USS Indianapolis Memorial
USS Indianapolis in 1939
USS Indianapolis off Mare Island in 1944
Indianapolis's intended route from Guam to the Philippines.
Survivors of Indianapolis on Guam, in August 1945.
The USS Indianapolis Memorial
Indianapolis's commander, Captain Charles McVay III
Survivors speaking to reporters in 199 in D.C. as they seek funds and congressional help/recognition for the memorial
Backstory and Context
On December 7, 1941, Indianapolis was conducting a mock bombardment at Johnston Atoll during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Indianapolis was absorbed into Task Force 12 and searched for the Japanese carriers responsible for the attack, though the force did not locate them. She returned to Pearl Harbor on December 13th and joined Task Force 11.
Indianapolis then headed for the North Pacific to support American units in the Battle of the Aleutian Islands. On August 7th, Indianapolis and the task force attacked Kiska Island, a Japanese staging area. Although fog hindered observation, Indianapolis and other ships fired their main guns into the bay. Floatplanes from the cruisers reported Japanese ships sunk in the harbor and damage to shore installations. After 15 minutes, Japanese shore batteries returned fire before being destroyed by the ships' main guns. Japanese submarines approaching the force were depth-charged by American destroyers. Japanese seaplanes made an ineffective bombing attack. In spite of a lack of information on the Japanese forces, the operation was considered a success. U.S. forces later occupied Adak Island, providing a naval base further from the Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island.
Overhauled, Indianapolis joined Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher's fast carrier task force on February 14th 1945. Two days later, the task force launched an attack on Tokyo to cover the landings on Iwo Jima, scheduled for February 19th. This was the first carrier attack on Japan since the Doolittle Raid. The mission was to destroy Japanese air facilities and other installations in the "Home Islands". The fleet achieved complete tactical surprise by approaching the Japanese coast under cover of bad weather. The attacks were pressed home for two days. The American Navy lost 49 carrier planes while claiming 499 enemy planes, a 10:1 kill/loss ratio. The task force also sank a carrier, nine coastal ships, a destroyer, two destroyer escorts, and a cargo ship. They destroyed hangars, shops, aircraft installations, factories, and other industrial targets.
Navy command had no knowledge of the ship's sinking until survivors were spotted three and a half days later. At 10:25am on August 2nd, a PV-1 Ventura from VPB-152 flown by Lieutenant Wilbur "Chuck" Gwinn and copilot Lieutenant Warren Colwell spotted the men adrift while on a routine patrol flight. Gwinn immediately dropped a life raft and a radio transmitter. All air and surface units capable of rescue operations were dispatched to the scene at once. A PBY Catalina flying boat under the command of Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks was dispatched to lend assistance and report. En route to the scene, Marks overflew USS Cecil J. Doyle and alerted her captain, future U.S. Secretary of the Navy W. Graham Claytor, Jr., of the emergency. On his own authority, Claytor decided to divert to the scene.
Arriving hours ahead of Cecil J. Doyle, Marks' crew began dropping rubber rafts and supplies. Having seen men being attacked by sharks, Marks disobeyed standing orders and landed on the open sea. He began taxiing to pick up the stragglers and lone swimmers who were at the greatest risk of shark attack. Learning the men were the crew of Indianapolis, he radioed the news, requesting immediate assistance. Doyle responded while en route. When Marks' plane was full, survivors were tied to the wings with parachute cord, damaging the wings so that the plane would never fly again and had to be sunk. Marks and his crew rescued 56 men that day, more than one-sixth of the 317 survivors.
Cecil J. Doyle was the first vessel on the scene. Homing in on Marks's Catalina in total darkness, Doyle halted to avoid killing or further injuring survivors, and began taking Marks' survivors aboard. Disregarding the safety of his own vessel, Captain Claytor pointed his largest searchlight into the night sky to serve as a beacon for other rescue vessels. This beacon was the first indication to most survivors that rescuers had arrived.
The destroyers Helm, Madison, and Ralph Talbot were ordered to the rescue scene from Ulithi, along with destroyer escorts Dufilho, Bassett, and Ringness of the Philippine Sea Frontier. They continued their search for survivors until August 8th. Two of the rescued survivors, Robert Lee Shipman and Frederick Harrison, died in August 1945.
Of the 880 who had survived the sinking, only 321 men came out of the water alive; 317 ultimately survived. They suffered from lack of food and water (leading to dehydration and hypernatremia; some found rations, such as Spam and crackers, amongst the debris), exposure to the elements (leading to hypothermia and severe desquamation), and shark attacks, while some killed themselves or other survivors in various states of delirium and hallucinations.
Aftermath and Legacy:
"Ocean of Fear", a 2007 episode of the Discovery Channel TV documentary series Shark Week, states that the Indianapolis sinking resulted in the most shark attacks on humans in history, and attributes the attacks to the oceanic whitetip shark species. Tiger sharks might have also killed some sailors. The same show attributed most of the deaths on Indianapolis to exposure, salt poisoning and thirst, with the dead being dragged off by sharks.
