U.S.S. Indianapolis
"Abandon Ship!
The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster"
By: Richard F. Newcomb, with an Introduction and Afterword by Peter Maas
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 326
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"The Tragic Fate of the U.S.S. Indianapolis: The U.S. Navy's Worst Disaster at Sea"
By: Raymond B. Lech
Publisher: Cooper Square Press
Pages: 309
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"In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors"
By: Doug Stanton
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Pages: 333
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Someone Dark Has Found Me link

USS Indianapolis
Tragedy in the water
Three books tell the heart-wrenching story
of the U.S. Navy's worst loss of lives at sea:
The sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis
Originally posted in April 2001

On July 15, 1945, two very different ships — one "lucky and happy" and one "unlucky" — set sail from either side of the world, destined to meet in just 14 days in the South Pacific, where luck would change for both.

One was the Japanese submarine I-58, with a crew of 105 and armed with the best torpedos in the world. The I-58, just more than a year old, was an excellent craft and one of only four large submarines left to Japan, but had never scored even one confirmed sinking of an enemy and was down to just onions for fresh food.

The other was the U.S. Navy Cruiser the Indianapolis, commissioned in 1932 and chosen by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be ship of state. It had often distinguished itself during the war and on this cruise would do so again, setting a speed record from San Francisco to Hawaii that stands to this day.

On Sunday, July 29, on a night so dark that officers on the bridge of the Indianapolis couldn't see their own hands in front of their faces, the I-58 surfaced and its captain, Mochitsura Hashimoto, scanned the horizon, seeing nothing but the dark sea and night. Then his navigator shouted, "Bearing red nine-zero degrees. Possible enemy ship!"

Just more than an hour later, after diving again and crawling undersea at three knots to get into position, the I-58 launched six torpedos at 12:05 a.m., July 30. Each one carried 1,210 pounds of explosives. At 12:06, two of them struck the Indianapolis, and about 15 minutes later — time enough for many lifetimes of heroics, as the crew of 1,199 men struggled to save their burning and broken ship and each other — the Indianapolis sank in 10,000 feet of clear water in the Philippine Sea.

Of those 1,199, at least 800, perhaps as many as 900, survived the sinking. Of those, only 316 were to survive the more than four days they spent in the water before rescue finally arrived.

Everywhere[Dr. Haynes] turned there was fire, but he made it to the wardroom. Only a red haze illuminated it, and the heat was fierce. The doctor fell, and as his hands touched the deck they sizzled. He rose in shock and threw himself into an armchair. As he gasped for breath in this inferno, someone standing above him screamed "My God, I'm choking," and fell on him.

— From "Abandon Ship"

The loss of so many sailors, in fact, turned out to be the worst loss of lives at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy (more were lost in port when Pearl Harbor was attacked). But just a few days later Hiroshima was bombed, then Nagasaki, and soon the war was over. For most Americans at the time, the sinking of the Indianapolis was a small story, if indeed they heard of it at all.

Lewis Haynes

Most of us probably first heard of the Indianapolis via the movie "Jaws," in which Robert Shaw, playing a character in fact modeled after a survivor of the sinking, tells about the four days in the water.

"Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side, chief," Shaw, as Quint, relates. "Was comin' back from the island of Tinian, to Leyte. Just delivered the bomb, the Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. ...

"What we didn't know was our bomb mission had been so secret no distress signal had been sent. They didn't even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, chief, sharks come cruisin' ...

"So, eleven hundred men went into the water, 316 come out. The sharks took the rest. June 29, 1945."

While a great movie moment, Shaw's speech is incorrect on some details, including the date. While the Indianapolis had, in fact, just delivered components of the bomb that would incinerate Hiroshima, nobody on board, from Captain Charles Butler McVay III on down, had any idea what they had just dropped off at Tinian. They just knew they had dropped off a large crate and a heavy, lead-lined bucket, both of which had been guarded by Marines night and day.

Capt. Charles Butler McVay III

And, distress signals were sent, and received. And ignored. And the Indianapolis was never reported overdue. When rescuers finally showed up, four and a half days later, they were shocked to hear the men in the water were from the Indianapolis. Nobody knew it had been sunk.

As three powerfully moving books make clear, based on decades of gathering anecdotes, reports and newly released, previously secret documents, the 800 to 900 men who survived the torpedo explosions and rapid sinking were fated to spend four and half days in shark-infested waters because of massive bureaucratic bungling by the U.S. Navy.

And the sharks were not their biggest problem.

Regardless of which side of the ship they exited, the boys were swimming directly into the poisoned field of black fuel oil spewing from the ship's exploded hull. It was sticky as molasses, and they couldn't avoid swallowing it as they paddled around in the heavy swells. It smothered them in a noxious blanket, clogging their eyes, ears, and mouths, eating away with acid intensity at all their sensitive membranes.

— From "In Harm's Way"

The nearly 900 young men — ages 19 or 20, most of them — were thrown into the sea. Marine Gile McCory related, in Doug Stanton's excellent "In Harm's Way," being sucked down as the Indianapolis left the surface, then being shot back to the surface in a huge bubble of escaping air.

