The Most Tragic Maritime Disaster in US Naval History

 

I don’t know if the title of this post is accurate, although the assessment was made by others. I do know that after seeing the video movie on the story of the USS Indianapolis, I didn’t need any persuading to believe this assessment was true, on many levels.

On July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis left Guam to assist a superspy in delivering the core of the atomic bomb in preparation for the strike on Hiroshima. The ship was struck by a submarine with two Japanese torpedoes and sank in 12 minutes, taking down 300 men with it. Almost 900 went into the water alive, where they fought for their lives for four interminable days and five nights, against sharks, dehydration, insanity, and attacks on each other in order to survive. In 2018, a book was published that tells the story.

The horror of the story builds over those four days. There were few life rafts, and life jackets were removed from those who were already dead to save those who were still alive. But from my perspective, the shark attacks were the most devastating part:

The animals were drawn by the sound of the explosions, the sinking of the ship and the thrashing and blood in the water. Though many species of shark live in the open water, none is considered as aggressive as the oceanic whitetip. Reports from the Indianapolis survivors indicate that the sharks tended to attack live victims close to the surface, leading historians to believe that most of the shark-related causalities came from oceanic whitetips.

Why did four days and five nights pass before they were rescued? Navy intelligence intercepted a message from the Japanese submarine that torpedoed the ship, but it assumed it was “a trick to lure American rescue boats into an ambush.”

Meanwhile, the survivors died from shark attacks, the heat, thirst and hallucinations from drinking the seawater.

Finally, on the fourth day, a Navy plane spotted them and called for help. The hero in their rescue was pilot Lieutenant Adrian Marks who dropped rafts and supplies:

When Marks saw men being attacked by sharks, he disobeyed orders and landed in the infested waters, and then began taxiing his plane to help the wounded and stragglers, who were at the greatest risk. A little after midnight, the USS Doyle arrived on the scene and helped to pull the last survivors from the water. Of the Indianapolis’ original 1,196-man crew, only 317 remained. Estimates of the number who died from shark attacks range from a few dozen to almost 150.

This entire situation was tragic in many ways. First, the Indianapolis was not provided with an escort, because the ship that would have escorted them was destroyed; apparently another ship was not available. Second, the boat was inadequately equipped in the event of a disaster. Third, the intelligence that the Navy intercepted was disregarded. Fourth, no alarm was raised when the Indianapolis didn’t arrive at its destination port.

There were so many errors made to deal with this situation that the Navy decided it needed a scapegoat:

In November, 1945, McVay was court-martialed and found guilty of causing his ship to be in grave danger because he failed to zigzag and, thus, confuse any enemy submarines in the area. Since the war was over at the time of the court-martial, the commander of the submarine which sank the Indy, Mochitsura Hashimoto, was called to testify as to his view of the event. According to Hashimoto, his position with regard to the Indy was so good that zigzagging would have made no difference. Regardless, it soon became clear that the Navy needed a scapegoat for the incident, and McVay was the man. The US Navy lost more than 700 vessels of all types during the Second World War. Charles McVay was the only captain court-martialed for his loss.

On November 6, 1968, Charles McVay killed himself with a Navy-issued sidearm.

For the next 50 years, his men labored to clear Charles McVay’s name to no avail, until 12-year-old Hunter Scott wrote a report about the Indianapolis. He interviewed 150 survivors and read over 800 official documents, and eventually his project was seen by the Congress, and along with survivors, he testified:

This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis.

In October 2000, five years after Hunter Scott testified, Congress passed a resolution, signed by President Clinton, stating that Admiral* McVay was “exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis.”

*He left the service as a Rear Admiral.

**The ship was found in March 2015.

Published in Military
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There are 40 comments.

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  1. Seawriter Member

    The loss of the Indianapolis might be the most tragic disaster in US Navy history, but it was hardly the worst. We lost more ships and more killed at Savo Island, with the added kicker that we should have been expecting to get attacked.

    • #1
    • June 13, 2019, at 11:45 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. Shauna Hunt Member

    I have that book. It’s fascinating and gruesome.

    • #2
    • June 13, 2019, at 11:50 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    The loss of the Indianapolis might be the most tragic disaster in US Navy history, but it was hardly the worst. We lost more ships and more killed at Savo Island, with the added kicker that we should have been expecting to get attacked.

    Thanks, @seawriter. The link was educational. I defer to your greater wisdom in this area and will change the title forthwith! ;-)

    • #3
    • June 13, 2019, at 11:51 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. James Gawron Thatcher

    Suzy,

    Are you aware of this scene from the movie Jaws?

