on the starboard side of the cruiser slid or were swept off. Seaman McKlin found that sliding down the oil-covered deck and over the side into the water was similar to going down a ski slope. Men stationed on the port side had to walk onto the keel and then jump clear of the ship’s hull; several were caught in the screws. Many leaped into the water in total darkness, but Electrician’s Mate Sospizio waited until the moon came into view for a few seconds before jumping clear. Most of the men who had been in the cruiser’s gang showers when the torpedoes struck had no choice but to go into the water naked. Some seamen left the ship clad only in underclothes; a supply officer abandoned ship with a bathrobe and a bottle of Scotch.
Of the ship’s company of 1,196 men, approximately 850 were able to get clear before she sank. Spread out over thousands of yards because the cruiser continued moving after she was hit, many sailors did not see the ship go down. But the majority of her crew left the vessel at the very last and saw the ship’s stern rise vertically a hundred feet from the water before plunging down. Many, including Captain McVay, thought the towering hulk would fall on them, but she did not; the cruiser vanished in a wisp of smoke. As the ship slid under, many heard a sound they would never forget: the screams of their shipmates inside the hull.
The cruiser had sunk in only thirteen minutes. It was a little before midnight, Sunday, July 29, 1945.
The sea around the men was covered with thick fuel oil from the ship’s tanks; it burned their eyes, clogged their nostrils, and choked their throats. Unable to swim away from this slick area of the sea and lashed by twelve-foot swells, the men could not avoid swallowing water and oil. Soon there was violent retching throughout the scattered groups, and as men vomited, the hateful scum kept splashing into their mouths.
While most of the sailors had kapok jackets, some swam unaided. Soon those more fortunate paired off with their helpless shipmates. For the most part the men were dazed and quiet, though when a few wondered aloud if an SOS had been transmitted, a radioman near Dr. Haynes shook his head. The medical officer began to wonder how long the men would have to remain in the water before they were rescued.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
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.
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!”
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.
Those who reached the life rafts could barely manage to inflate them. Dr. Haynes and others in the largest group found two rafts and hauled eleven seamen who were suffering the most into them. Once aboard, the “naked, emaciated” forms reminded the doctor of “cadavers in the dissecting room.” Both rafts were pulled together, and those unable to come aboard hung onto the sides. Finding a pint can of water, Dr. Haynes distributed an ounce of fluid to those in most need. He was amazed that the small plastic cup passed from hand to hand with no one giving in to the tremendous temptation to cheat. Other survivors were not as restrained. Seaman Richard Thelen swam to a nearby raft to find that those who had arrived before him had destroyed the food and water containers in their delirium.
All suffered from mental anguish. In his enfeebled condition, Dr. Haynes was unable to operate the saltwater converter in the raft and he even overlooked additional cans of drinking water. A sailor on another raft that had been dropped by the planes did manage to detoxify some salt water with a converter. Seaman McCall remembers the foul-tasting liquid: “It was terrible, but it was wet.”
Though he saw that some men had reached the supplies dropped to them, it was clear to Lieutenant Marks in his PBY that many could not help themselves and would perish before the rescue ships arrived. At 4:25 P.M. Marks radioed his base that he would attempt a landing on the open sea. Although the PBY was an amphibious craft, she was not built for landing in rough water with twelve-foot swells. Nevertheless the Navy pilot brought down his huge plane between the swells. The seaplane disappeared in a cloud of spray, bouncing three times before coming to a halt, but she remained afloat. Damaged by the rough landing and taking on water, the PBY still managed to taxi around while the copilot, Ensign Morgan F. Hensley, reached from the plane’s port blister to pluck in swimmers.
Passing by groups of survivors who appeared able to endure a few more hours, Marks sought out the most desperate. André Sospizio heard the pilot explain that help was on the way and to remain in the water if possible. Sospizio obeyed, although he was only a few feet from the plane, and soon had a life raft to himself as others went aboard the PBY.
By midnight Lieutenant Marks had collected fifty-six survivors. Soon they had kicked holes in the wings and fuselage of the overcrowded seaplane. In a short time the sixteen gallons of drinking water aboard the craft had been consumed.
