The USS Indianapolis, a Portland-class heavy cruiser, was commissioned into the United States Navy in 1932. It bore witness to pivotal moments of World War II, playing a crucial role as a flagship across various operations within the Pacific Theater. Notable among its engagements were the Aleutian Islands campaign and the formidable Battle of Okinawa. Yet, despite its decorated service, the USS Indianapolis met a harrowing fate, culminating in one of the most heartbreaking naval tragedies in American military annals—the devastating sinking in July of 1945.

In the dead of night on the 30 July 1945, amid the fathomless Pacific, the USS Indianapolis was dealt a crippling blow by Japanese submarine I-58. Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, who had mistaken the cruiser for the Idaho-class battleship, dispatched two Type 95 torpedoes that struck the USS Indianapolis' starboard side. The impact near the bow and amidships was staggering, causing the cruiser to list ominously due to the added top-weight from wartime armaments. Within a mere twelve minutes, a sight of despair unfolded as the warship capsized, sending the stern soaring before plummeting beneath the waves. This swift demise claimed approximately 300 of the 1,195 crew members, consigning them to the depths, while the rest faced the merciless expanse of the ocean.

Fresh from its secret mission of delivering components for the atomic bomb destined for Hiroshima, the USS Indianapolis was transitioning towards Leyte Gulf when catastrophe struck. The suddenness of the ship's descent left scores adrift in minimal lifeboats, many without life jackets, gripping on for survival against insurmountable odds.

The ensuing ordeal for survivors was nothing short of a maritime nightmare marked by desolation and dread. The initial explosion claimed numerous lives, ensnaring others within the sinking vessel. For those who managed to escape, the battle against dehydration, exposure, and relentless shark attacks had just begun. The deep blue became the theater for an enduring struggle.

Drawn by the carnage of the sinking, hundreds of sharks from miles around headed towards the survivors. "We were sunk at midnight, I saw one the first morning after daylight. They were big. Some of them I swear were 15ft long," remembers Loel Dean Cox. "They were continually there, mostly feeding off the dead bodies. Thank goodness, there were lots of dead people floating in the area." But soon they came for the living, too. "We were losing three or four each night and day," says Cox. "You were constantly in fear because you'd see 'em all the time. Every few minutes you'd see their fins - a dozen to two dozen fins in the water. "They would come up and bump you. I was bumped a few times - you never know when they are going to attack you." Some of the men would pound the water, kick and yell when the sharks attacked. Most decided that sticking together in a group was their best defense. But with each attack, the clouds of blood in the water, the screaming, the splashing, more sharks would come. "In that clear water you could see the sharks circling. Then every now and then, like lightning, one would come straight up and take a sailor and take him straight down. One came up and took the sailor next to me. It was just somebody screaming, yelling or getting bit." (Alex Last, 2013)

11031943662?profile=RESIZE_584xSurvivors found themselves marooned for an agonizing span of three and a half days before a chance sighting by Lieutenant Wilbur "Chuck" Gwinn and Lieutenant Warren Colwell during a routine aerial patrol on August 2nd. Their swift response, dropping a life raft and radio transmitter, initiated a chain of rescue efforts.

Defying the formidable swells of the ocean, Lieutenant Commander (USN) Robert Adrian Marks exhibited unparalleled heroism. Upon sighting survivors, he daringly maneuvered his patrol plane to alight upon the hostile sea, a decision not taken lightly but embraced by his courageous crew. Marks' audacious act saved 56 lives, securing many to his plane's wings, even as it meant sacrificing the aircraft itself.

Yet, salvation would come at the behest of USS Cecil J. Doyle, heralding a beacon of hope in the consuming darkness for those adrift. This destroyer escort, alongside a cadre of six other vessels, undertook the valiant task of rescuing the remnants of the Indianapolis crew—yet sorrow did not cease with their retrieval. Many bore the scars of their harrowing trial, whether from injury, the ravages of sun and salt, or the trauma of shark-infested waters. The resulting survival count stood at a solemn tally of 316 valiant souls.

The aftermath spotlighted a stark oversight in naval procedures; neither the Marianas nor the Philippine Sea Frontier Command had records to signal an alarm for the delayed arrival of Indianapolis. Lieutenant Stuart B. Gibson, the operations officer focused on tracking the vessel's movement, neglected immediate action upon recognizing its overdue status, a lapse that led to reprimands and further consequences within the chain of command.

The Navy's initial statements suggested potential distress calls broadcast by the Indianapolis, yet evidence later surfaced revealing a grievous neglect of these transmissions by three separate stations, a dereliction of duty compounded by inebriation, indifference, and misjudgment. This constellation of failures painted a grim picture of circumstances leading to the unheeded downfall of the cruiser.

The tragedy of the USS Indianapolis not only echoes the perilous nature of wartime endeavors but also the sanctity of duty and the fragility of life at sea. Its narrative is etched in the annals of America's storied naval heritage, resonating as a somber testament to endurance and remembrance. Captain Charles B. McVay III's court-martial post-tragedy, an unprecedented and controversial action against a naval commander during the war, adds yet another layer of complexity to this historical event. His and the crew’s ordeal serve as solemn reminders of the ultimate sacrifices exacted by war and the enduring scars carried by its survivors.


Top photo: Mare Island Naval Shipyard, California, 10 July 1945. The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) after her final overhaul and repair of combat damage. The photo was taken before the ship delivered atomic bomb components to Tinian and just 20 days before she was sunk by a Japanese submarine. Source: Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

Middle photo: Final resting place today. One of the five-inch 25 caliber anti-aircraft gun mounts from the USS Indianapolis. Source: Paul G. Allen and in the Public Domain.

Bottom photo: Ringing no more. A bell from the USS Indianapolis as she sits today. Source: Paul G. Allen and in the Public Domain.


In 1996, the story of the USS Indianapolis and Captain Charles B. McVay III found resurgence in public consciousness thanks to the dedication of a sixth-grade student named Hunter Scott. Scott's school project unearthed critical details about the incident, casting new light on McVay's court-martial and the controversial circumstances surrounding the Indianapolis's demise. The project not only garnered national attention but also drew the interest of key figures such as Michael Monroney, a retired Congressional lobbyist with a personal connection to the Indianapolis, and Captain William J. Toti, the final commanding officer of a submarine named in honor of the Indianapolis. Their collaborative efforts, propelled by Scott's research, sparked a drive towards exoneration.

12402971080?profile=RESIZE_584xOn 6 November 1968, a tragic coda was added to the already somber saga of the USS Indianapolis when Captain Charles B. McVay III ended his life at his home in Litchfield, Connecticut. Utilizing a Colt pistol, manufactured in 1906, McVay's choice of means was shrouded in misconceptions. Contrary to widespread belief, this firearm, while historically significant, was not issued by the US Navy, nor was it McVay's service pistol as often speculated. Furthermore, there was no toy sailor—mistakenly reported as McVay's lifelong talisman—for good luck found at the scene; this detail is unsupported by police reports and investigations conducted by the USS Indianapolis Legacy Organization. Found by his gardener, laid on his back porch, McVay left no note, yet those who knew him could attest to the profound isolation and struggle he faced, especially following his wife's death to cancer in 1961. Beyond personal losses, McVay bore the weight of intermittent yet scathing missives and calls from bereaved family members of the Indianapolis crew, stark reminders of the disaster's far-reaching and personal toll.

This movement reached the U.S. Senate through a concerted effort that led to hearings in September 1999, where survivors, naval historians, and high-ranking Navy officials provided compelling testimony. The hearings, championed by Senators Bob Smith and John Warner, culminated in a bipartisan "Sense of Congress" resolution in October 2000, decisively clearing McVay's name. This legislative act declared McVay exonerated for the loss of the Indianapolis, marking a profound rectification of historical record. In July 2001, in a symbolic gesture of restitution, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England amended McVay's service record to reflect this exoneration, finally absolving him of blame.



Last, Alex. "USS Indianapolis Sinking: 'You Could See Sharks Circling'." BBC News. Last modified July 28, 2013. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-23455951.

"The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis." U.S. Navy - All Hands. Last modified October 24, 2019. https://allhands.navy.mil/Stories/Display-Story/Article/1992314/the-sinking-of-the-uss-indianapolis/.

"The Story of USS Indianapolis." USS Indianapolis. Accessed March 20, 2024. https://www.ussindianapolis.com/the-story.

Vincent, Lynn, and Sara Vladic. Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

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