- In late July 1945, the US Navy cruiser USS Indianapolis sailed the Pacific on a secret mission.
- Indianapolis successfully completed this mission, but a much more difficult experience awaited its crew.
- You can find more stories on the Business Insider homepage.
Shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was hit by two torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine.
The first hit the starboard bow and tore it off almost completely. The second hit amidships and ignited a fuel tank, causing numerous secondary explosions.
The ship took on a tough list, and a large explosion effectively tore it in two. Just 12 minutes after the hit, Indianapolis capsized and sank with around 300 sailors and marines trapped on board.
Most of the crew, more than 800 men, managed to leave the ship. Many had to swim, hold on to debris, or swim with their life jackets as very few life rafts could be launched.
Unfortunately, her ordeal was not only far from over – it was going to get worse.
An excellent veteran with an important mission
The US Navy cruiser USS Indianapolis loads precautions before departing for the Pacific on April 14, 1937.
AP Photo / DBJ
The USS Indianapolis was one of two Portland-class heavy cruisers. Commissioned in 1931, it was a beautiful ship by all accounts. It was the flagship of the US Navy Scouting Force in 1933 and carried President Franklin Roosevelt on several trips.
Affectionately referred to as the “Indy” by its crew, the ship faced the challenges of World War II and received 10 Battle Stars for its role in the campaigns in New Guinea and the Aleutian Islands, as well as in the battles of Saipan, the Philippine Sea and Iwo Jima . among other.
Indy even served as Adm’s flagship in 1943 and 1944. Raymond Spruance while commanding the US Fifth Fleet.
Indianapolis shot down at least nine enemy planes, fired thousands of shots at hundreds of targets on land, and even suffered a kamikaze attack during a pre-invasion bombardment of Okinawa.
As a result of this attack, the cruiser returned to the United States for repairs. Upon completion, Captain Charles B. McVay III received top secret orders; He was supposed to get vital cargo to Tinian Island as soon as possible.
The operation was so secretive that McVay and his crew had no idea what they were carrying – only that their importance was paramount.
“I can’t tell you what the mission is. I don’t know myself, but I’ve been told that every day we make the trip is a day outside of war,” McVay told his crew.
They left San Francisco on July 16, reached Pearl Harbor in a record 74.5 hours, and arrived in Tinian on July 26.
In fact, they transported the internal components for the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that was to be dropped on Hiroshima. Indianapolis had left the US just hours after a test detonation in New Mexico to make sure the bomb worked.
The cargo was immediately disembarked at Tinian, and Indianapolis soon left for Guam, where it received new crew members. McVay was then directed to sail to the Philippines so they could train for the proposed invasion of Japan.
McVay was told that enemy activity was unlikely and no escort was possible. Two days after traveling from Indianapolis, I-58, a Type B3 submarine operated by Cmdr. Mochitsura Hashimoto spotted the cruiser, fired six torpedoes and reported to Japan that he had sunk an enemy battleship.
“Misery – like hell”
USS Indianapolis survivors on their way to a base hospital on Peleilu.
The two torpedoes turned off Indianapolis’ electricity so it couldn’t send a distress signal. Many of the sailors who jumped into the water that night were covered in the marine oil that spilled uncontrollably.
Hundreds of survivors likely died in the first few hours of wounds sustained in explosions and fires when the ship sank. The rest of the crew was divided into seven groups over an area of 40 kilometers. The largest group consisted of 300 to 400 men.
The survivors hovered for four or five days before being rescued. During this time, hundreds died from drowning, dehydration, exposure and exhaustion.
“It was miserable – as hell,” said Paul McGinnis, a signal man. “You couldn’t wait for the sun to go down. When the sun went down it was a relief. Then it would get cold and you would start shaking and you couldn’t wait for the sun to come up again.”
Some desperately drank salt water to quench their thirst.
“Men began to drink so much salt water they were very insane,” recalled Granville Crane, another survivor. “In fact, a lot of them had guns like knives and they’d be so mad that they’d fight and kill each other.”
Then the sharks arrived.
“All the while the sharks never let up.” said Eugene Morgan, a boatswain. “We had a cargo net with styrofoam things attached to keep it afloat. There were about 15 sailors there and suddenly 10 sharks hit it and there was nothing left. It went on and on and on.”
It wasn’t until three and a half days after the sinking, after some survivors were discovered by a pilot on patrol, that the Navy discovered that Indianapolis had been sunk. The last survivors were rescued until August 8th.
Since Indianapolis could not get a distress signal, no immediate rescue was ordered. Port officials in Leyte, Philippines also did not report that Indianapolis missed its arrival time. The I-58’s report of the sinking was intercepted but was believed to be a forgery so it was not passed on.
An enduring legacy
The last known photo of the USS Indianapolis, taken in 1945, just days before it was sunk.
Ship Office / US National Archives
Of Indianapolis’ nearly 1,200-strong crew, only 316 survived, making it the worst sinking in U.S. Navy history.
The Navy immediately made changes to ensure that such an event would not happen again. Most warships required escorts, overdue reporting procedures were put in place, and all ships were instructed to zigzag at all times for the remainder of the war.
McVay survived the sinking and was held accountable by the Navy. He was the only US court martial captain who had lost a ship sunk by war.
Although his beliefs included an immediate referral, McVay was never able to command at sea again and was always tied to the tragedy. Some family members of the deceased sent him hate mail. He died of suicide in 1968 and was holding a toy sailor in one hand.
After massive efforts by survivors and a sixth grade student, McVay was fully exonerated in 2000 when President Bill Clinton signed a law exempting him from any wrongdoing.
In 2017, a research team led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen discovered the Indianapolis wreck 18,000 feet under the waves of the Pacific.