At 9:30 P.M. the Doyle was still sixty miles from the area. Despite the threat of enemy submarines, Commander Claytor ordered a twenty-four-inch searchlight turned on. Pointed to the sky, the beacon became literally a ray of hope to those awaiting rescue.
Although there were visible signs of coming rescue, the survivors continued to hallucinate. As Seaman Henry McKlin and those around him went through their fifth night clinging to their floater net, the young seaman decided to “go below deck” where he could see coffee brewing in one of the ship’s large urns. Fortunately for McKlin, his close friend Sam Lopetz was at hand to slap him back to reality and point out the light shining from the Doyle . “There’s a boat out there with a spotlight. They’re going to get us.” Like so many others, McKlin credits a fellow shipmate with saving his life.
Shortly after midnight on Thursday the rescue ships reached the survivors. After four full days in the water, a total of ninety-six hours, the pitifully small number who remained were beginning to be rescued.
Scanning the sea with searchlights and putting out whaleboats to comb the area, the Doyle began picking up men suffering from blindness, pneumonia, shark bites, and acute dehydration; their bodies were covered with immersion ulcers, and in some cases the flesh was so badly burned by sun and flame that it fell away in the rescuers’ hands.
At approximately 4:00 A.M. on Friday, August 3, the Doyle located Dr. Haynes’s group of survivors. The men stared in silence as a searchlight shone on them; most were unable to comprehend what was happening. A naked sailor called to an officer on the bridge, “Y-you-you got any drinkin’ water aboard?” When told there was plenty, the disbelieving seaman asked, “You sure you got water—you ain’t foolin’ me?” Assured he could have all he could drink, the man concluded, “If you ain’t got no drinkin’ water just shove off and leave us alone.” After persuading the sailor to come aboard, the doctor reported to Commander Claytor, “This is all that is left of the Indianapolis .” Claytor was stunned.
The crewmen of the rescue vessels did all in their power to ease the suffering of the survivors. Many rescuers leaped into the water to retrieve those too weak to move or those who had left their rafts and were floundering toward the rescue craft. For many the rescue vessels were just another fantasy. Men from the U.S.S. Bassett came upon one sailor riding a pyramid of cork rings and told the seaman to come aboard. “No thanks,” he replied. “I’m waiting for a friend to come by.”
By Friday afternoon Captain McVay and those who had spent the ordeal on life rafts were picked up, and the three hundred and eighteen crew members of the Indianapolis still alive were aboard vessels bound for Leyte and Peleliu. Later, two who survived the ordeal in the water died in Navy hospitals.
Aboard the rescue ships the survivors were carefully showered and then carried to bunks and spoon-fed as much fluid as they could tolerate. One survivor remembers the water given to them as tasting “so sweet … the sweetest thing in your life.” But while those who had been plucked from the edge of death were resting and beginning their long recuperation, everywhere the bodies of those who had not survived floated face-down in the water. As he held a dead man in his arms, one young seaman broke down. “We’re sorry, Mac,” he sobbed. “If we had’ve know you were out here like this, we would’ve come sooner.”
How could the Navy not have known? This question haunted all of those immediately affected by the tragedy. It seemed impossible that an overdue warship would not be missed and never looked for. Yet the impossible had happened. Within hours of learning of the sinking, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered a court of inquiry to investigate the tragedy. On August 13, 1945, the court convened.
A week earlier the Enola Gay had dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and only then did the crew members of the Indianapolis learn the nature of their secret shipment to Tinian. While recovering from their experience, the survivors were individually interviewed to determine the sequence of events surrounding the sinking. An air of secrecy covered the proceedings: medical personnel were warned not to divulge any details of their patients’ ordeal. Wartime censorship was still in effect, and the Navy did not immediately release news of the sinking. But with the war’s end in sight, it was held especially crucial to determine who, if anyone, was responsible for the tragedy. The American public would soon learn of the sinking and would demand an explanation.
The court of inquiry met from August 13 to 20, 1945, interviewing Captain McVay and nineteen other officers and enlisted men. Other “interested parties” were questioned as well, among them Leyte’s port director and various operations officers. The court’s primary concern was determining why the cruiser had not been missed for four days.
