Sharks eat hundreds of sailors from cruiser – USS Indianapolis
Everyone remembers that chilling scene from Spielberg’s Jaws. In it, one of the film’s protagonists, shark hunter Quint, recalls a boat trip torpedoed by a Japanese submarine at the end of the war, while having a nightcap with his buddies – oceanographer Hooper and local policeman Brody. Hundreds of sailors jumped into the water, but instead of help, tiger sharks arrived. And they began to feast.
This is a real event that happened 15 minutes after midnight on July 30, 1945. The American cruiser Indianapolis was sailing at high speed through the Philippine Sea when she was sighted on calm water by a Japanese submarine, the I-58. The end of World War II in the Pacific was just days away, but the crews of both ships did not know it. Two torpedoes in quick succession caused a tragedy – the Indianopolis sank in 12 minutes, dragging some 300 of the 1,195 people on board to a depth of 5,500 metres.
For the remaining 900 men, the fight for life began, which was to last four days. With no lifeboats, exposed to heat, thirst and, above all, swarms of attacking tiger and longfin sharks, they hoped for rescue, which still did not come. For the cruiser Indianapolis was on a mission so secret that for several days no one had any idea of his disappearance.
President Roosevelt’s favorite ship
The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis was launched in 1931. Its sleek 186-meter-long hull was fitted with nine 203mm guns, eight 127mm guns, and by the end of the war, 24 40mm anti-aircraft guns and twelve 20mm guns. Apparently due to its speed of up to 60 km/h, the cruiser was favoured by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and often used it for his travels in the 1930s.
During World War II, the Indianapolis ranged throughout the Pacific theater of war from New Guinea in the south to the Aleutian Islands in the north. The ship suffered its most serious damage on 31 March 1945 in the fighting off Okinawa.
A Japanese Nakajima Ki-43 fighter armed with a bomb managed to penetrate anti-aircraft fire up to the ship and dropped the bomb less than 8 meters above the deck. The machine crashed into the waves next to the cruiser, but the bomb penetrated the deck, penetrated the entire ship, then broke through the keel before exploding in the water below the cruiser. Nine men were killed, but the Indianapolis managed to stay afloat and was able to make its way on its own to the Mare Island Navy Yard near San Francisco.
The Hiroshima Bomb
For the cruiser Indianapolis, however, the war was far from over. After a thorough overhaul, she was tasked with delivering a secret shipment to Tinian on July 16, 1945, accompanied by a U.S. Army Special Forces unit. The ship was to sail without the usual protective escort and at the highest possible speed. Captain Charles McVay and his 1,195 men got to work after a forced break.
The Indianapolis even sailed across the Pacific Ocean so fast that it broke the previous record. The cruiser arrived from Mare Island to the Hawaiian Islands in 72 hours, faster than any other ship had managed the route. But the Hawaiian Islands were not the Indianapolis‘ final stop.
Already on 26 July 1945, the cruiser arrived at the American air base on Tinian. It was only here that the crew learned what secret cargo the cruiser was actually carrying. It was the first Little Boy atomic bomb, which was to be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, ten days later. In fact, the ship contained half of all the enriched uranium the United States possessed at the time.
On Tinian, Captain McVay received new orders – he was to cruise toward the Philippine island of Leyte and there join the ships destined for the invasion of the Japanese mother islands.
The Japanese Sea Wolf
The captain of the submarine I-58 Mochitsura Hashimoto could not believe his eyes as he watched through a periscope on the ocean’s surface at about midnight on 29-30 July a large warship racing past his position some 400 kilometers north of the Palau Islands without any protection. The ship was steaming on a straight course at 22 km/h (22 mph) and not zigzagging, one of the basic elements of anti-submarine protection.
The I-58 was a large Type B submarine designed for long-range cruising and was equipped with, among other things, steerable Kaiten suicide torpedoes. Hashimoto believed that the battleship Idaho (New Mexico class) was approaching and did not want to take any chances. He ordered a swarm of six conventional torpedoes to be fired at two-second intervals, against which the Indianapolis stood no chance. In addition to sailing on a direct course and unescorted, the cruiser lacked other anti-submarine equipment such as sonar or hydrophones.
