The history of war is full of moments of heroism, moments of terror, hard decisions, and great losses. Perhaps no other war in the history of man is as packed with these moments as World War II. In 1945, one US warship made it’s way out of San Francisco bay with one important and very secret mission.
It completed the mission but it’s return home was marked by three days of terror that anchored the vessel and its crew into our collective memory. Yet many mysteries surrounded the warship and the situation led to its destruction. It’s only now, in 2017, that we finally know what really happened…
The USS Indianapolis was laid down in 1930. It was a monster of a warship, a 9,800-ton Portland Class heavy cruiser that operated in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the war. Over the course of WWII, it earned a whopping 10 battle stars and was one of the ships sent out to enact revenge on the bombers of Pearl Harbor.
In 1945, the Indianapolis was sent out from the naval yard in San Francisco to the remote island of Tinian, which contained the busiest air-base in the Pacific. The cargo they were transporting was sealed in a large wooden crate and the contents of the crate were completely secret: even from the crew…
What They Believed
At the time, the men aboard the Indianapolis had joked that the large, secret container had contained nothing more than luxury toilet paper for the Navy top brass at the air base. The actual contents of the crate were far more important and far, far deadlier than even these hardened sailors could ever have believed.
In reality, the wooden box contained, at the time, about half of the world’s supply of enriched uranium. Why did the US Navy want to deliver uranium to a naval base in the south Pacific? To build atomic bombs of course. The materials were delivered successfully and eventually used in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It wasn’t until the ship headed back to US waters that disaster struck…
Attack on Starboard
It happened in the middle of the night. On July 30, 1945 at around 12:15 am, the USS Indianapolis was struck on the starboard side by two Type 95 torpedoes, courtesy of the Japanese submarine I-58 and Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto. One of the explosive charges hit the bow, the other, amidships.
Rise and Fall
The explosions caused by the torpedos resulted in massive damage to the ship’s hull and internal systems. The USS Indianapolis began to tilt heavily from the water rushing in below decks and settled on her bow. Not long after that, twelve minutes to be exact, she rolled over completely, her stern high in the air, plunging into the cold, unforgiving Pacific…
Of the 1,196 crewmen aboard the Indianapolis, an incredible 896 men were able to get into their life jackets or in lifeboats, but sadly some 300 went down with the ship. It wasn’t until the remaining crew attempted to reclaim some sort of order that they realized many of them were without life jackets.
They Didn’t Know
Nearly 900 American sailors were adrift in the Pacific in unwelcome waters but because it was 1945 and because all their radio equipment had gone down with the Indianapolis, US Navy command had no idea it had happened. The brave men of the Indianapolis were on their own…
The 896 survivors were suffering. They didn’t have enough food or water to sustain them. Some found cans of Spam and crackers amidst the debris, but most of them were starving and nearly all of them were dehydrated. That’s not to mention the exposure to the elements which lead to hypothermia, desquamation, delirium, and hallucinations.
As if the elements, starvation, and thirst weren’t enough, the sinking of the ship and the dead men aboard, attracted the attention of the ocean’s apex predators: sharks. Oceanic whitetip sharks and Tiger sharks began to circle the sailors, and as more and more of the weak, delirious sailors were picked off, more and more blood chummed the water…
The ensuing feeding frenzy remains the worst shark attack on humans in recorded history. The helpless human beings had no hope of survival. A total of 317 men, a quarter of the ship’s original complement, survived the experience and they would remain adrift for another two days before someone noticed them at all.
On August 2, 1945, Lieutenant Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn and copilot LT Warren Colwell spotted a string of men adrift on the Pacific while on a routine patrol flight. Lieutenant Gwinn immediately dropped a life raft and a radio transmitter so that the dying men could radio for help. The Navy immediately sent out any and all surface units capable of rescue operations to the scene…
Single Greatest Loss of Life
In the end, the Navy figured out where the men had come from. The sinking of the Indianapolis remains the single biggest loss of life in US Naval history. For more than 70 years, the USS Indianapolis would remain on the ocean floor, it’s deceased crew resting uneasily in their watery grave.
That is, until Billionaire tech mogul Paul G. Allen announced that he and one of his organization’s research vessels had finally found the greatest Naval shipwreck of World War II. After years of searching, his team had finally found the USS Indianapolis at the bottom of the Philippine Sea…
The Indianapolis was finally located by the R/V Petrel, Paul Allen’s newly retrofitted 250-foot vessel. He spared no expense adding the latest in state-of-the-art underwater surveillance technology. The vessel was now capable of diving down to 6,000 meters.
How They Found It
Part of the reason Allen’s researchers were able to locate the ship at all, was because a Naval landing craft had recorded a sighting of the USS Indianapolis being struck the night it was torpedoed. Though, why they never informed the US Navy that the thousand or so men aboard might need rescuing, has never been determined…
The coordinates provided by the witnessing ship led Allen’s researcher’s right to the gravesite of the Indianapolis and it’s crew. Today, the discovery of the wreckage promises to shed new light on the famous disaster. It also means some solace for the families of the men who lost their lives that day.
Truly an Honor
“To be able to honor the brave men of the USS and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role during World War II is truly humbling,” explains Paul G. Allen. Finding the vessel, whose last mission turned the tide of warfare worldwide for all time, is truly a monumental moment in history…
Dropping the Bomb
It’s important to remember that without the USS Indianapolis and their mystery package, the War in the Pacific may have gone on for many more years and many thousands more men could have died as a result. As grim and devastating as the dropping of the atomic bomb was, it did finally end the war.
“As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances.” continues the statement on Allen’s website. “While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming.”