On Tuesday evening, August 16, President Harry S. Truman announced Japan’s unconditional surrender; that same evening the Navy finally released a twenty-five-word communiqué stating that the Indianapolis had been lost to enemy action. The newspapers of August 17, 1945, heralded the news of Japan’s surrender, but the bottom of page one in The New York Times contained an article describing the greatest sea disaster in U.S. naval history: “Cruiser Sunk, 1,196 Casualties.”
While Americans celebrated V-J Day, hundreds of families received word that a son or husband was “missing in action.” Soon other publications provided accounts of the disaster, stressing the irony of the doomed cruiser delivering the weapon “which sealed our victory. ”
As the story of the Indianapolis competed with news of the war’s end, the court of inquiry concluded and recommended letters of reprimand for Captain McVay, Lieutenant Commander Jules C. Sancho, port director at Tacloban, Leyte, and Lieutenant Stuart B. Gibson, Sancho’s operations officer. McVay’s reprimand referred to his failure to order a zigzag course the night of the sinking and his not exerting “every effort at [his] command to cause a distress message to be sent.” The latter two officers were reprimanded for not alerting their superiors that the Indianapolis was overdue.
When Captain Mc Vay came home to Washington in September, he began the sad task of answering the letters and calls of bereaved families. Dr. Haynes also helped console those who wanted to know how and why the tragedy occurred. But their explanations did not suffice. Soon letters poured forth to President Truman, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, and members of Congress. All wanted to know how it could have happened. One heartsick mother wrote: “How can we draw any comfort from their sacrifices when we know his life … could have been saved if the Navy had been alert. I have tried hard not to shadow the sacrifices these boys made … but those agonizing hours my child suffered will not let me rest.”
The clamor for an explanation continued, and on November 28,1945, the Navy announced that Captain McVay would be court-martialed upon recommendation of the court of inquiry. Of four hundred and thirty-six American commanders whose warships went down during World War II, only Captain McVay was brought to trial for losing his vessel to enemy action.
The unprecedented event began December 4,1945. The charges against McVay were: “Failure [to zigzag] during good visibility after moonrise on the night of July 29” and failure “to insure and see effected such timely orders … to cause said vessel to be abandoned.” The Navy explained that an investigation into the affair was continuing with “other courts-martial “ possible.”
McVay pleaded “not guilty” to the charge of negligence and inefficiency. The trial continued through December with the Navy trying to determine conditions of visibility at the time of the sinking. Lieutenant McKissick, one of the cruiser’s few surviving officers, testified that visibility was limited when McVay ordered the zigzag course halted, and he did not think the order unusual. Yet the prosecution cited the captain’s own written disposition of July 29, in which he remembered “intermittent moonlight at which time visibility was unlimited.” McVay, however, sought to amend that document, stating he had been under duress and still suffered from his ordeal while composing it.
The prosecution also pressed home the allegation that McVay’s “inefficiency” in issuing the order to abandon ship had “contributed to the high death toll.” Many crew members of the cruiser rallied to their skipper’s defense. Testifying that he had given the order but that the sound system had failed to perform, seamen told the court how they passed the word from man to man. Several witnesses stated they would gladly serve under McVay’s command again.
Halfway through the trial, in a most dramatic and controversial move, the prosecution summoned Commander Hashimoto from Japan to testify as to whether McVay’s decision not to zigzag was justified. Bringing a fallen enemy to bear witness against an American officer ignited a storm of protest, including several condemnations from Congress.
Hashimoto’s testimony both before and during the trial indicated that he would have been able to sink the Indianapolis whether or not she was zigzagging. Later, one of the U.S. Navy’s most decorated submariners, Captain Glynn R. Donaho, substantiated Hashimoto’s claim. Submarines expected ships to zigzag, Donaho said, and he stated before the court that the maneuver was of “no value to surface ships.”
The final witness was Captain McVay himself. The cruiser’s skipper testified upon his own request, reiterating his claim that poor visibility prompted him to rescind the order to zigzag. McVay also testified that his officers had standing orders to resume zigzagging or report any weather changes to him. The captain also related the impossibility of passing the “abandon-ship order by other than word of mouth.”