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #4
    • June 13, 2019, at 12:11 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  5. Weeping Member

    My maternal grandmother’s younger brother died in this incident. According to my father, one of the survivors said Uncle Horace survived in the water for three days before he passed away. My father doesn’t know if that was ever verified or not.

     

    • #5
    • June 13, 2019, at 12:36 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  6. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    The “Jaws” scene was great. Another disaster that was before the war was “The Honda Point Disaster.” That was definitely the fault of one man or a small group of men.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honda_Point_disaster

    The fourteen ships of Destroyer Squadron 11 (DESRON 11) were steaming south from San Francisco Bay to San Diego Bay on September 8, 1923. The squadron was led by Commodore Edward H. Watson, on the flagship destroyer USS Delphy. All were Clemson-class destroyers, less than five years old. The ships turned east to course 095, supposedly heading into the Santa Barbara Channel, at 21:00. The ships were navigating by dead reckoning, estimating positions from their course and speed, as measured by propeller revolutions per minute. At that time radio navigation aids were new and not completely trusted. USS Delphy was equipped with a radio navigation receiver, but her navigator and captain ignored its indicated bearings, believing them to be erroneous.

    Only 23 sailors died.

    The seven-officer Navy court-martial board, presided over by Vice Admiral Henry A. Wiley, commander battleship divisions of the Battle Fleet,[7] ruled that the disaster was the fault of the fleet commander and the flagship’s navigators. They assigned blame to the captain of each ship that ran aground, following the tradition that a captain’s first responsibility is to his own ship, even when in formation. Eleven officers involved were brought before general courts-martial on the charges of negligence and culpable inefficiency to perform one’s duty.[6] This was the largest single group of officers ever court-martialed in the U.S. Navy’s history. 

    The British Navy had a somewhat similar incident in 1887. The Camperdown and Victoria incident.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Victoria_(1887)

    Tryon’s flag-lieutenant was Lord Gillford, and it was he who received the fatal order to signal to the two divisions to turn sixteen points (a half circle) inwards, the leading ships first, the others of course following in succession.

    Although some of his officers knew what Tryon was planning, they did not raise an objection. Markham, at the head of the other column, was confused by the dangerous order and delayed raising the flag signal indicating that he had understood it. Tryon queried the delay in carrying out his orders, as the fleet was now heading for the shore and needed to turn soon. He ordered a semaphore signal be sent to Markham, asking, “What are you waiting for?” Stung by this public rebuke from his commander, Markham immediately ordered his column to start turning. Various officers on the two flagships confirmed later that they had either assumed or hoped that Tryon would order some new manoeuvre at the last minute.

    358 crew members died. I’m reading an excellent book about the Royal Navy before WWI.

    • #6
    • June 13, 2019, at 12:39 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. Rodin Member

    Yes, the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis was horribly compelling and the stuff of nightmares. But it was certainly not alone. Too many stories, from too many battles.

    • #7
    • June 13, 2019, at 12:51 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    James Gawron (View Comment):
    Are you aware of this scene from the movie Jaws?

    I don’t remember that scene. Turns the blood cold, doesn’t it?

    • #8
    • June 13, 2019, at 1:08 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Weeping (View Comment):

    My maternal grandmother’s younger brother died in this incident. According to my father, one of the survivors said Uncle Horace survived in the water for three days before he passed away. My father doesn’t know if that was ever verified or not.

     

    These stories can touch our lives in myriad ways. How sad, @weeping.

    • #9
    • June 13, 2019, at 1:09 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Rodin (View Comment):
    Yes, the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis was horribly compelling and the stuff of nightmares. But it was certainly not alone. Too many stories, from too many battles.

    I agree. The tragedies and horrors of war.

    • #10
    • June 13, 2019, at 1:12 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  11. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    God Bless the Sailors on that ship. The Republic does not always get it right. May God have mercy on this Nation, anyway. 

    • #11
    • June 13, 2019, at 4:38 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  12. Shauna Hunt Member

    These incidents fascinate me. My grandpa was in the Navy during WWII and Korea. I don’t have very much information about the ships he was on. I’m searching through Fold3.com to find out anything. He was in the South Pacific on a hospital ship. Unfortunately, he lived his life in the bottle when he came home and died in the mid-80s. 

    • #12
    • June 13, 2019, at 5:24 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. RPD Member
    RPD

    There’s an excellent podcast on this that really goes into detail. It’s about 53 minutes long. It’s by Dan Carlin who also does the Hard Core History podcast.

     

    https://dchhaddendum.libsyn.com/ep5-nightmares-of-indianapolis

    • #13
    • June 13, 2019, at 10:59 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. Franco Member

    Very interesting.

    I’m going to make a post on the member feed about another WWII maritime disaster/atrocity. Check it out if you’re interested. It’s quite a story.

