ON THIS DAY: The USS Indianapolis sunk

July 30, 1945 –

The movie ‘Jaws’ was a groundbreaking film in a number of ways. It set the pattern for the ‘big summer movie’ and it pushed Steven Spielberg into the ranks of the bigtime blockbuster mega-budget director. As with ‘Star Wars,’ everyone thought that it would be a flop because the production was very rocky and much of that was driven by problems with ‘Bruce’ the mechanical shark. Movie lore has it that the shark looked terrible and so Spielberg hid it most of the time and only revealed the beast at the end of the movie. This decision, however, heightened the tension of the film and allowed the audience to fill in the horror.

One of the characters in the film is a crusty old fisherman named Quint. He adds to the legend of the shark by recounting his experience aboard the USS Indianapolis during World War 2. His short soliloquy is legendary in the film business and worth review here:

Quint shark story

Sadly, the events recounted by Capt. Quint are partially true. The USS Indianapolis was a heavy cruiser commissioned in 1931 and it served throughout the war years. In 1945, the big ship was supporting the attack at Okinawa when a Japanese bomber was able to get through all air defenses and drop a bomb on the big cruiser. The bomb cut right through all the decks and exploded underneath, killing nine crewmembers. The ship limped to Mare Island Navel Shipyard just north of San Francisco for repairs and was therefore available for a secret mission that suddenly had to be undertaken. Within hours of the Trinity test bomb explosion in New Mexico on July 16, the Indianapolis was departing San Francisco with the bomb components that would make up the device dropped on Hiroshima. Orders were to steam as fast as possible to Pearl Harbor and then on to tiny Tinian Island where the US had set up a forward air base. It was here that the final bomb would be assembled and then flown over Japan.

The Indianapolis delivered the components on July 26, and then headed for Guam. After picking up additional crew in Guam the ship steamed toward Leyte, part of the Philippines, but was spotted by a Japanese submarine just after midnight on July 30. The submarine fired two torpedoes at the ship and it was hit twice. The doomed Indianapolis sunk in 12 minutes and took 300 of the 1,195 crewmembers down with it. The remaining jumped into the ocean, most without life jackets or rafts.

It is here that the record varies from Quint’s colorful story. That the ship was not noticed as overdue was not due to the secret mission to deliver the bomb; it was just sheer incompetence on the part of the staff at Leyte. Later investigation led to the discovery that the radio operator on the Indianapolis DID key in a distress call, and it was picked up by three different operators, but one was drunk, one had told operators not to disturb him, and a third thought it was a Japanese trap.

The captain of the ship, Charles McVay, survived but was court-martialed for not taking evasion action. His sentence was later remitted, but families of those who died hounded him for the rest of his life, and he committed suicide in 1968.

Quint’s summary that only 316 survived the days and nights in the water are, sadly, true. Regarding the sharks, they did kill many of the initial survivors, but most died some other way, such as drinking sea water. It is estimated that between 75 to 150 died of shark attack.

The wreck was eventually discovered at 18,000 feet and footage of the wreck, with tales of the survivors, can be seen here:

The location of the USS Indianapolis remains secret to preserve it as a gravesite.