A research team led by American entrepreneur Paul G. Allen announced the discovery of World War II-era heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA 35). Here’s what you need to know about this significant historical discovery.
Her Final Mission Was Top Secret Delivery of Atomic Bomb Parts
The Indianapolis was returning from a secret mission at the time of its sinking in 1945. After being repaired and refitted after participating in the United States Navy’s island-hopping campaign against Imperial Japan in the Pacific, the Indy ferried enriched uranium and other parts later incorporated into the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in early August.
Within hours of history’s first successful nuclear bomb test at the Trinity site in New Mexico, the Indy left San Francisco on July 16 en route to Tinian Island. Indy’s mission was as urgent as it was secret, underscored by the fact that she made the trip from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor in 74 and a half hours, which is a speed record that stands to this day.
The Navy’s Faulty Assumption Delayed Rescue For Days
After having successfully delivered her cargo on July 26, the Navy ordered the Indy from Guam to Leyte in the Philippines to join a task force and continue the campaign. However, in the early hours of July 30, two days after setting sail, the cruiser came under attack from a Japanese submarine, which fired two torpedoes at the ship, ultimately sinking her.
At the time, the Navy’s practice was to assume that ships the size of the Indianapolis would arrive to their destinations on time unless information was received that suggested otherwise. Despite radio calls sent by the Indy, she was not missed by the Navy until over three days later, as such information was never relayed to naval leadership.
Though the Navy denied it at the time, three radio operators received messages from the rapidly sinking ship, but the signals were sent in vain – one commander was too intoxicated at the time to act, another commander ordered his sailors not to disturb him, and a third suspected the signals were a ruse by the Japanese.
It was not until a routine patrol flight noticed men in the water on August 2 that a rescue operation was mounted.
Spielberg’s Jaws Got It Wrong
The story of the Indianapolis was etched into popular culture by the 1975 Steven Spielberg thriller Jaws. Though John Milius consulted with survivors when crafting Quint’s monologue, several inaccuracies crept into the lines spoken by Robert Shaw.
Quint tells the enraptured Brody and Hooper that 1,100 sailors entered the waters after Indy’s 12-minute sinking, with only 316 coming out. However, nearly one quarter of the ship’s 1,269 officers and men went down with the ship, leaving around 900 to brave conditions on the surface. Of these, 321 survivors were pulled from the waves and 317 ultimately returned alive.
In addition, Quint claims that the Navy’s failure to timely respond to the sinking was a result of the secret nature of their mission and the fact that radio operators sent no distress calls as a result. While survivors of the Indy’s sinking may have believed that at the time, records subsequently declassified by the Navy revealed the opposite, as discussed above.
Quint closes his speech by telling the speechless pair that the sinking occurred on June 29. Though the ship was in fact injured on that date, she was wounded by a bomb dropped on her by a Japanese plane during fighting off the shore of Okinawa on March 31, laying her up for substantial repairs at the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo, California, until early July.
Less Than Two Dozen Indy Crewmen Alive Today
The Indy sank just over 72 years ago and, as a result, only a few of the survivors of the sinking are still alive. According to the Navy’s news release, 22 men lived to see the Indy’s rediscovery. Though the Navy will not release the exact location of the wreck due to the fact that it remains the final resting place for some 300 sailors, the service says that it has plans to honor those still living as well as those who have passed away upon the ship’s rediscovery.
Included in the honored dead will be the ship’s final captain, Rear Admiral Charles B. McVay III. Despite the fact that some 380 ships were sunk by enemy action over the course of the war, McVay was the only ship’s captain to be court-martialed for losing his ship. McVay was ultimately held responsible for the sinking, even in the face of testimony by the Japanese submarine commander who fired upon the Indy that there was little McVay could have done to avoid the ship’s ultimate fate.
Hounded both by the painful weight of blame for the ship’s loss and exacerbated by angry phone calls and letters from families of sailors who died under his command, McVay took his own life in 1968. He was officially exonerated by the Navy in 2001.
[Featured Image by U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons]