If you’ve ever seen Jaws you’re familiar with this story. Days after it delivered Little Boy to Tinian, the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The attack is so effective that the bow literally vaporizes and because they are running “yoke-modified,” with most of the hatches dogged open because the crew is roasting in the tropical heat, water rushes into the hull and the ship sinks in twelve minutes. By comparison, it took the Titanic two hours and 40 minutes to sink from the time it hit the iceberg, and the Titanic didn’t even have watertight compartments.
An estimated 400 crew members are killed outright in the attack. The rest take to the water, for the next four to five days to be preyed on by sharks (an estimated 200 of them die this way) and suffer from sunburn and hypothermia. Thirst drives many of them to suicide and subsequent hallucinations even to murder. In the end, finally spotted from the air, there are 317 survivors out of a crew of 1,196.
Why were they in the water that long? Why wasn’t the ship reported missing when it didn’t arrive on its duty station? Why was there no reaction to their distress call, heard by at least three separate US Navy radio operators? Stanton answers all of those questions thanks to new information uncovered in the late 90s and the answers do not resound to the credit of the US Navy. The captain is court-martialed and convicted and his crew spends the next fifty years trying to have that conviction overturned. Eventually they succeed, although long after the captain commits suicide in 1968, after too much hate mail from the families of the sailors lost under his command.
This is an immediate and horrifyingly riveting read. I can feel the sharks bumping my feet as I type these words. The heroism of some of these men is almost incredible–Doctor Haynes who was treating the men in his group even while they were all moving a mile an hour toward Borneo with no help in sight. I don’t think I’m ever going to get over the scene where he buried the dead. Adrian Marks, the PBY pilot who landed in way too rough seas specifically against standing orders and got as many of the survivors on board as possible, even tying some of them to the wings of his craft. Marine private McCoy as he dives repeatedly into the water from their raft, sharks be damned, to retrieve a crewmate who is trying like hell to kill himself. These men, my god, these men.
Stanton agrees with the overturning of the court-martial’s verdict. I’m not so sure. One of the reasons there was so much confusion during the sinking was that there had been no emergency drills. Crew members couldn’t even get one of the lifeboats to launch. Very few of the rafts had emergency supplies and almost none of them had water. Whose responsibility was it to make sure his crew was trained, that the survival gear was fully supplied and ready to use in the event of a catastrophic event like this? The captain’s.
Yeah, you can cite the speed of the sinking for some of the confusion, but even in that twelve minutes damage control people were on hoses, ready to put out the fire, if only the pumps had still been running. Yes, the mission (to get the bomb to Tinian) was urgent and brief and perhaps didn’t allow for some crew training, but the Indianapolis was sailing into harm’s way. Why wasn’t someone tasked with checking the status of the emergency supplies and the shipworthiness of the launches and rafts? Captain McVay was at minimum negligent here.
I have some experience on ships at sea and the crews are continually training. Much of that time, they are training for potential emergencies, because at sea they have only themselves to rely on. Maybe that’s only the way things are now, after hideous object lessons like the Indianapolis. In which case, all those men did not die in vain.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.