Jul 30

The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis

Monday, July 30, 2018 12:47 PM

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At roughly 0015 on July 30, 1945 the USS Indianapolis (CA-35) was struck by two torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58 in the Philippine Sea. The ship was on a highly classified mission, to deliver various parts needed to finish the field construction of the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Tinian Island. Only a little more than two weeks from the surrender of Japan, the sinking of the Indianapolis was one of the last major naval events of World War II. Once struck, it took only 12 minutes to sink, which was not enough time for a distress signal to be sent.

The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) before the war in September 1939. (Photo: NHHC)

The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) before the war in September 1939. (Photo: NHHC)

Around 400 crew members died during the sinking, but arguably it is most famous for what the survivors of the sinking went through before they were rescued. Many suffered dehydration and heat-related illnesses, as well as shark attacks. The sinking is widely accepted as the largest shark attack event in recorded history. As a result of the delayed rescue, only 315 of the crew members survived. The wreck was popularized by movies such as “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,” (2016), as well as being featured multiple times during the Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week.” Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, recently found the wreckage of the Indianapolis at a depth of over 18,000 feet. Without distress signal or sighting when the ship went down, its location was unknown for 72 years until Allen and his team located it.

After the sinking, the blame was placed on the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Charles McVay III. His court-martial determined he placed the ship in harm’s way by not using the appropriate “zig-zagging” tactic used to evade Japanese submarines.

(RADM Elliot Strauss discusses some of the difficulties with “zig-zagging” as well as his knowledge of McVay’s situation at the time. (Audio: USNI Archive) )

He was taken off of active-duty and it looked as though his career was over until Admiral Nimitz reviewed the case and restored him to his former status. Multiple survivor testimonies and even the testimony of the Japanese submarine captain, Mochitsura Hashimoto, where he stated that the zig-zag would not have helped McVay because they were already close, helped to relieve some of the blame from McVay. He was fully exonerated from blame in 2001 after his official records were cleared. Sadly, McVay took his life in 1968, possibly overwhelmed with the guilt from the disaster.

Captain Charles McVay (right) cutting a ceremonial cake. (Photo: USNI Archive)

Captain Charles McVay (right) cutting a ceremonial cake. (Photo: USNI Archive)

The USS Indianapolis remains an iconic disaster from World War II and Naval History as a whole, and will continue to be used as a lesson for years to come.

 
 
 
  • Brenda Barnes

    Enjoyed reading your article. Very informative.