Today, the U.S.S. Indianapolis remains both a symbol of American triumph in the Pacific as well as the single greatest loss of life at sea (from a single ship) in U.S. Navy history.
On December 7th, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a fateful attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. Much of the Pacific Fleet was irreparably destroyed. But as fate would have it, the U.S.S. Indianapolis was away from port on a training exercise and the crew learned only later of the the tragedy that had befallen many of the cruiser’s sister ships.
It was immediately put to work. First as an escort to the aircraft carrier Lexington, then on to provide fire support during the bombardment of Japanese fortifications as the American military gritted its teeth and fought island-by-island back across the Pacific.
By 1945, the Pacific was mostly in Allied hands, and the Indianapolis was using her main guns to pulverize the remaining beach defenses of Okinawa in preparation for invasion.
Japanese aircraft put up stiff resistance.
On March 31, 1945, a single kamikazi plane made it through the anti-aircraft defenses of the Indianapolis. Before crashing, it dropped a single bomb that crashed down through the middle of the ship, flooding much of the ship and sending it listing to one side. After doing as much patching and emergency repairs as possible, the wounded Indianapolis was forced to limp back over the Pacific for complete repairs at Mare Island.
The repair of this near-fatal damage put the Indianapolis in just the right place at just the right time.
A Gun for Little Boy
New top secret orders sent the Indianapolis to the Navy shipyard at San Francisco, when it received a very mysterious cargo. A single unmarked crate was loaded into the hold, along with 2 men who claimed to be U.S. Army artillery officers. The orders were to deliver the cargo to the island of Tinian back in the Pacific, and to do so as fast as possible.
From San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, the Indianapolis set a speed record, averaging 29 knots, to make its fateful delivery.
The true names of the “artillery officers” were eventually revealed to be James F. Nolan and Robert Furman. And the mysterious crate contained the “gun” mechanism that, assembled with other components shipped by air, would eventually form the Little Boy atomic weapon destined to be detonated over the city of Hiroshima.
Shortly after completing this vital mission, the Indianapolis was ordered to resume its support role in the ongoing assault on mainland Japan.
It was then the Indianapolis would finally run out of luck, and suffer its infamous fate.
On July 30th, 1945, on its way to the Philippine island of Leyte, the Indianapolis found itself squarely in the sights of a Japanese submarine.
Alone and unescorted, the cruiser was easy pickings. The ship took 2 direct torpedo hits to its starboard side, and water was soon pouring into the vessel. The crew sounded alarms and attempted to abandon ship, but in just 12 minutes the entire 600 foot cruiser rolled up and sank into the murky depths.
A total of 300 crewmen went down with the ship, while over 1,000 managed to escape, only to find themselves treading water in the open sea.
Much of the emergency equipment sank with the Indianapolis, leaving the remaining crew with few tools to improve their situation.
Rescuers would not discover these survivors for 4 days. During which time their numbers were gruesomely whittled away by hypothermia, dehydration, saltwater poisoning, heatstroke, exhaustion, suicide, and finally the predation of oceanic whip tip sharks.
Once help finally arrived, only 317 men remained. Most would carry heavy mental scars of the ordeal for the rest of their lives.
Following the rescue of the Indianapolis survivors, public outrage led Navy investigtors to search far and wide for identify who was responsible for the lack of response.
It has been incorrectly stated, perhaps most famously in the blockbuster 1975 movie Jaws, that the Indianapolis wasn’t identified because of their secret mission to deliver the atomic bomb to Tinian Island. But the truth was the authorities in the Philippines had full knowledge of the exact date and time the Indianapolis was scheduled to arrive.
Reprimands were handed down to the officers thought most responsible for neither properly tracking the movements of the Indianapolis nor failing to report its absence.
Certainly the harshest punishment, though, was the one handed down to the Indianapolis’s Captain Charles McVay III. McVay had managed to survive both the sinking and the 4 days at sea, only to be faulted for not making sufficient evasive maneuvers to avoid the sub attack that had taken the vessel.
McVay was initially court-martialed, then reinstated, before finally retiring in 1949. For the rest of his life, he received hate mail from many of the families of those killed in the catastrophe.
Meanwhile, the destroyed ship itself had sunk quickly and deeply somewhere beneath the Philippine Sea. For many decades, it was assumed the final resting place of the Indianapolis would remain a mystery.
A Recent Re-Discovery
In 2012 Paul Allen, one of the original founders of the technology company Microsoft, decided on a new venture: to explore the suspected locations of famous ships and test new deep sea equipment in the hopes of finding these vessel’s final resting places.
At his disposal was the RV Petrel, a second-hand offshore support ship retrofitted to become a deep underwater research vessel without peer.
In 2017, after a number of high-profile successes, Allen’s team turned to the Indianapolis.
Using available historical information and advanced undersea topographical data, Allen’s team were able to define a 2,600 square nautical mile area in the Philippine Sea as having a high potential to contain the Indianapolis.
The search took 26 days.
The Indianapolis was found on August 19, 2017 at a depth of over 18,000 feet.
While extensive video was taken of the outside of the wreckage, no examination was made of the interior.
Per the mission of Paul Allen’s group Vulcan, the expedition recognizes the U.S.S. Indianapolis as a U.S. Naval War Grave, and has left the ship undisturbed as well as working to conceal the final location.
The actual location of the Indianapolis remains a closely guarded secret, known only to those who found the site and the U.S. Navy.