USS Indianapolis Sailors Survived a Sinking and the Worst Shark Attack in Human History

USS Indianapolis Sailors Survived a Sinking and the Worst Shark Attack in Human History

Wesley Messamore - June 17, 2017

The USS Indianapolis (CL/CA-35) was a very fine vessel with a very special history of service in the U.S. Navy. The ship saw more than her fair share of combat, and her last fight before she was sunk by a Japanese sub without a fight, was at the Battle of Okinawa from April – June 1945.

Following the battle, the Indianapolis was sent back to San Francisco for badly needed major repair work and an overhaul, then Captain Charles B. McVay III was ordered to sail to Pearl Harbor on July 16.

Traveling to Honolulu at an average speed of 29 knots (33 mph), the cruiser set a speed record of 74.5 hours for the trip from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor which still stands to this day.

USS Indianapolis Sailors Survived a Sinking and the Worst Shark Attack in Human History
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after the dropping of Little Boy. Enola Gay Tail Gunner S/Sgt. George R. (Bob) Caron

There it took on a heavily guarded, sealed box, containing the atomic bomb parts and the enriched uranium (then about half the world’s total supply of Uranium-235) needed for the atomic bomb, Little Boy, which would be dropped on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay, in a terrifying and history-making display of the United States’ raw, unmatched military and scientific superpower.

Once the contents for this secret new super weapon were loaded onto the ship, the crew set off for Tinian Island in the South Pacific, where the package would be delivered, reaching the island on July 26th, then moving on as ordered to drop off crew members whose tours of duty were ending in Guam and pick up new sailors.

USS Indianapolis Sailors Survived a Sinking and the Worst Shark Attack in Human History
I-58(II), modified B type 2 of submarine of the Imperial Japanese Navy, on trial run inside the Tokyo Bay, unknown, maybe Yokosuka Naval Arsenal

USS Indianapolis was then supposed to sail for Leyte where her crew would receive training before moving on to Okinawa again to join Vice Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf’s Task Force 95 for the mission there.

On that fateful night of July 30, 1945, about 500 miles off the eastern coast of the Philippines, a Japanese submarine, I-58, under the command of Mochitsura Hashimoto, sank the USS Indianapolis, a Portland-class cruiser in the United States Navy, ultimately causing the greatest casualty rate from a single attack in American naval history.

The Japanese sub had spotted the U.S. cruiser and launched a torpedo, striking the Indianapolis on the starboard bow, blowing nearly 65 feet of the Indianapolis out of the water and sending a tank holding 3,500 gallons of aviation fuel off into a pillar of fire erupting several hundred feet into the night sky.

Then a second torpedo from I-58 hit nearer to midship, igniting fuel tanks and powder magazines and causing a chain reaction of explosions that tore the hull of the Indianapolis in two. Still moving through the ocean at 17 knots, the Indianapolis took on massive amounts of water and the ship sank in just 12 minutes.

As the sinking U.S. naval cruiser dumped many dead along with 880 live sailors— many of them injured and bleeding— into the ocean water, aggressive oceanic whitetip sharks and possibly tiger sharks as well were attracted by the commotion and smell of blood, and attacked the Indianapolis’ crew, killing some and dragging off the dead to devour in the ocean depths.

According to “Ocean of Fear,” a 2007 episode of the Discovery Channel documentary series Shark Week, this resulted in the most shark attacks on humans in a single event on record. The sharks began to gather, at first curious about the sound of the explosions; and then excited by so much thrashing and blood in the water.

USS Indianapolis Sailors Survived a Sinking and the Worst Shark Attack in Human History
Indianapolis’s intended route from Guam to the Philippines. U.S. Navy

Though many kinds of sharks live in the open water, none are as aggressive as the oceanic whitetip. Survivors of the Indianapolis sinking reported that the sharks were attacking live victims near the surface of the water, leading historians to believe that most of the attacking sharks were oceanic whitetips.