    • #14
    • June 14, 2019, at 6:16 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Miffed White Male Member

    My father’s cousin Clifford Sebastian was lost at sea when the Indianapolis went down. He was married, and his wife was pregnant when he died. The letters telling him this never caught up with the ship and were returned unopened. His daughter is still alive and lives a few miles from me.

    My understanding is that he was known to have survived the initial sinking, but was gone by daybreak on the first day.

    He’s the one holding the anchor.

     

    • #15
    • June 14, 2019, at 7:21 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  16. Miffed White Male Member

    I did get to meet one of the (12 remaining) Indianapolis survivors last November. He didn’t know my Dad’s cousin. It was his first (The survivor’s) first sailing on the ship when it left San Francisco with the bomb, so he didn’t get a chance to meet a lot of people. A large number (off the top of my head, more than 25%) of the crew was newly assigned to the ship while it was San Francisco for repairs from a Kamikaze attack.

    He had his son with him at the presentation I saw, and his son was talking about how he learned about the Indianapolis. He was in High School, and went to see the movie Jaws. When he got home he was telling his mom about the scene with the monologue about it, and said something about “can you imagine what that must have been like”? His mom just laughed and said, “Go ask your father – that was his ship”. He’d never heard about it before then.

     

    • #16
    • June 14, 2019, at 8:13 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  17. Barfly Member

    It’s surprising to me that I’m more moved by the Navy’s scapegoating of Captain McVay than by the loss of the men and the ship.

    Is that because I expect to lose men and ships in time of war? Or that one thing that contributed to the disaster was the secrecy of the USS Indianapolis’ mission? Is it that I value honor over life in some circumstances? 

    • #17
    • June 14, 2019, at 9:49 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  18. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Barfly (View Comment):

    It’s surprising to me that I’m more moved by the Navy’s scapegoating of Captain McVay than by the loss of the men and the ship.

    Is that because I expect to lose men and ships in time of war? Or that one thing that contributed to the disaster was the secrecy of the USS Indianapolis’ mission? Is it that I value honor over life in some circumstances?

    I think it might be because betrayal is such a horrible violation, especially in wartime. And scapegoating shows a lack of accountability and honesty. I was very disturbed by what they did to him, as were his men.

    • #18
    • June 14, 2019, at 9:53 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. Barfly Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    It’s surprising to me that I’m more moved by the Navy’s scapegoating of Captain McVay than by the loss of the men and the ship.

    Is that because I expect to lose men and ships in time of war? Or that one thing that contributed to the disaster was the secrecy of the USS Indianapolis’ mission? Is it that I value honor over life in some circumstances?

    I think it might be because betrayal is such a horrible violation, especially in wartime. And scapegoating shows a lack of accountability and honesty. I was very disturbed by what they did to him, as were his men.

    I hope you’re right. I think that’s why I’ve developed a hatred of the left, in fact – people of the left betray.

    • #19
    • June 14, 2019, at 9:58 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  20. Bob Thompson Member

    Susan Quinn: Second, the boat was inadequately equipped in the event of a disaster.

    Just in case you use this material in other articles, you referred to the USS Indianapolis as a ship except here.

    • #20
    • June 14, 2019, at 10:59 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: Second, the boat was inadequately equipped in the event of a disaster.

    Just in case you use this material in other articles, you referred to the USS Indianapolis as a ship except here.

    OMG–and now I can’t fix it. It’s amazing that no one corrected me earlier! Thanks, @bobthompson, and apologies if I offended anyone!

    • #21
    • June 14, 2019, at 11:09 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  22. Miffed White Male Member

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: Second, the boat was inadequately equipped in the event of a disaster.

    Just in case you use this material in other articles, you referred to the USS Indianapolis as a ship except here.

    As long as we’re nitpicking…

    On July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis left Guam to assist a superspy in delivering the core of the atomic bomb in preparation for the strike on Hiroshima.

    No, they had already delivered the components of the first atomic bomb to Tinian, now they were on their way to the Philippines for gunnery practice in anticipation fo the invasion of Japan.

    First, the Indianapolis was not provided with an escort, because the ship that would have escorted them was destroyed; apparently another ship was not available. Second, the boat was inadequately equipped in the event of a disaster. Third, the intelligence that the Navy intercepted was disregarded. Fourth, no alarm was raised when the Indianapolis didn’t arrive at its destination port.

    There’s a lot to unpack here.

    The ship didn’t receive an escort because it was travelling in waters that were designated as safe (even though there was intelligence of Japanese subs in the area), and it was a small enough ship that it didn’t automatically require an escort.

