There is a memorable scene in the 1975 movie Jaws in which Captain Quint, played by Robert Shaw, tells of his World War II experience onboard the USS Indianapolis as it sank in shark-infested waters in 1945. Although the characters in the film were all obviously fictitious, the sinking actually happened, and it was every inch terrible enough to warrant its inclusion in one of the most horrifying thriller movies ever produced.
The Indianapolis was a heavy cruiser, first commissioned on November 15, 1932, and it served in various capacities for about seven years before entering dry dock. After America entered the war, the Indianapolis become one of many to be recommissioned for wartime duty, despite its age. On March 31, 1945, it was hit by a kamikaze, and although the plane itself did very little damage, a bomb it was carrying plunged through several decks and exploded, killing nine sailors and doing extensive damage to the propellor shafts and several fuel tanks. The Indianapolis spent the months of May and June in San Diego, undergoing extensive repairs and being retrofitted with newer, updated electronics.
At the time, the US had also developed the atomic bomb, and were preparing to drop the first two - code-named Fat Man and Little Boy - on the Japanese mainland. The crucial ingredient in the bombs' design was a supply of Uranium-235, and the Indianapolis - due to her speed and proximity - was chosen to convey the radioactive material to the Pacific island of Tinian, leaving port in California on July 16. Although no one on board - including Captain Charles McVay - knew what was in the mysterious containers, the Indianapolis and her crew dutifully conveyed the mysterious cargo across the Pacific, a journey of more than 6,000 miles. After arriving in Tinian on July 25th, the Indianapolis headed south to Guam for new orders, and from there proceded west. As about 400 of the cruiser's 1,196 men were raw recruits, the Indianapolis's next mission was to proceed west another 1700 miles to the Philippines for a training mission with the USS Idaho. Indianapolis left dock on Sunday, July 28, and headed west, and straight into the hunting grounds of the Imperial Japanese submarine I-58, and the Indianapolis - for an unknown reason - was denied it request for a destroyer escort ship, which were specially equipped to detect and destroy enemy subs.
The Indianapolis was making good time, but it was alone and blind, so a highly vulnerable target. Fourteen minutes after midnight, in the early morning hours of July 30, a torpedo from the I-58 struck the bow of the Indianapolis with tremendous force. It was nighttime, but it was also right about the time of shift change aboard the cruiser, so many of the officers were awake, but in their own cabins, which happened to be right about where the torpedo struck. One such officer, the ship's doctor, was awoken by his cabin porthole being blasted past his face by the explosion as he lay in bed.
While the crew was reeling from the impact, a second torpedo struck the Indianapolis on the port side amidships. The cruiser, having been built for speed, had armor of only about four inches thick (compared to about 13 for a battleship) so the torpedo punctured the skin with relative ease, striking and igniting several powder magazines and fuel oil tanks. The resultant explosion tore the Indianapolis open with terrible ease, not only causing the ship to topple, flounder, and begin to quickly sink, but also knocking out the power, and coating everything in the area - the ship, the crew, the ocean - with a layer of black inky oil.
The ship's momentum continued to carry it forward as it spent the next twelve minutes pitching, breaking apart, and finally sinking nose-first into one of the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean. About 300 of the crewmen died in the initial blasts, and the remaning 900 were spread out over about a mile of water. Some clung to debris, some to the hastily-deployed life rafts, and others floated free; Captain McVay, who escaped the ship, clung first to a box of potatoes, then to a desk, and finally he met up with other sailors aboard a rubber life raft which had been deployed upside-down. Not all were so fortunate in their ability to spot their fellow sailors - at water level, visibility is very limited, especially when bobbing up and down in estimated 12 foot waves.