On the first night, the marine marauders dragged away the floating dead. But as the survivors struggled in the water, their thrashing attracted more and more sharks, which could feel the sailor’s movements through a shark sense organ called the lateral line: receptors along their bodies that sense changes in pressure and movement from hundreds of yards away.

As the sharks began to attack and devour the living, focusing their assault on the injured and the bleeding, the sailors tried to keep their distance from anybody with an open wound, and when a comrade died, they would push the corpse away, hoping to sacrifice the body of their fallen comrade to escape their own grizzly death in a shark’s jaw.

Many of the survivors were paralyzed with fear, and unable to even eat or drink from the few rations they managed to salvage from their sunken ship. One group made the mistake of opening a can of Spam and the scent of the meat attracted a swarm of sharks around them. They got rid of their meat rations rather than risk another swarm of sharks.

In a colossal dereliction of duty, several members of the U.S. Navy failed to learn of the Indianapolis’ sinking or respond to the crew’s distress signals. Lieutenant Stuart B. Gibson, the Operations Officer under the Port Director, Tacloban, was the officer responsible for keeping track of the movements of the Indianapolis.

When the vessel did not arrive on schedule, it was known immediately by Lieutenant Gibson, yet he failed to investigate the issue further and made no mention that the vessel was overdue to his superiors.

In the Navy’s first official statement regarding the sinking, it said that distress calls “were keyed by radio operators and possibly were actually transmitted,” but that “no evidence has been developed that any distress message from the ship was received by any ship, aircraft or shore station.”

Later declassified records would reveal that in fact three Navy stations had received the signals, and that all three had failed to act upon the call! The reasons why: One commander was drunk, another had ordered his crew not to disturb him, and the other thought the call for help was a Japanese trap.

USS Indianapolis Sailors Survived a Sinking and the Worst Shark Attack in Human History
Survivors of Indianapolis on Guam, in August 1945. U.S. Navy

In a story that only gets stranger, after this massive, systemic failure by multiple U.S. Navy officers to respond to the Indianapolis’ distress calls, leaving its crew to fend off shark attacks for three days before a chance air patrol initiated their rescue, the Navy blamed the captain of the ship for the sinking and court martialed him for “”hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag.”

Lieutenant Gibson only received a letter of reprimand for failing to notify anyone that the vessel was overdue and unaccounted for. The acting commander and operations officer of the Philippine Sea Frontier also merely received reprimands, and Gibson’s immediate superior officer had received a letter of admonition.

The court martial was controversial for several reasons. There was evidence that the U.S. Navy itself had put the Indianapolis in harm’s way, because Captain McVay’s orders were to “zigzag at his discretion, weather permitting.”

Then in what is perhaps one of the most surreal expert witness testimonies in history, the Navy actually called upon the captain of the Japanese submarine that had sunk the Indianapolis as a witness for the court martial! Mochitsura Hashimoto, the commander of I-58, testified that zigzagging would not have saved the U.S. Navy cruiser.

After the trial Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz commuted McVay’s sentence and returned him to active duty. McVay went on to retire in 1949 as a rear admiral.

Many of the USS Indianapolis’s survivors said McVay was not to blame for the sinking, but some of the families of the dead were harsh: “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son,” read one piece of hate mail. McVay’s guilt mounted until he committed suicide in 1968 at the age of 70, using his Navy-issued revolver. His body was discovered on his front lawn clutching a toy sailor in one hand.

USS Indianapolis Sailors Survived a Sinking and the Worst Shark Attack in Human History
Indianapolis off Mare Island, on 10 July 1945. U.S. Navy

In 1996, a sixth-grade student, Hunter Scott, began researching the sinking of the Indianapolis, leading to a U.S. Congressional investigation! In October 2000, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution stating that Captain McVay’s record should indicate that “he is exonerated for the loss of Indianapolis.” President Bill Clinton signed the resolution.

The resolution also noted that, while several hundred ships of the U.S. Navy had been lost in combat in World War II, McVay was unfairly the only captain to have been court-martialed for the sinking of his ship. In July 2001, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy cleared McVay’s official navy record of any wrongdoing.