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The 75th Anniversary of the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis

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 USS Indianapolis is captured in this photograph taken 20 days before she was sunk

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.

Captain Charles B. McVay, III

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.

USS Indianapolis Survivors Arrive on Guam

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.

113 Comments

  1. Harlan Twible is my relative. We consider him a true hero. He walked humbly & was grateful to help save lives.We miss him dearly.

  2. Some few commenters have defended the use of the image of Robert E. Lee on the masthead, in response to others who questioned why it appears here. I previously responded with detailed reasons why I support the removal of Lee’s image.

    General Mark A. Miley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the administration’s senior military advisor, today called for “taking a hard look” at changing the names of ten Army bases — including Fort Lee — honoring Confederate officers who had fought against the Union during the Civil War. General Miley told Congress, “There is no place in our armed forces for manifestations, or symbols of racism, bias or discrimination.”

    As the general explained at a House hearing just a few hours ago, “The Confederacy, the American Civil War, was fought, and it was an act of rebellion. . . . It was an act of treason, at the time, against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the U.S. Constitution. Those officers turned their back on their oath.”

    It has been reported that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, as well as other senior officers and officials of the Army, Navy and Air Force, are in agreement. I am glad that these officials have publicly embraced my views. I hope to see the bases renamed — and the removal of all other divisive Confederate symbols on military installations — in the next year or two.

    • Make that General Mark A. Milley [sic].

    • To try and erase history is the beginning of a “big brother” America, I believe.

    • Bill, “erasing history” is a political talking point, not a real thing. Removing a common image of Lee from a masthead or moving a statue to another location erases nothing. Such acts are not changing or erasing any history — which is beyond the powers of mere mortals to go back in time, in any event — nor does it at all eliminate or detract from what’s readily available in any library or online, even here on Fold3 . . . . The numerous anachronistic hagiographies written in praise of a mythical Robert E. Lee may still be read by you and others as often as desired.

  3. My husband’s brother Clarence C. Mlady, Seaman First Class, was one of the survivors. We are appreciative of the fact that this information is out there. So many of our younger generation do not know about this tragedy and how famous it was.

    • May S1C Clarence Charles Mlady Rest in Eternal Peace. And how tragically ironic that he would survive the sinking of the Indy, only to perish two decades later, along with his wife, in a traffic accident on the streets of Cleveland.

  4. Bull S__T, renaming them is being RACIST in the EXTREME, SoThere!! And what the heck does this have to with the USS Indianapolis!.

    • 1. Robert E. Lee’s image appears at the top of this military blog, therefore it is relevant to anything on this blog.

      2. And the first African-American sailor to earn the Navy Cross, Doris Miller, served on the USS Indianapolis.

      3. As a long-serving, retired Army officer myself, I stand with General Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — as well as our Secretary of Defense, the other joint chiefs, and a bipartisan committee of congressman having jurisdiction over renaming our bases — who, unlike Janis and Bill, well understand that our military is made up of ALL Americans, of ALL races, not just those who may still subscribe to the myth of the “Lost Cause,” or other such myopic fictions and aggressions. As explained by General Milley, the racist name and image of the treasonous Robert E. Lee is a direct affront to African Americans — who serve in the military in lager per capita numbers than white Americans. As a white officer, I am also offended by such racist manifestations. I stand with my Black comrades in arms and my senior fellow officers.

      4. In any event, is it so hard to just be gracious and kind to those who have suffered 400 years of institutionalized racism?

  5. Those who deny history or refuse to learn from it are doomed to repeat it. Look at the protesters we have today.

    • Thanks, Gary. I certainly couldn’t agree more. And the pernicious effects of such denials of history aren’t just limited to those related to slavery and racist symbols, like invidious portrayals of Robert E. Lee.

      We are now seeing that those who deny the more recent history of the current pandemic by congregating and failing to wear face masks are literally “doomed to repeat” what previously happened in such coronavirus hotspots as New York City. Every night on TV or in the print media we see the deaths of young people who denied that history — and even protested against it — who, in their last breaths, regret not having learned from it . . . .

  6. First, I don’t know why these posts about striking the Confederate references appear on a page dedicated to the USS Indianapolis.
    Second, I’ve known about the USS Indianapolis for years, ever since I watched JAWS for the first time on TV as a kid. It was a tragedy, but one that the US Navy helped create by insisting on so much secrecy around that voyage that Indianapolis was sailing without escorts and she was given only so much time to get to Tinian and then to Leyte that the captain had to make all possible speed and not zig-zag as was standing orders. Finally, the skipper of the sub that sank the Indianapolis has gone on record saying the use of zig-zagging would not have made any difference to whether or not he would have been able to torpedo the cruiser as Indianapolis sailed into his fire zone and he did not have to give chase. Also remember that Indianapolis was a Cincinnati class cruiser with a design flaw that put too little armor around the forward powder magazine protecting it from torpedo attacks. Just remember the fate of another Cincinnati class Cruiser the USS Juneau in 1942.

    • George, as observed in numerous previous posts by me and others, the image of Robert E. Lee (rather than General U.S. Grant) appears at the top of this “official” Fold3 blog, alongside the images of true American patriots Washington, Pershing and Eisenhower, all of whom — unlike Lee — prevailed against those who would deny the legitimacy of our independent Union. Indeed, Lee was a traitor to that Union, as explained to Congress just last week by General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As Gary just observed, we should learn from (but not honor) that treasonous history of one who turned his back on the same officer’s oath I took many years ago.

      And the racist symbol of Lee — as so recognized by General Milley — is especially invidious here, where it appears adjacent a photo of the USS Indianapolis, which sailed 75 years after the Civil War with a segregated crew, one of whom was the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross.

      As I also previously explained, Robert Shaw’s “Jaws” soliloquy — although quite well delivered — was factually wrong in several respects.

      Finally, as far as the true facts regarding the sinking of the Indy and the subsequent history, several recent books well explain those in great, but riveting, detail. I recommend both “In Harm’s Way,” by Doug Stanton, and “Indianapolis,” by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, published in 2018. Both books contain a final muster roll of the ship’s crew, which I often consult.

      Stay safe and please wear a mask!

  7. Kudos to Fold3 for its removal of the long-standing image of Robert E. Lee from the masthead of this “official” blog (even if it also meant the tactful removal of Washington, Pershing and Eisenhower). I am glad that the numerous comments posted here for the last several weeks had a salutary effect.

  8. my dad was in ww11 vietam and the gulf war how can i find out things about him? he never really talked much about work. all i know is how much he loved to be on those huge ships. his name is melvin rivers. and now he live in the navy capitol charleston sc.

  9. I agree that discussion of removing history, images, etc. don’t belong on this blog.
    Having just finished reading the book “In Harms Way” it seems the comment of not having enough life preservers is wrong. They had received a large shipment of them just before leaving the U.S. west coast; more than they needed. Also, though this says the Caption McVay “passed away”, he actually committed suicide after years of enduring hate mail from family members of those lost. There are so many things that the navy did wrong in this situation. It is too bad the news was suppressed and then clouded over by the end of the war.