Two torpedoes actually hit the heavy cruiser on the starboard side at 00:15, causing heavy damage. Because of the heavy gun turrets, the Indianapolis began to slowly capsize and was already floating keel up 12 minutes after the torpedoes hit. Then the ammunition magazine exploded, the bow broke off, and the ship sank rapidly.
The aftermath was more than tragic – about 300 sailors disappeared underwater with the cruiser in a few minutes. The rest of the crew found themselves on the surface covered in fuel with only a few lifeboats, many of them without life jackets. I-58 surfaced, observed the situation for a while, and then headed north at top speed. The oft-used practice of disposing of survivors by machine gun did not occur this time…
Survivors in the open sea
But that didn’t mean that the 900 or so men who clung spasmodically to the floating wreckage and a few ferries that night had won. Many were seriously injured, often with burns. They were in the water so quickly that there was no time to prepare water or food. Fortunately, because of the hot night, hundreds of them slept on the upper deck
But the worst part was that the ship had not sent out a distress signal before sinking, and because it was still on a secret mission of sorts, no one realized it had disappeared. When it didn’t arrive at the base in Leyte, they simply postponed its arrival until the next day. So nobody knew about the Indianapolis disaster until four days after it sank.
But in the meantime, the men in the water were trying to survive. The nearest island was 800 miles away, and the survivors had no idea how many of them there were. The chaos of abandoning the ship and the currents of the sea split them into smaller groups, with Captain McVay and his nine men finding themselves apart from the others.
The large group of about 340 people included Marine Corporal Edgar Harrell, now one of the last surviving members of the cruiser’s crew. „I made my bunk, so to speak, right under the barrels of those eight-inch guns,“ Harrell recalled of his last night aboard the ship.
But a few hours later, he and his shipmates were battling a new enemy – longfin sharks had discovered the survivors. Defences against them are almost non-existent. Those who are not injured or exhausted try to drive the sharks away by shouting and kicking their legs. They use oars or pieces of wood, which are now worth their weight in gold. But sharks are skilled hunters.
„You hear a scream that makes your blood run cold, and you look over there. And you see fins and fins again, and you see the body disappear under the water. You look at the bodies, and you see, for example, that the lower part or the guts are missing, or a leg or an arm has been torn off,“ Harrell recalls.
As the hours pass, people begin to delirious in the 50-degree heat. There’s nothing to drink, and those who drink seawater begin to hallucinate. By the morning of the third day after the sinking of the cruiser Indianapolis, more than 400 of the 900 men who escaped the sinking ship are dead.
A few hours later, three and a half days after the cruiser sank, a PV-1 Ventura reconnaissance plane appears in the sky and spots the oil slick and then the waving survivors. A PBY-5A Catalina seaplane immediately rushed to the scene and landed near the survivors and attempted to load 56 of them. But the overloaded aircraft failed to take off. However, escort destroyers were already heading to the site and gradually began to hunt the survivors out of the water. Only 316 men were rescued.
The tragedy sparked an extensive investigation, during which Captain McVay was accused of endangering the ship by failing to sail on a winding course. He was also blamed for not giving the order to abandon ship in time. Charles McVay suffered from mental problems after the war and shot himself at the age of 70.
But in 1996, sixth-grade student Hunter Scott began searching for survivors involved in the tragedy as part of a school history paper. Eventually, he gathered enough testimony that spoke in the captain’s favor that in 2000 Bill Clinton fully rehabilitated the Indianapolis captain.
The wreck of the ill-fated ship lying at a depth of 5,500 feet was discovered in 2016 by a team of experts led by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. The sinking of the Indianapolis saw the largest loss of life in the US Navy during World War II and was also the last major warship sunk during the war.
The bomb that the speedy Indianapolis delivered to Tinian landed on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killing 80,000 people instantly. Two days later, the United States dropped a second nuclear bomb on Nagasaki.