Last month the wreck of the US Navy’s heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis was discovered 5.5 km deep in the Pacific, 72 years after being sunk by a Japanese submarine in the final weeks of the Second World War. Between 800 and 900 men survived the initial attack and were able to ‘Abandon Ship’, but by the time rescue arrived, only 316 survived. It was the largest loss of life at sea in the history of the US Navy.
On 30 July 1945, the Indianapolis was in the Philippine Sea, returning from a secret mission to deliver parts for the atomic bomb which would later be dropped on Hiroshima. The Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sank in 12 minutes. The ship sent several SOS signals but they were either not received or were ignored. It was only by chance that four days later a US Navy plane flew over and spotted some of the survivors.
Of a crew of 1,197 over 800 men had escaped the sinking, although there were only a few lifeboats, and not all the men had lifejackets. In the next four days hundreds died from exhaustion, heatstroke or dehydration or were killed by sharks. Some began to hallucinate, imagining they could swim to islands close by, or drink the sea water around them, or dive down to their sunken ship to get fresh water. Only 316 men were rescued.
The US Navy placed responsibility for the disaster on the ship’s captain, Charles B. McVay III, who survived the sinking and was court-martialled. In 1968 he committed suicide. Many of the surviving crew believed he had been made a scapegoat for failings within the Navy itself, and they campaigned to have their captain cleared of blame. In 2000, the US Congress passed a resolution approving his exoneration.