The Sinking & Horrors of USS Indianapolis

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USS Indianapolis, starboard bow. (Credits: NARA)

USS Indianapolis, starboard bow. (Credits: NARA)

USS Indianapolis

When the USS Indianapolis was sunk by Japanese torpedoes in the final weeks of WWII, around 900 men of the crew jumped into the water to escape the burning ship. Yet that was just the start of their horror story.

It was 30 July 1945, two days ago the USS Indianapolis delivered crucial components for the first atomic bomb to a U.S. Naval base on the Pacific Island of Tinian, when she set sail for the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to meet the USS Idaho.

All of a sudden, just passed midnight, a torpedo from the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58, hit the USS Indianapolis in the starboard bow and igniting a 3,500 gallon tank of aviation fuel into a pillar of fire. Just after the first explosion, a second torpedo hit the ship causing a massive set of explosions and obliterated the ship almost in half. The ship started to tilt to its right side and heading straight down into the ocean. Tons of water rushed in, sinking the USS Indianapolis in just 12 minutes.

“Twelve minutes. Can you imagine a ship 610 ft long, that’s two football fields in length, sinking in 12 minutes? It just rolled over and went under”, a veteran remembered.

Around 300 of the 1,196 crewmen went down with the ship, 900 others jumped into the water – many without lifejackets – and were left drifting in the Pacific Ocean, hoping to be rescued quickly. Only beneath the waves, another danger was lurking, hundreds of sharks would soon become the survivors worst nightmare. The survivors would await the same fate as the survivors from ‘La Seyne‘, a French Liner that sunk in 1909, who were constantly attacked by sharks.

Survivors of the USS Indianapolis in Guam, 1945. (Credits: USNHC)

Survivors of the USS Indianapolis in Guam, 1945. (Credits: USNHC)

According to sources the animals were drawn by the sound of the explosions, the sinking of the ship and the thrashing and blood in the water. Specialists believe the attacks were done by oceanic whitetips. Oceanic whitetips tend to be scavengers and they’ll investigate anything that could be food floating on the surface. This behavior means that they are likely responsible for open-ocean attacks following air or sea disasters.

One of the survivors Woody E. James remembered: “You’d hear guys scream, especially late in the afternoon. Seemed like the sharks were the worst late in the afternoon than they were during the day. (…). Everything would be quiet and then you’d hear somebody scream and you knew a shark had got him.”

Though not only sharks were the killers, under the scorching sun, without any food or water for days, men were dying from exposure or dehydration day after day. Some starting to hallucinate. Their life jackets waterlogged, many became exhausted and drowned.

Oceanic Whitetip (Credits: Wikipedia)

Oceanic Whitetip (Credits: Wikipedia)

Thought Navy intelligence intercepted a message from the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58, describing how it had sunk an American battleship along the Indianapolis’ route, the message was disregarded as a trick to lure American rescue boats into an ambush. It would take four days before any help came a shore and only because a Navy plane flying overhead spotted the survivors and radioed for help.

From the USS Indianapolis’ original 1,196 crewmen, only 317 remained. An estimated number from survivors who were killed by the sharks range from a few dozen to almost 150.

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Argunners Magazine is an independent online historian and collector's magazine, dedicated to the militaria and history of both Axis and Allied powers during the World War 1 & 2. Argunners is a central resource offering the latest militaria and war history news, journals, articles and press releases related to these themes.

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