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Lost at Sea: The Tragic Fate of the USS Indianapolis

In the final weeks of World War II, the USS Indianapolis, a Portland-class heavy cruiser, embarked on a top-secret mission that would help bring the war to an end. But after completing its vital task, the ship endured a horrific tragedy that remains one of the worst disasters in U.S. naval history.

On July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, sinking within minutes and leaving nearly 900 sailors stranded in the shark-infested waters of the Philippine Sea. By the time rescuers arrived five days later, only 316 men remained alive, making it the greatest single loss of life at sea from a single ship in the U.S. Navy‘s history.

A Storied Ship and Crew

Commissioned in 1932, the USS Indianapolis had a distinguished record of service prior to its final voyage. It earned 10 battle stars for its actions in World War II, participating in major campaigns like the Aleutian Islands, Tarawa, the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

In 1943, the Indianapolis even served as the flagship for the commander in chief of the U.S. fleet, Admiral Raymond Spruance. Its crew was known for their skill and professionalism. "The Indy was a disciplined ship with a great captain and a great crew," remembered survivor Loel Dean Cox. "We were a happy ship."

Under the command of Captain Charles Butler McVay III, the Indianapolis and its crew of nearly 1,200 men set out from San Francisco on July 16, 1945 on a secret mission of the utmost importance.

Delivering the Atomic Bombs

Unbeknownst to its crew, the Indianapolis was tasked with transporting enriched uranium and other components for the atomic bombs that would soon devastate the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ship raced to the island of Tinian without an escort, relying on its speed and secrecy to complete the mission.

After successfully delivering its top-secret cargo, the Indianapolis sailed to Guam and was ordered to join the battleship USS Idaho in the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for an invasion of Japan. "They told us we were going to take part in the invasion of the homeland of Japan," remembered survivor Richard Thelen. "We were supposed to bombard the beaches for the invasion."

Torpedoed in the Dead of Night

As the Indianapolis cruised towards Leyte on the night of July 29, it was sailing alone in the Philippine Sea, without sonar or any naval escort ships. Just after midnight on July 30, disaster struck. Two torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58 ripped into the starboard side of the Indianapolis.

The explosions immediately killed dozens in the engine rooms and caused catastrophic damage. Within 12 minutes, the 610-foot ship rolled over and sank, pulling hundreds of crew members down with it to the depths of the ocean. Of the 1,195 men aboard, an estimated 300 went down with the ship.

The remaining 890 men abandoned ship and found themselves alone in the dark waters. Many had no life jackets or rafts. They were spread out over miles of open ocean, at the mercy of the elements and whatever terrors lurked beneath the surface.

Sharks in the Water

As the sun rose on the hundreds of sailors struggling to stay afloat, a menacing threat soon emerged from the depths: sharks. Oceanic whitetip and tiger sharks, drawn by the sounds of the sinking, the thrashing of the sailors, and the scent of blood began to swarm the area.

"The sharks were everywhere," recalled survivor Edgar Harrell. "They were just there. You‘d hear guys scream, especially late in the afternoon, and then they‘d go under."

The feeding frenzy was relentless. With each passing hour, the sharks claimed more victims, dragging sailors under and devouring them alive as their horrified crewmates looked on. Many considered the Indianapolis disaster the worst shark attack in history.

"You‘d see fins swimming around you, and every now and then you‘d see a buddy kicking, fighting and screaming, and you couldn‘t do anything about it," said Woody James, another survivor. Researchers estimate between a few dozen to as many as 150 men were killed by sharks before rescuers finally arrived.

Agony and Exposure

Shark attacks were far from the only peril the Indianapolis sailors faced during their five days adrift at sea. With few lifeboats, the men floated in the ocean, subject to the harsh tropical sun during the day and cold temperatures at night.

Thirst and dehydration soon took a heavy toll, as did the effects of prolonged exposure to the saltwater. Men became delirious, suffering from hypothermia and severe sunburns. Others drowned, succumbed to their wounds from the attack, or even took their own lives out of desperation and despair.