    I’m not sure what “inadequately equipped in event of a disaster” means. It was a war ship in a war zone. The ship went down so fast there wasn’t time to get all of the lifesaving gear off. The torpedoes blew the bow completely off the ship, but the engines continued to operate so the ship continued forward at speed, flooding it very quickly. In addition because of the temperatures in the South Pacific, the ship was running with most of the watertight bulkhead doors open to allow air circulation for those below decks.

    Item #4 in you list is the real target. At one time there had been an order to communicate the arrival of large ships in port. This led to a lot of radio traffic and was deemed an intelligence risk (giving the enemy the opportunity to track ship movements). So the order was changed to not report the arrival of ships. This was erroneously interpreted by someone that the NON-arrival of a ship in port should also not be reported. So when the Indianapolis didn’t show up, the person tracking berths just removed the ship from the tracking board and didn’t say anything. IMHO, that’s the guy that should have been court-martialed.

     

    **The ship was found in March 2015.

    The ship was found in August 2017.

     

    The new book focuses a lot on the fight to clear McVay. Another book that spends more time on the ordeal in the water is In Harms Way by Doug Stanton.

    There’s also a book published by the Survivors association which is just first person accounts written by many of the survivors, Only 317 Survived.

     

    • #22
    • June 14, 2019, at 11:39 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  23. Joe Boyle Member

    Barfly (View Comment):
    ours ago

    Always angering when those who should be on your side are not.

    • #23
    • June 14, 2019, at 11:52 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  24. Bob Thompson Member

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    As long as we’re nitpicking…

    Your points are pretty substantive, especially the failure to report the non-arrival.

    • #24
    • June 14, 2019, at 11:59 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  25. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    So when the Indianapolis didn’t show up, the person tracking berths just removed the ship from the tracking board and didn’t say anything. IMHO, that’s the guy that should have been court-martialed.

    I guess I found some unsupported information and interpreted other parts incorrectly. I’m sorry for that. But I do appreciate your clearing up the errors, @miffedwhitemale. Apologies.

    • #25
    • June 14, 2019, at 12:03 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  26. Bob Thompson Member

    Susan Quinn:

    Why did four days and five nights pass before they were rescued? Navy intelligence intercepted a message from the Japanese submarine that torpedoed the ship, but it assumed it was “a trick to lure American rescue boats into an ambush.”

     

    This, if accurate, coupled with the knowledge of non-arrival at the destination was important information, depending on the time lapse. Does someone here know how much time elapsed between the sinking and the destination ETA?

    • #26
    • June 14, 2019, at 12:11 PM PDT
    • Like
  27. Miffed White Male Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    So when the Indianapolis didn’t show up, the person tracking berths just removed the ship from the tracking board and didn’t say anything. IMHO, that’s the guy that should have been court-martialed.

    I guess I found some unsupported information and interpreted other parts incorrectly. I’m sorry for that. But I do appreciate your clearing up the errors, @miffedwhitemale. Apologies.

    No need to apologize. I may be “interpreting” a few things myself (and some is from memory, so I may have details wrong). I do have the personal connection to the ship that makes me sensitive to it though.

     

    • #27
    • June 14, 2019, at 12:18 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  28. Miffed White Male Member

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn:

    Why did four days and five nights pass before they were rescued? Navy intelligence intercepted a message from the Japanese submarine that torpedoed the ship, but it assumed it was “a trick to lure American rescue boats into an ambush.”

     

    This, if accurate, coupled with the knowledge of non-arrival at the destination was important information, depending on the time lapse. Does someone here know how much time elapsed between the sinking and the destination ETA?

    From memory, they were due in the morning after the sinking.

    The newer book by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic does a pretty good job of covering the “Oh Crap” butt-puckering that went through fleet headquarters when they realized how badly they’d screwed up in not noticing the ship was missing.

    • #28
    • June 14, 2019, at 12:22 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  29. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    So when the Indianapolis didn’t show up, the person tracking berths just removed the ship from the tracking board and didn’t say anything. IMHO, that’s the guy that should have been court-martialed.

    I guess I found some unsupported information and interpreted other parts incorrectly. I’m sorry for that. But I do appreciate your clearing up the errors, @miffedwhitemale. Apologies.

    No need to apologize. I may be “interpreting” a few things myself (and some is from memory, so I may have details wrong). I do have the personal connection to the ship that makes me sensitive to it though.

     

    I did realize that your connection influenced your response, understandably. Thanks for this comment, though.

    • #29
    • June 14, 2019, at 1:12 PM PDT
    • Like
  30. Basil Fawlty Member

    And so a captain was convicted of endangering his ship and then was promoted to admiral. Strange.

    • #30
    • June 14, 2019, at 1:50 PM PDT
    • 1 like
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