On the surface, many of the injured died and sank fairly soon, but the living were thrashing in convulsions, vomiting fuel oil they had swallowed. Dozens were able to climb aboard a few life rafts or huge floater nets, but hundreds were supported only by inflatable, waist-worn floats or kapok life vests — or just by their own ability to swim.

They were already scattered over miles of sea and would separate more over the next few days. Some were able to form into groups — each unaware of others — and some men were alone, unable to see their shipmates because of the 15-foot swells. By the time the sun arrived on Monday there were groups of rafts and floater nets tied together in a few places, and few groups of swimmers.

Bravery in this enormous group of "swimmers" was everywhere. Commander Lipski, the ship's gunnery officer, who had been very badly burned, was cheerfully supported all day Monday by Airman 1st Class Anthony Maday. Lieutenant Commander Coleman, who came aboard in Guam and was a member of Spruance's staff, was the leader of a group, and he worked unceasingly to keep them together. Time after time, he swam out to bring in stragglers. Ultimately, Commander Coleman became so weak that he died from exhaustion.

— From "The Tragic Fate of the U.S.S. Indianapolis"

With the sun came sunburn, for most of the men had no hats and indeed many were naked or nearly so, having been rousted from their bunks by the explosions or having their clothing burned off. As the days went by, many of the men became virtually blind, because of their initial immersion in the fuel oil and because of the constant sun during the days. Even if they closed their eyes, the sun glowed too brightly through their eyelids. The water was warm by ocean standards but cooler than human bodies and after days all the men's core body temperatures started to drop seriously. And even on the rafts there was almost no water to drink — most of the stored kegs either having been spoiled by seawater and fuel oil or broken apart when they were dropped from the sinking ship.

Even life rafts are virtually impossible for most airplane pilots to see, Captain McVay explained to the men in his group of survivors. He knew the pilots would be too busy flying their planes to look down much, and indeed, even the flares he was able to fire when planes were overhead went unnoticed.

There were sharks in the area again. The clear water allowed the men to look down and see them. It seems that during this second day, however, the sharks were going after dead men, especially the bodies that were sinking down into the deeper ocean. They didn't seem to bother men on the surface.

Things became progressively worse from sundown on the second day. The men's stories become mixed up, and some accounts are totally incoherent, making it difficult to piece together what actually happened. Haynes remembered that shortly after sundown they all experienced severe chills, which lasted for at least an hour. These were followed by a high fever, as most of the group became delirious and got out of control. The men fought with one another, thinking there were Japanese in the group, and disorganization and disintegration occurred rapidly. Captain Parke worked until he collapsed. Haynes was so exhausted that he drifted away from the group.

— From "In Harm's Way"

Hallucinations became an increasing problem on the third day in the water, including mass visions, wherein entire groups of men began imagining the same things — that they had drifted by an island with a hotel, where they could get fresh water if only they all swam there in line. That their ship was only a few feet below them (instead of 10,000 feet) and they had only to swim down to it to get fresh water and ice cream. Some men swam away forever in search of the ship or the imagined islands.

It was some hours before they began to realize that sharks were among them. Suddenly a man screamed, his head bobbed for a moment, and he began flailing the water with his arms. Blood welled to the surface, and other men took up the cry. They beat the water with their arms and legs and shouted and screeched in an effort to scare the intruders away.

— From "Abandon Ship"

Lt. Wilbur C. Gwinn

On Thursday, Lt. (j.g.) Wilbur C. Gwinn, pilot of a two-engine Ventura on routine patrol north from Peleliu, turned the plane over to his co-pilot and crawled to the back to fix a trailing antenna wire. As he worked, he happened to glance down through the tail-gunner's blister and saw an oil slick. He and his radioman, who also saw it, both cheered. They thought (and were correct, in a sense) that they had found the track of an enemy sub, and would have some action at last, after a long, boring flight.

They dropped the plane down to 1,000 feet and followed the slick, and were shocked when they saw a head bobbing in the water, and another, and in a few seconds, at least 30 heads. In minutes, they spotted at least 150 heads, which was shocking, since that meant a large ship must have gone down, and to this point the world still didn't know the Indianapolis had sunk.

Gwinn radioed for help, then dropped all his life rafts, water kegs (which broke upon hitting the water) and life jackets, circling over the men to give them hope.

Lt. R. Adrian Marks

Lt. R. Adrian Marks arrived on the scene in a PBY and decided to land his big plane in the water to help the men. Not an easy task for the huge plane, which was designed for landing in smooth water, not in the 12-foot swells at this location. The multi-ton airplane bounced three times on landing, popping two rivets, splitting a seam and partially rupturing a fuel tank. But it stayed afloat, and guided by another airplane overhead, began taxiing around, picking up delirious and moaning men, who announced they were from the Indianapolis.

Eventually, Marks' crew had plucked 56 men from the water, tying them to the wings and piling them into the fuselage. The frantic men, as they clambered aboard, and when rolling in pain, kicked so many holes in the plane's wings and fuselage that after the men were finally transferred to one of the seven rescue ships that finally arrived, the plane had to be abandoned, then sunk by gunfire.

