It has been 72 years since the USS Indianapolis entered into its watery grave at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Initially, 300 of its heroic crew went down with the ship, leaving hundreds of men bobbing in the ocean waters waiting to be rescued. What happened in the days that followed in those shark-infested waters were horrors no human should suffer.
Between 800 and 900 men initially survived the sinking of the iconic USS Indianapolis. These survivors floated in the choppy water waiting to be rescued, but only about 300 would be plucked from the ocean almost five days later. The rest were sent to their watery grave, described in some of the most horrific stories ever told.
Out of 1,196 men on board the USS Indianapolis, only 316 men were rescued. This was a ship that has made many records in history that still remain today. Some of these records are rather morbid in nature, but the story of the survivors waiting for rescue is one that has been told using words like “carnage,” “screams,” and “horror.”
According to the BBC News, the USS Indianapolis was returning from a top-secret mission when it was hit and went down in a matter of minutes. The ship had just delivered the crucial components for the first operational atomic bomb that was later dropped on Hiroshima. That top-secret delivery was to a Navy base on the island of Tinian.
For reasons described in an earlier Inquisitr article at length, the Navy didn’t know the ship went down for three days after the ship was torpedoed by the Japanese. Despite radio messages intercepted from the Japanese saying they had sunk the USS Indianapolis, the Navy didn’t know the ship had gone down. They believed those messages to be some type of a ploy by the Japanesse military.
It wasn’t until the fourth day of that the dwindling group of survivors would see a plane overhead, signifying rescue. By the time the group was found, the ill-fated voyage of the USS Indianapolis had the “largest loss of human life” in the history of any one event of the U.S. Navy, a record that remains in place today.
The wreck of the USS Indianapolis remained on the ocean floor almost 3.5 miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean for the last 72 years until recently discovered. The co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, led a civilian search team to find the ship, a discovery he describes as “truly humbling.”
They were a day into their journey home when shortly after midnight, the torpedos hit, sinking the ship in just 12 minutes. Tthe majority of the loss of life for the USS Indianapolis occurred in the shark-infested waters as the men awaited rescue.
According to an archived article from the Smithsonian Magazine, approximately 900 men made it into the water alive. When the sun rose that following morning, the water was littered with bobbing survivors. There were many without life vests due to the almost immediate sinking of the ship. The men who were alive were taking the life jackets off the men who had died and giving them to the survivors without jackets.
To keep some form of order, the men formed groups, as the Smithsonian reports, some groups were small and another was as large as 300 men. Battling exposure and thirst was the least of these survivors worries at first. The explosions of the ship being torpedoed, the thrashing in the water from the survivors, and the blood from all the injured and dead, had beckoned sharks.
The Daily Mail reports that the survivors were unaware at first that sharks had been devouring their dead in the water, it was dark when the ship went down into the Pacific waters. Harold Eck, who was an 18-year-old on board the USS Indianapolis when it went down, described how the morning sun rising on their first day in the water revealed “hundreds of fins” around them.
The first attack he witnessed happened to a sailor who had drifted off alone. He heard the blood-curdling screams and he saw the man thrashing as a shark had him from beneath the surface of the water.
Another survivor, Bugler First Class Donald Mack, said how he “would never forget those screams and the realization: There was one less man to be rescued.” The red and foaming water that surrounded each new attack was described by Eck, who said it seemed the sharks came back for a feeding frenzy every three or four hours. But you were never sure when one would come up from below.
According to the survivors, the sharks tended to attack live victims and they attacked them close to the surface. From the details given by the survivors and their descriptions of the sharks, experts believed it was the oceanic whitetip shark species that swarmed the survivors. They are one of the most aggressive species of predators in the ocean.
The survivors had no protection, they were in the water with the sharks and their motions of treading water to stay afloat only attracted more. The first night the men were in the water, the sharks mostly concentrated on the dead bodies floating around them.
Those who were bleeding would quarantine themselves away from the others because they attracted sharks. When someone would die, the group would immediately push that body away from the living in hopes that the corpse would satisfy the sharks and that they’d leave the living alone.
The water was full of men, but many were in shock and fear kept them paralyzed. Some were unable to eat or drink from the meager rations they had because they were frozen in fear. The survivors learned quickly about shark behavior. One sailor opened a can of Spam and the smell beckoned a swarm of sharks. The men got rid of the canned meat rather than taking a chance at being taken down in the jaws of a shark.
The men learned that their best chance at staving off a shark attack was to be in the center of the closely packed circle the groups had formed. Being on the outside perimeter or worse yet, being a lone straggler in the water made them a prime target. It wasn’t until the fourth day that a sign of rescue came from above. By this time some of the men succumbing to thirst had taken to ocean water for drinking with the salt causing them hallucinations, swelling their tongues and causing them to foam at the mouth.
These men became almost as dangerous as the sharks, according to the Smithsonian, as “many dragged their comrades underwater with them as they died.” The plane overhead spotted the men in the ocean and radioed for help. First to arrive was Lieutenant Adrian Marks, he was piloting a seaplane. His orders were to drop life rafts and supplies to the men as the ships made their way to the location.
Despite being told not to land, he did. Once he saw the sharks attacking the men in the water he used his plane to get to the wounded stragglers, who were at the greatest risk of attack. A little after midnight, the USS Doyle arrived pulling the remaining survivors of the USS Indianapolis from those shark-infested waters. It is not known how many men died from shark attacks, but estimates vary from a few dozen to 150. The others died from wounds in the explosion, exposure, dehydration, and drinking salt water.
[Featured Image by Naval Historical Center/AP Images]