The Headquarters of Commander Marianas on Guam and of the Commander Philippine Sea Frontier on Leyte kept Operations plotting boards on which were plotted the positions of all vessels with which the headquarters were concerned. However, for ships as large as Indianapolis, it was assumed that they would reach their destinations on time, unless reported otherwise. Therefore, their positions were based on predictions, and not on reports. On July 31st, when she should have arrived at Leyte, Indianapolis was removed from the board in the headquarters of Commander Marianas. She was also recorded as having arrived at Leyte by the headquarters of Commander Philippine Sea Frontier. Lieutenant Stuart B. Gibson, the Operations Officer under the Port Director, Tacloban, was the officer responsible for tracking the movements of Indianapolis. The vessel's failure to arrive on schedule was known at once to Lieutenant Gibson, who failed to investigate the matter and made no immediate report of the fact to his superiors. Gibson received a letter of reprimand in connection with the incident. The acting commander and operations officer of the Philippine Sea Frontier also received reprimands, while Gibson's immediate superior received a letter of admonition.
In the first official statement, the Navy said that distress calls "were keyed by radio operators and possibly were actually transmitted" but that "no evidence has been developed that any distress message from the ship was received by any ship, aircraft or shore station." Declassified records later showed that three stations received the signals; however, none acted upon the call. One commander was drunk, another had ordered his men not to disturb him and a third thought it was a Japanese trap.
Immediately prior to the attack, the seas had been moderate, the visibility fluctuating but poor in general, and Indianapolis had been steaming at 17 knots. When the ship did not reach Leyte on the 31st, as scheduled, no report was made that she was overdue. This omission was due to a misunderstanding of the Movement Report System.
Captain Charles B. McVay III, who had commanded Indianapolis since November 1944, survived the sinking and was among those rescued days later. In November 1945, he was court-martialed and convicted of "hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag". Several things about the court-martial were controversial. There was evidence that the Navy itself had placed the ship in harm's way, in that McVay's orders were to "zigzag at his discretion, weather permitting." Further, Mochitsura Hashimoto, commander of I-58, testified that zigzagging would have made no difference. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz remitted McVay's sentence and restored him to active duty. McVay retired in 1949 as a rear admiral.
While many of Indianapolis's survivors said McVay was not to blame for the sinking, the families of some of the men who died thought otherwise: "Merry Christmas! Our family's holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn't killed my son", read one piece of mail. The guilt that was placed on his shoulders mounted until he committed suicide in 1968, using his Navy-issue revolver. McVay was discovered on his front lawn with a toy sailor in one hand. He was 70 years old.
In 1996, sixth-grade student Hunter Scott began his research on the sinking of Indianapolis, which led to a United States Congressional investigation. In October 2000, the United States Congress passed a resolution that Captain McVay's record should state that "he is exonerated for the loss of Indianapolis." President Bill Clinton signed the resolution. The resolution noted that, although several hundred ships of the U.S. Navy were lost in combat in World War II, McVay was the only captain to be court-martialed for the sinking of his ship. In July 2001, the Secretary of the Navy ordered McVay's record cleared of all wrongdoing.
Indianapolis is located in the Philippine Sea. In July–August 2001, an expedition sought to find the wreckage through the use of side-scan sonar and underwater cameras mounted on a remotely operated vehicle. Four Indianapolis survivors accompanied the expedition, which was not successful. In June 2005, a second expedition was mounted to find the wreck. National Geographic covered the story and released it in July. Submersibles were launched to find any sign of wreckage. The only objects ever found, which have not been confirmed to have belonged to Indianapolis, were numerous pieces of metal of varying size found in the area of the reported sinking position.
In July 2016, new information came out regarding the possible location of Indianapolis when naval records said that USS LST-779 passed by the ship 11 hours before the torpedoes struck. Using this information, National Geographic plans to mount an expedition to search for the wreck in summer 2017. Reports estimate that Indianapolis is actually 25 miles west of the reported sinking position, is in water three miles deep and is likely on the side of an underwater mountain.
Since 1960, surviving crew members have been meeting for reunions in Indianapolis. For the 70th reunion, held July 23–26, 2015, 14 of the 32 remaining survivors attended. The reunions are open to anyone interested, and have more attendees each year, even as the number of survivors decreases from death. Held only periodically at first, biannually later on, the reunions have been held annually for the last several years. Every year, the survivors, most of them in their nineties, vote whether to continue.
References to the Indianapolis sinking and aftermath have been adapted to film, stage, television, and popular culture. The incident itself was the subject of 1991 made-for-television movie Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the USS Indianapolis, with Stacy Keach portraying Captain Charles Butler McVay III.
Arguably the most well known fictional reference to the events occurs in the 1975 thriller film Jaws in a monologue by actor Robert Shaw, whose character Quint is depicted as a survivor of the Indianapolis sinking. The monologue emphasizes the numerous deaths caused by shark attacks after the sinking. John Milius was specifically brought into the production to write lines for this scene and he based them on survivor stories. However, there are several historical inaccuracies in the monologue: the speech states the date of the sinking as 29 June 1945, when the ship was actually sunk on 30 July, that they were spotted at noon of the fifth day rather than the third day, that 1,100 men went into the water and 316 came out (nearer 900 went in and 321 came out, of whom 317 survived) and that because of the secrecy of the atom bomb mission no distress call was broadcast, while declassified Navy documents prove the contrary.
Sara Vladic directed USS Indianapolis: The Legacy, which tells the fate of USS Indianapolis using exclusively first-person accounts from the survivors of the sinking. This film was released in December 2015. A new film, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, starring Nicolas Cage, was released in September 2016, and directed Mario Van Peebles.
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