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Thursday, July 1, 2010

The USS Indianapolis remembered . . .

by kent ballard

Slowly pulling into a darkened San Francisco Navy Yard on a sweltering night in July, 1945, the deck crew of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis noticed something odd about the scene before them. Their dock looked unusually quiet. In fact, it appeared deserted. There was none of the usual hustle and around-the-clock work in sight. Two trucks pulled up alongside the cruiser. From one, a heavy crate was hoisted aboard and immediately secured in the ship's port hanger.
Crewmen saw several men get out of the other truck. From its rear, they withdrew a three foot square, four foot long metal canister that was carried up the gangplank by Army officers. Officers? Lugging cargo? What's going on here?

The USS Indianapolis had seen more combat in World War II than most ships, and had served as the flagship for the Fifth Fleet under Admiral Raymond Spruance. She'd fought the Imperial Japanese from the Aleutian Islands to Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and all across the Pacific. She was not a ship bound for glory, she was already covered in it, having been awarded ten combat stars for her valorous duty in the war. But she was about to embark on a mission unlike any other, for the few crewmen who could see what was taking place noted that canister which had been carried aboard the ship by Army officers was now being welded to the deck in Admiral Spruance's personal quarters. Not tied. Not strapped. Welded to the deck floor. In the Admiral's cabin, no less.

Captain Charles Butler McVay, in command of the Indianapolis, held a brief meeting with his senior officers. Truthfully, he told them even he didn't know what their cargo was, but they were going to be sailing at full speed. He had been notified, in no uncertain terms, that every day they could take off their voyage would shorten the war by a day. He also told them in the event of any emergency that canister was to go into a lifeboat before any crewman. He'd been ordered to tell them that. They were to get underway immediately. The Indianapolis slipped away from the San Francisco Navy Yard on July 16th and began steaming west into the Pacific Ocean.

They quickly refueled at Pearl Harbor, then set course for a bulldozed lump of coral atoll known as Tinian, setting a speed record from Pearl to the huge B-29 base on that island, the Indianapolis' engines thundering flawlessly all the way.

There was the usual shipboard scuttlebutt, rumors about this and that, but the fact remained no one aboard knew what they were carrying—or why. And they got no answers from the Army officers who boarded her in Tinian and removed the canister and the large crate, put them back in trucks, and drove away towards a secure area of the base.

Captain McVay himself was not even told. Instead, he received his new orders: report to Guam. As they pulled away from the Army Air Force Base on Tinian, not a single man aboard the Indianapolis realized they had just delivered the first atomic bomb, “Little Boy” to the airfield from which it would be released over the city of Hiroshima.

At Guam the USS Indianapolis was ordered to Leyte in the Philippines for two weeks of training, after which they would join Task Force 95 at Okinawa which was already preparing for the planned November 1st invasion of Kyushu. While in the meeting with his superiors on Guam, Capt. McVay had a few questions, received his orders, and much of what was said at that point would remain unknown to the U.S. public for almost the next half-century.

McVay was given orders to “zigzag at his discretion” enroute to Leyte. The Imperial Japanese Navy had been practically wiped out as a surface force, but there were still enemy submarines to consider. Although his course was considered a “rear area” and sailing unescorted had become commonplace in that part of the Pacific, the mighty Indianapolis was an older ship and lacked the newer, sophisticated submarine detection gear many of the younger ships in the fleet carried. Zigzagging was believed to be the best deterrent to a submarine's torpedo attack. Even if spotted by a lurking submarine, the ship's abrupt changes in course would make it harder to set up a successful shot.

On the night of Sunday, July 29th , 1945, a heavy cloud cover set in. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, late at night with no moon or stars above, visibility soon became terrible. Crewmen on watch that evening later testified they could not recognize each other from even a few feet away. It seemed an unlikely night to be seen through a tiny periscope. Using his discretion—and decades of wartime combat experience—Captain McVay gave the orders for straight-sailing to make the best possible time to Leyte.

Japanese Submarine I-58 - the sub that torpedoed the Indianapolis

Cruising on the surface roughly a mile away, Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese submarine I-58, was scanning the ocean's surface. He thought he saw something, then it was gone. Then he got another glimpse. A huge warship, and certainly not a Japanese one. He'd found—he thought—a lone American battleship. He dove to periscope depth and maneuvered his sub for an attack. At fourteen minutes after midnight, on July 30th, and from 1,500 yards the I-58 fired a fan-shaped salvo of six deadly “Long Lance” torpedoes into the dark object. Looking anxiously through his periscope, Hashimoto counted three hits. Many Indianapolis crewmen said they were hit only twice, but a rapid series of secondary explosions inside the ship may have clouded this forever. The first torpedo literally tore the bow off the Indianapolis. The second took out all electrical power, detonating between a powder magazine and an aviation fuel tank. Both exploded immediately. The doomed ship was broken open to the sea amidships on the starboard side all the way down to the keel, her engines still turning at seventeen knots, about 20 miles per hour. It began listing and going down by the bow even before the thunder of the explosions died away. The Japanese submarine crew later reported hearing more explosions, each louder than the original torpedo hits. The dying Indianapolis was tearing itself apart.

Torpedo Room of the Submarine I-58
The crew of the Indianapolis numbered 1,196 men. No order was given to abandon ship, save for that passed by word of mouth. None was possible anyway without electrical power, and none was needed. Those who survived the attack knew the ship was going down, and fast. Some grabbed their lifejackets and lowered themselves with ropes to the waterline, only to find themselves being dragged and tangled by the forward motion of the ship, her engines still shoving the vessel forward. Others donned their kapok-filled lifejackets and simply jumped where the sinking ship had lowered the distance from the deck to the ocean and began swimming away like mad. Many went overboard with no lifejackets at all. Only a few life rafts were deployed. There was simply not enough time. As the ship sank lower men began to jump off the fantail. Those in the water saw several caught and mangled by the number three screw which was still turning.

Those already afloat and still living found themselves in a sea of fuel oil, blinding some, causing others to retch uncontrollably. Men continued to jump until she went under, and survivors swore they could still hear screaming from inside the hull as the ship finally went down, just twelve minutes after the first torpedo struck. The USS Indianapolis was gone. Left in her wake for over a mile were burned, injured, dazed, and drowning men.

Celebrating their great victory, the I-58 slipped away into the night, silent and unseen.

No one is certain how many men made it off the Indianapolis alive. Some sources say 850, others claim as many as 900. At least 300 Americans never left the ship. And the rest were just beginning their journey into hell, what is still on several “worst-of” lists: the worst disaster in the annals of the U.S. Navy being one of them, and darker still—the worst mass shark attack in known human history. For the dark waters beneath the thrashing men were teeming with hungry man eaters, and given the explosions, the grinding, the now-constant slapping in the water, and blood leaking from scores of wounds, untold numbers more would be drawn to the scene.

. . . and thus, Kent Ballard sets the scene. As you read his account of this tragic wartime event, you will find yourself on the edge of your seat throughout. Join us for the rest of this week's fascinating cover story at:

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