Lifting the boys aboard the Playmate 2, Marks discovered that many had swollen, broken legs and arms; boarding was a hideously painful process. At times, as Marks and his crew gave a heave-ho, the flesh of the latest retrieval remained in their hands. The seawater had eaten away all the body hair from some, who came aboard whimpering, pale, and smooth-skinned as newts. Marks and his crew were horrified.

— From "In Harm's Way"

The recovery process, starting with rescuing the living and ending with completing the burial at sea of the dead, took a couple of days.

After only a few days of hospitalization, Capt. McVay was called before a court of inquiry by the Navy. Eventually, he was court martialed on two charges: Failure to zigzag his ship, and failure to order abandon ship in time.

The court of inquiry and the court-martial were both questionable events, as, especially, "The Tragic Fate of the U.S.S. Indianapolis" makes clear. For instance, an officer whose orders were in question in the event was a member of the court of inquiry. And the Japanese commander, Mochitsura Hashimoto, was brought in, the first time ever that an enemy had testified in a U.S. Navy court martial about sinking a U.S. ship.

Despite the testimony of both Hashimoto and a top U.S. Navy submarine expert that zig-zagging the Indianapolis would have made no difference at all in its sinking, McVay was convicted on that charge, and acquitted on the other.

The Navy was as public as it could be about blaming McVay. Six months later, it quietly remitted all charges against him and restored him to duty. He would serve for years in various shore duties before retiring. For the rest of his life he would get mail from families of sailors who had died in the sinking, blaming him for their deaths.

In 1958, a former war correspondent and Associated Press news editor, Richard F. Newcomb, wrote "Abandon Ship! The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster," which among other things, collected some public records of the disaster, and a great deal of anecdotal material, in one place for the first time.

As Peter Maas writes in an afterword to a new edition of that book, "Newcomb made clear his belief that Captain McVay had been dealt a grave injustice in his court-martial."

After reading the book, McCoy — who'd been saved by that huge bubble of air — formed the first reunion of Indy survivors, in 1960. McVay attended. "He was tearfully embraced by everyone there and was hailed as a man they had been proud to serve under," Maas writes. "It was then that the first efforts to clear his name began."

Those efforts are ongoing, and include work by McVay's sons, Charles and Kimo, and by a sixth-grader named Hunter Scott from Pensacola, Florida. Hunter, for a history fair at his school, began researching the sinking after have seen "Jaws."

Among other things the young Scott learned, in 1997, was that the Navy had known that the I-58 was operating right on the course to be taken by the Indianapolis, but had failed to tell McVay that it was there, and failed to provide an escort ship — which, had it been there, might have gotten survivors out of the water more quickly.

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Raymond B. Lech, author of "The Tragic Fate of the U.S.S. Indianapolis: The U.S. Navy's Worst Disaster at Sea," first published in 1982, then updated and re-releasted just year, uncovered a number of marks against the Navy, including that when the Indianapolis didn't report to Leyte as scheduled, it was simply removed from the expected arrivals list and assumed to either be in port already or simply reassigned elsewhere.

Lech's book contains a pile of documents, from the court of inquiry and court-martial, and he is most openly scathing in his condemnation of the Navy blunders that led to its being sent into the jaws of the enemy, then forgotten about. He writes, "About 400 men went down with the ship. The other 500, instead of being reported as Killed in Action, should have been repored as Killed by Inaction."

But the latest of these three books, "In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors," by magazine writer and editor Doug Stanton, is both the most up to date in terms of information, and the most readable.

Stanton spent a lot of time talking with survivors and pieces together a more human telling of the tragedy and its aftermath.

Among information he covers better than Newcomb/Maas and Lech is that various Navy commands had received the Indianapolis' radioed distress signals, but ignored them because they hadn't been repeated. (Apparently it hadn't occurred to Navy rulesmakers that a ship in distress might actually sink before being able to repeat its SOS enough times for bureaucrats.)

And Stanton describes colorfully how relatively junior officers went into action to save survivors, once it was learned that there were, indeed, men in the water — while certain senior officers continued to dither and wait for further confirmation.

The Navy, to its credit, instituted new procedures after the sinking of the Indianapolis, including an order to actually report the fact when a ship failed to show up in port on time.

But, overall, the Navy comes off as an inept bureaucracy in all three books, more worried the politics of remaining an independent service (as opposed to being taken over by the Army) than about its practices in sending capital ships in harm's way.

McVay, himself a career officer, never really spoke out against the Navy, other than right after being picked up, to wonder why it had taken so long for rescue to arrive. At the age of 70, in 1968, the day after receiving another hate letter from the family of a dead sailor, he killed himself.

Survivors on a raft

Back in 1945, as survivors of the sinking were being transferred from an island hospital to a hospital ship for transport home, pilot Lt. Gwinn was introduced to them:

"Boys, here's the guy who found you."

Men in all stages of recovery, some weak and hollow-eyed on their beds, shouted, cheered, and whistled. Those who could, crowded around and thumped him on the back, laughing and jumping. Some merely turned their heads on their pillows and cried softly. Quiet, reticent Gwinn himself broke down under the flood of emotion, the most treasured moment of his life."

— From "Abandon Ship"


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