The men took what comfort they could in the fact that since the Idaho knew they were on their way, they would be missed and a search party would be sent out. Unfortunately, a cascade of sloppy decisions, bad policies, and stunning coincidences ensured that that was not the case. The message to the Idaho was garbled, and no request was made to re-send the confusing message, so it was ultimately ignored. The ship-tracking logistics at the time assumed that all large warships such as the Indianapolis would reach their destinations safely, so there was so system to account their actual arrival. At least one distress call was sent out before the power went out, but it was discounted as a Japanese fake; other receptors of the call were drunk, or failed to respond as they didn't want to be disturbed. As no one received a warning or alarm, no one was aware the Indianapolis was missing, and so no help was forthcoming.
At first, the men did relatively well; they organized themselves as best they could, they looped their arms through straps in the back of their fellow sailor's life vests to keep them from sinking, their clustered together to support the wounded and preserve their body heat. Some men scavenged potatoes and Spam from floating pieces of debris, and they ate, albeit sparingly. Over time, however, their conditions deteriorated. With no fresh water to drink, some men panicked and drank salt water, the diarrhea from which causing them to dehydrate more quickly; this, along with the constant chill of being submerged, and the rampant salt poisoning, caused a delerium, and many men went mad, started fights, and drowned. The oil on the water, while it protected them somewhat from sunburn, caused photophobia, or a type of sun blindness caused by the reflection of the light off of the oil-coated ocean water. Others died of thirst.
Perhaps most terrifying, however, were the constant schools of sharks circling the water-borne sailors. Many of the sailors they ate had already died on their own, but the survivors in the water could often sense the lurking presence of hundreds of hunting sharks just below the waterline. Screams could be heard in the distance as lone stragglers, unable to find their companions, were regularly dragged underwater and devoured. This constant threat added to the despair and madness, and it lasted for several days.
At 10:25 on Thursday, August 2, the two-man crew of a PV-1 bomber, on a mission to find and sink enemy subs, saw a lengthy, oblong oil slick, and thought it was evidence of a recently-submerged Japanese submarine. As the bomber opened the bay doors and prepared to drop explosives, he noticed a long trail of men, waving and shouting for his help. They immediately notified their command of "many men in the water", and spent hours circling the crash site, relaying specifics. It took hours for their commanders to decide it was not, in fact, a prank, and rescuers should be dispatched immediately.
Next at the location was a heavy PBY seaplane piloted by Adrian Marks, who promptly disobeyed safety procedures and landed on the open ocean water, nearly crashing in the process. Marks puttered about in circles for hours, collecting the most vulnerable survivors, even lashing some to his wings with parachute cord when he ran out of interior space; he collected 56 men in total. When the destroyer Cecil Doyle arrived, Marks transferred his rescues to that ship, then sunk his seaplane, as he had damage it irretrievably during the course of the rescue.
Five more ships eventually arrived, searching the water for further survivors for almost a week. In all, 317 sailors survived the four days floating in the Pacific Ocean. These survivors were brought aboard a hospital ship and treated for dehydration, starvation, and all sorts of injuries and wounds suffered both aboard the ship and in the water. On August 6, Enola Gay delivered the two atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Captain McVay was court-martialed for the loss of his ship, on the basis that he didn't take sufficient precautions, but in 2000 Congress retroactively overturned the result after further investigation and the availability of previously-declassified files on the subject.
Links and Sources:
"Narrative of the Circumstances on the Loss of the U.S.S. Indianapolis", press release by the U.S. Navy, February 23, 1946, retrieved from the Naval Historical Center web page, on May 1, 2012.
Finneran, Patrick J., "The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis", on USSIndianapolis.org, retrieved May 1, 2012.
Haynes, Lewis L., "Recollections of the Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis", retrieved from the Naval Historical Center web page, on May 1, 2012.
Kurzman, Dan, Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Random House Digital, 2001.
Newcomb, Richard F., Abandon Ship!: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster, HarperCollins, 2002.
Portrait of the U.S.S. Indianapolis CA-35, by Michael Guyot, from Art of the U.S.S. Indianapolis on the Maritime Quest web site.
Film clip from Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, 1975.