Acquitting him of the charge of untimely orders to abandon ship on December 20, 1945, the court later found Captain McVay guilty of negligence in the loss of the Indianapolis because “he failed to cause a zigzag course to be followed in dangerous waters.” The court sentenced McVay “to lose 100 numbers in his temporary grade of captain and also his permanent grade of commander” but recommended clemency “in view of his outstanding previous record.” Secretary Forrestal remitted the sentence upon the recommendation of Admirals Nimitz and King.
At the same time McVay’s sentence was announced, the Navy released its “Narrative of the Circumstances of the Loss of the U.S.S. Indianapolis ,” a forty-five-hundred-word document representing the Navy’s final statement on the tragedy.
In the narrative four Navy officers were publicly reprimanded: Commodore N. C. Gillette, former acting commander of the Philippine Sea frontier; Captain A. M. Granum, Gillette’s operations officer; Lieutenant Commander Jules C. Sancho, former acting port director at Leyte; and Sancho’s operations officer, Lieutenant Stuart H. Gibson. These officers were cited for their “failure to report that the ship had not arrived in Leyte as scheduled.”
Admiral Nimitz, holding a press conference upon release of the Navy’s findings, stated it would be “unlikely that Captain Mc Vay would again have a command of great responsibility. ” Nimitz read one letter of the many received from families of those lost in the sinking; it questioned whether the tragedy was “being whitewashed.” Nimitz expressed his sorrow and said, “I must bear my share of the responsibility for the loss.” The admiral explained that the cruiser’s course was on the plotting boards in the Philippines and Marianas, but “plotting ceased at the time of her expected arrival at Leyte, without verification that she had in fact arrived.” Operations officers Sancho and Gibson had failed to keep themselves informed of such matters, Nimitz continued, and he blamed Commodore Gillette and Captain Granum for not giving “sufficient supervision” to their subordinates.
The narrative was released on a Saturday, and Sunday newspapers and newscasts were full of the story. The publicity painted a picture of four officers at Leyte idling on the beach while hundreds of men died in agony. Commodore Gillette, in a letter to the Navy chief of personnel, defended himself and eloquently summarized the true cause of the disaster. Navy directives, he pointed out, provided that “Arrival Reports shall not be made for combatant ships” and “since the directive was not explicit, it led to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.” Indeed, after the tragedy this proviso was altered to require reports of overdue combatant vessels. Gillette concluded:
“I do not blame anyone. There is no definite clear-cut fact that points in one direction. The investigations disclosed many interrelated circumstances … incompletely defined or misunderstood responsibilities, matters subject to more than one interpretation … and the activities of many organizations and persons. It was the almost impossible that happened. It was the unbelievable coincidence of many circumstances that combined in an unbelievable manner to produce delay in rescue.”
On December 9, 1946, the Navy withdrew the letters of reprimand, this time without public fanfare. Captain McVay never held command of a ship again and retired from the Navy in 1949, after thirty years of service.
In August, 1960, at Indianapolis, Indiana, most of the cruiser’s survivors gathered together for the first time in fifteen years. The reunion was highly charged with emotion; many saw shipmates they thought had perished long ago; all were moved by Captain McVay’s address to his former crewmen. And the parents of those who had not survived went from man to man asking, “Did you know my son?”
On August 2, 1980, ninety survivors met for the thirty-fifth anniversary of the sinking. The youngest men are in their fifties now, while others are unable to attend because of age or ill health. There is little remorse or bitterness among them, though many still bear scars, both physical and emotional, from their ordeal, and many quickly refer to the “raw deal” given their skipper. Also attending this most recent reunion were crew members of the new U.S.S. Indianapolis , a recently commissioned nuclear submarine. Wives and children of the survivors were there, too, many listening in awe as a husband or father related his harrowing experience.
Thirty-five years later they still remembered and supported each other, much as they did during those days in the water. The story of the Indianapolis is one of tragedy, pathos, and brutal irony. Yet above all, we should remember the courage and perseverance of those who survived and the sacrifice of those who did not.