The Sinking of the
USS Indianapolis, 1945
The heavy cruiser Indianapolis steamed out of San Francisco Bay just after dawn on July 16 wrapped in a heavy cloak of secrecy. In her belly, she carried the atomic bomb that three weeks later would be dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. She raced, unescorted, to the island of Tinian where she unloaded her lethal cargo on July 26. Her mission accomplished, the Indianapolis then began a journey into Hell that would end with the worst naval disaster in U.S. history. From Tinian she sailed to the island of Guam and from there she was ordered to the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Traveling without an escort, her voyage would take her through an oceanic No Man's Land infested with Japanese submarines and sharks.
A few of those in the water were able to reach a raft or debris from the ship to cling to. Many wore life jackets that provided minimal buoyancy. Just as many, however, had neither raft nor life jacket and were forced to continually tread water to survive, finding relief only when a life jacket became available through the death of a shipmate. The sharks began attacking when the sun rose and continued their assault throughout the ordeal.
No alarm was raised when the ship failed to arrive at its destination. No rescue forces were dispatched to find the missing ship - its sinking went unnoticed. For four days a dwindling number of survivors fought a losing battle of life and death. Then, lady luck intervened. A Navy reconnaissance plane on routine patrol happened to spot the survivors and broadcast their position. Near-by ships rushed to the scene and began to pluck the sailors out of the water. A tally made at the completion of the rescue revealed that only 317 of the original estimated 900 who escaped the sinking ship survived their ordeal.
"I knew I was dying but I really didn't care." Dr. Lewis Haynes was the Chief Medical Officer aboard the Indianapolis. Shortly after his rescue, he dictated his recollections to a corpsman in order to preserve an accurate account of his experience. These notes became the basis of an article published in 1995. We join his story as his sleep is interrupted just after midnight on July 30 by the violent explosion of a Japanese torpedo:
I started out trying to go to the forward ladder to go up on the fo'c'sle [forecastle - The section of the upper deck of a ship located at the bow forward of the foremast] deck, There was a lot of fire coming up through the deck right in front of the dentist's room. That's when I realized I couldn't go forward and turned to go aft. As I did, I slipped and fell, landing on my hands. I got third degree burns on my hands - my palms and all the tips of my fingers. I still have the scars. I was barefooted and the soles of my feet were burned off.
Then I turned aft to go back through the wardroom. I would have to go through the wardroom and down a long passageway to the quarterdeck, but there was a terrible hazy smoke with a peculiar odor. I couldn't breathe and got lost in the wardroom. I kept bumping into furniture and finally fell into this big easy chair. I felt so comfortable. I knew I was dying but I really didn't care.
Then someone standing over me said, ‘My God, I'm fainting!’ and he fell on me. Evidently that gave me a shot of adrenalin and I forced my way up and out. Somebody was yelling, ‘Open a porthole!’ All power was out and it was just a red haze.
The ship was beginning to list and I moved to that side of the ship. I found a porthole already open. Two other guys had gone out through it. I stuck my head out the porthole, gulping in some air, and found they had left a rope dangling. I looked down to see water rushing into the ship beneath me. I thought about going out the porthole into the ocean but I knew I couldn't go in there."
The Ship Goes Down
With great effort, Dr. Haynes manages to climb the rope to the deck above. He and an assistant begin to distribute life jackets to those around them. We rejoin his story as the ship lists violently signaling that she is about to sink: "...I slowly walked down the side of the ship. Another kid came and said he didn't have a jacket. I had an extra jacket and he put it on. We both jumped into the water which was covered with fuel oil. I wasn't alone in the water. The hull was covered with people climbing down. I didn't want to get sucked down with the ship so I kicked my feet to get away. And then the ship rose up high. I thought it was going to come down and crush me. The ship kept leaning out away from me, the aft end rising up and leaning over as it stood up on its nose. The ship was still going forward at probably 3 or 4 knots. When it finally sank, it was over a hundred yards from me. Most of the survivors were strung out anywhere from half a mile to a mile behind the ship.
Suddenly the ship was gone and it was very quiet. It had only been 12 minutes since the torpedoes hit. We started to gather together. Being in the water wasn't an unpleasant experience except that the black fuel oil got in your nose and eyes. We all looked the same, black oil all over -- white eyes and red mouths. You couldn't tell the doctor from the boot seamen. Soon everyone had swallowed fuel oil and gotten sick. Then everyone began vomiting.