"You could barely keep your face out of the water," said survivor Glenn Morgan. "The life preserver had blisters on my shoulders, blisters on top of blisters. It was so hot you couldn‘t touch the water with your hands."

"We had nothing to eat for five days and four nights," said Harrell. "You get delirious, you know? Start drinking salt water and all that kind of stuff."

A Disastrous Delay

What made the Indianapolis tragedy even more unfortunate was that the U.S. Navy was unaware the ship had even sunk for several days. Due to a series of communication errors and oversights, the Indianapolis was not reported missing when it failed to arrive on schedule in the Philippines.

"For some reason, the Navy did not keep track of the ship," said historian Sara Vladic, director of the USS Indianapolis Legacy Organization. "The SOS from the ship was ignored by three different stations. Nobody followed up or investigated why the ship had not arrived."

It was not until survivors were spotted by a routine patrol flight on August 2 that a rescue operation was finally launched. By then, hundreds of sailors had already perished. Only an estimated 316 of the original 1,195 men remained alive by the time they were pulled from the water. Many were on the brink of death.

A Captain‘s Court-Martial

In the aftermath of the Indianapolis disaster, the U.S. Navy launched inquiries to determine what had gone wrong. To the shock of many survivors, blame fell on the ship‘s captain, Charles McVay III. In November 1945, McVay was court-martialed for hazarding his ship by failing to zig-zag to evade potential enemy submarines.

McVay became the only U.S. Navy captain court-martialed for losing a ship during WWII. He was convicted of the charge, despite evidence that many of the Navy‘s own protocols and procedures were not properly followed in the lead-up to and response to the sinking.

"Captain McVay was a scapegoat," said Vladic. "The U.S. Navy was looking for someone to blame for their own mistakes and communication breakdowns that led to the loss of so many lives."

McVay, haunted by the disaster and the loss of his men, took his own life in 1968. Decades later, efforts spearheaded by 12-year-old Hunter Scott and the survivors helped clear McVay‘s record. In 2000, Congress passed a resolution exonerating the late captain of wrongdoing in the tragedy.

A Legacy of Loss

The sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the agonizing ordeal its crew endured remains one of the most tragic episodes in American military history. It has been forever seared into popular memory, referenced in films like Jaws and the subject of numerous books and documentaries in the decades since.

In 2017, a team of researchers led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen discovered the wreckage of the Indianapolis 18,000 feet below the surface of the Philippine Sea. The discovery provided some closure for survivors and families, while also sparking renewed interest in this dark chapter of history.

For the dwindling band of survivors, the legacy of the Indianapolis disaster is one of unspeakable suffering and loss, but also resilience and brotherhood forged in the crucible of shared trauma. "What the men of the Indianapolis endured is almost beyond belief," said historian Doug Stanton, author of In Harm‘s Way, a book on the tragedy. "Their story is one of the most remarkable tales of survival and perseverance in the history of the U.S. military."

From a historian‘s perspective, the fate of the Indianapolis also stands as a solemn reminder of the human cost and cruel twists of fate that defined the Pacific Theater in World War II. The fact that a ship returning from delivering components for the war-ending atomic bomb would meet such a grim end is a tragic irony.

The Indianapolis tragedy also exposes the flaws, mistakes, and miscommunications that can compound wartime disasters. Poor coordination and oversight after the sinking led to hundreds of needless deaths and immense suffering.

At the same time, the courage and camaraderie of the Indianapolis sailors in the face of unimaginable adversity remains an inspiring testament to the human spirit. As the nation marks the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, it is important to remember the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation – those who survived unspeakable ordeals and those who lost their lives in service to their country.

The crew of the USS Indianapolis will never be forgotten. Their legacy endures as a somber reminder of war‘s costs and a tribute to uncommon valor in the face of horror on the high seas.