On July 30, 1945, just days before the end of WWII, the USS Indianapolis was sailing from Guam to Leyte when she was struck by two torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine. The ship sank in roughly 12 minutes. Survivors were thrown into the shark-infested Philippine Sea where many perished before rescuers arrived four days later. Of the 1,196 sailors aboard the ship, nearly 900 made it into the water but only 316 survived until rescue. The disaster resulted in the largest loss of life at sea in US Navy history.
The Indianapolis left San Francisco on July 16th headed for Tinian in the Mariana Islands. She was loaded with secret cargo that included key components to make the atomic bomb that would later be dropped on Japan. The ship was forced to sail without an escort and through waters where Japanese subs were likely. The Indianapolis made it to Tinian in record time, dropped off her cargo, headed for Guam and Leyte Gulf, once again without an escort.
The night of July 30th was hot, and 19-year-old Seaman 1st Class Clarence Hershberger decided to sleep on deck to escape the heat below. Shortly after midnight, two torpedoes slammed into the Indianapolis. The ship began to sink, and commander, Charles B. McVay, III, gave the order to abandon ship. About half the men had life jackets and 12 of the ship’s 35 life rafts (as well as some floater nets) were deployed. Hershberger found himself floating in the sea. He says men buddied up in pairs or gathered in groups for moral support. The first morning Hershberger saw dorsal fins, but the sharks kept their distance. The second day, he saw a large shark swim right below him. The men would scream, kick, and holler in an attempt to drive the sharks away. “We knew when a shark was attacking because he [a sailor] would let out a bloodcurdling scream, like nothing you’ve ever heard before,” Hershberger said. “Every time you’d hear that bloodcurdling scream you would think, ‘Uh-oh, the sharks hit another one.’”
Four days later, on August 2nd, Lt. Wilbur C. Gwinn was flying patrol over the Philippine Sea when he spotted an oil slick. He changed course to investigate and saw a group of men floating in the sea. A seaplane piloted by Lt. Commander Robert Adrian Marks was dispatched and disregarding standing orders, landed in the sea, and rendered assistance while they waited for rescue ships to arrive.
The last man was pulled out of the water on August 3rd. Captain Charles B. McVay, III, was court-martialed for failure to give timely orders to evacuate the ship, and for failing to zig-zag, a common practice to avoid enemy torpedoes. He was acquitted of the first charge and found guilty of negligence on the second. McVay had the support of his men who organized and spent years trying to clear his name. McVay was the only captain in the history of the US Navy to be court-martialed for the loss of his ship in combat. McVay passed away in 1968, and in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a resolution passed by Congress exonerating Captain McVay for the loss of the USS Indianapolis. On August 19, 2017, a civilian research expedition led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen discovered the wreckage of Indianapolis 18,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. To learn more about the USS Indianapolis, search Fold3 today.