At that time, I could have hidden but somebody yelled, ‘Is the doctor there?’ And I made myself known. From that point on -- and that's probably why I'm here today -- I was kept so busy I had to keep going. But without any equipment, from that point on I became a coroner.
When daylight came we began to get ourselves organized into a group and the leaders began to come out. When first light came we had between three and four hundred men in our group. I would guess that probably seven or eight hundred men made it out of the ship. I began to find the wounded and dead. The only way I could tell they were dead was to put my finger in their eye. If their pupils were dilated and they didn't blink I assumed they were dead. We would then laboriously take off their life jacket and give it to men who didn't have jackets. In the beginning I took off their dogtags, said The Lord's Prayer, and let them go. Eventually, I got such an armful of dogtags I couldn't hold them any longer. Even today, when I try to say The Lord's Prayer or hear it, I simply lose it.
...The second night, which was Monday night, we had all the men put their arms through the life jacket of the man in front of him and we made a big mass so we could stay together. We kept the wounded and those who were sickest in the center of the pack and that was my territory. Some of the men could doze off and sleep for a few minutes. The next day we found a life ring. I could put one very sick man across it to support him.
There was nothing I could do but give advice, bury the dead, save the life jackets, and try to keep the men from drinking the salt water when we drifted out of the fuel oil. When the hot sun came out and we were in this crystal clear water, you were so thirsty you couldn't believe it wasn't good enough to drink. I had a hard time convincing the men that they shouldn't drink. The real young ones - you take away their hope, you take away their water and food - they would drink salt water and then would go fast. I can remember striking men who were drinking water to try and stop them. They would get diarrhea, then get more dehydrated, then become very maniacal.
In the beginning, we tried to hold them and support them while they were thrashing around. And then we found we were losing a good man to get rid of one who had been bad and drank. As terrible as it may sound, towards the end when they did this, we shoved them away from the pack because we had to.
The water in that part of the Pacific was warm and good for swimming. But body temperature is over 98 and when you immerse someone up to their chin in that water for a couple of days, you're going to chill him down. So at night we would tie everyone close together to stay warm. But they still had severe chills which led to fever and delirium. On Tuesday night some guy began yelling, ‘There's a Jap here and he's trying to kill me.’ And then everybody started to fight. They were totally out of their minds. A lot of men were killed that night. A lot of men drowned. Overnight everybody untied themselves and got scattered in all directions. But you couldn't blame the men. It was mass hysteria. You became wary of everyone. Till daylight came, you weren't sure. When we got back together the next day there were a hell of a lot fewer.
I saw only one shark. I remember reaching out trying to grab hold of him. I thought maybe it would be food. However, when night came, things would bump against you in the dark or brush against your leg and you would wonder what it was. But honestly, in the entire 110 hours I was in the water I did not see a man attacked by a shark. However, the destroyers that picked up the bodies afterwards found a large number of those bodies. In the report I read 56 bodies were mutilated, Maybe the sharks were satisfied with the dead; they didn't have to bite the living.
We rejoin Dr. Haynes' story two days later:
The plane dropped life jackets with canisters of water but the canisters ruptured. Then a PBY [seaplane] showed up and dropped rubber life rafts. We put the sickest people aboard and the others hung around the side. I found a flask of water with a 1-ounce cup. I doled out the water, passing the cup down hand to hand. Not one man cheated and I know how thirsty they were.
Towards the end of the day, just before dark, I found a kit for making fresh water out of salt water. I tried to read the instructions, but couldn't make sense of it or get it to work right. My product tasted like salt water and I didn't want to take a chance so I threw it into the ocean. I then went to
I watched the PBY circle and suddenly make an open-sea landing. This took an awful lot of guts. It hit, went back up in the air and splashed down again. I thought he'd crashed but he came taxiing back. I found out later he was taxiing around picking up the singles. If he hadn't done this, I don't think we would have survived. He stayed on the water during the night and turned his searchlight up into the sky so the Cecil J. Doyle (DE-368) could find us. The ship came right over and began picking us up."
This eyewitness account appears in: Haynes, Lewis L. "Survivor of the Indianapolis." Navy Medicine 86, no.4 (Jul.-Aug. 1995); Stanton, Doug, In Harm's Way (2001).