“There are also lessons learned, in this case many of them, that need to be preserved and remembered.”
The discovery of the ship’s remains required detective work to get a more accurate location for the Indianapolis when it was struck with two torpedoes from the Japanese submarine.
A naval historian, Richard Hulver, came across a blog post that led him last year to a ship’s log recording a sighting of the Indianapolis. Calculations using that record showed that the cruiser was west of where it had long been assumed to be. Using a ship equipped with advanced undersea search equipment, Mr. Allen’s team began combing the newly identified area.
Mr. Allen, whose father fought in World War II, has made a passion of finding and preserving artifacts from the war. His expedition said that the precise location of the Indianapolis would be kept secret from the public, and that the site would be respected as a grave, as American law requires.
Just before the Indianapolis sank, it had completed a top secret mission: shipping parts of the atomic bomb, code-named “Little Boy,” that was later dropped on Hiroshima from San Francisco to Tinian Island in the Western Pacific. Allied forces were closing in on Japan, and the Indianapolis was ordered to sail to Leyte in the Philippines to get ready for the assault.
But as the Indianapolis plowed on in the dark of night, a Japanese submarine spotted it, and just after midnight unleashed six torpedoes, two of which struck the American cruiser. The explosions knocked out the ship’s communications, and the order to abandon ship came only by word of mouth. The ship sank in minutes.
For the 800 or so sailors and Marines who made it overboard, another, longer ordeal waited. They plunged into water covered in fuel oil, and many soon began vomiting. They had 12 or so rafts and few supplies, and it was unclear whether the distress messages had gone out before the communications system failed.
The water was chilling at night, but the sun baked the clusters of bobbing men during the day, and their drinking water soon ran out. Those who drank seawater succumbed to diarrhea and other illnesses, and men began to suffer collective hallucinations, such as imagining that the Indianapolis was close by, brimming with food and drink.
“In the beginning I took off their dog tags, said the Lord’s Prayer and let them go,” recalled Capt. Lewis L. Haynes, the ship’s chief medical officer, who tried to care for men dying in the water. “Eventually, I got such an armful of dog tags I couldn’t hold them any longer.”
There were also the sharks, which have entered the legend of the Indianapolis, especially through “Jaws,” the horror film released in 1975. In that movie, Quint, a fictional grizzled sailor played by Robert Shaw, recalls the attacks, though not entirely accurately.
“Didn’t see the first shark for about half an hour,” Quint says. “When he comes at you, he doesn’t seem to be living until he bites you.”
“Jaws” helped revive interest in the disaster. But by most accounts, the sharks picked off the dead or near-dead men, though some survivors remembered the terror of the sharks bumping up against them.
“You’d hear guys scream, especially late in the afternoon,” Woody James, a survivor who died in 2005, recalled in an oral history. “Seemed like the sharks were the worst late in the afternoon than they were during the day. Everything would be quiet, and then you’d hear somebody scream and you knew a shark had got him.”
The floating men would break into prayer when planes buzzed high overhead. But the Navy station where the Indianapolis had been headed did not note the ship’s lateness or send out a search alert, so the planes flew on without noticing. Into the fourth day, it seemed unlikely that the remaining survivors would be rescued.
But then a bomber pilot on patrol spotted an oil slick from the sunken ship and buzzed lower to investigate. A rescue got underway, and a Navy ship arrived late in the night and began picking up the survivors. The trauma shadowed many of them for the rest of their lives.
Captain McVay faced a different trauma: a court-martial, in which he was convicted of failing to steer the ship in a precautionary zigzag that may have thwarted the Japanese submarine.
Even at the time, the verdict was controversial. The Japanese submarine captain testified at the trial that zigzagging would not have made any difference. Captain McVay was officially exonerated by the Navy in 2001, after decades of campaigning by his supporters, including many survivors. But he had taken his own life in 1968.
“For more than two decades I’ve been working with the survivors. To a man, they have longed for the day when their ship would be found, solving their final mystery,” Capt. William J. Toti, retired, who acts as a spokesman for survivors of the Indianapolis, said on Mr. Allen’s website. “They all know this is now a war memorial.”
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