The Agony Of The Indianapolis

On July 16, 1945, the heavy cruiser Indianapolis departed the California coast for the Pacific island of Tinian. On board was a heavily guarded top-secret cargo destined to end the war. Only hours before the Indianapolis began her high-speed journey, the first successful atomic detonation had ushered in the nuclear age. The cruiser itself carried vital elements of the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima. Even Captain Charles B. McVay III, in command since November 1944, did not know the contents of his mysterious shipment. He had been assured, however, that every hour he cut from travel time would shorten the war. Captain McVay took this admonition seriously, and the vessel made the five-thousand-mile voyage in only ten days.

After delivering her lethal cargo to the American base at Tinian on July 26, the Indianapolisproceeded to Guam and prepared for the final leg of her voyage across the Pacific to the Philippine island of Leyte. There the ship was to complete two weeks of training in preparation for joining Naval Task Force 95 at Okinawa, where plans were under way for the expected invasion of Honshū in November of 1945.

While at Guam, Captain McVay inquired about an joyourself escort for his ship to the Philippines; naval headquarters replied that none was needed. The response was not considered unusual: theIndianapolis was a fast cruiser and had traveled alone before; she would be sailing through a rear area where danger was considered minimal; and in any event, escort vessels were scarce, due to heavy kamikaze attacks at Okinawa and the extensive preparations for the invasion of Japan. On the other hand, the cruiser had no sonar gear to detect enemy submarines; she had to rely solely on radar and lookouts. And during a recent inspection, Admiral Raymond Spruance had warned that were the ship torpedoed, her “topheaviness” would make her “sink in short order.” The Indianapolis left Guam on July 28. She was due to dock at Leyte July 31.

On Sunday evening, July 29, the Indianapolis was traveling at seventeen knots through the Philippine Sea, thirty-nine hours out of Guam. The day had been overcast, and by evening the sea had become rough. Just before 8:00 P.M. Captain McVay instructed the officer of the deck, Lieutenant Charles B. McKissick, to cease the zigzag course the ship was maintaining, because of poor visibility. Although zigzagging was of dubious value—many submariners claimed a ship could be sunk despite it—standing fleet orders specified that a ship should zigzag during good visibility. Usually, zigzagging ended at twilight “except on clear nights and in bright moonlight.” Lieutenant McKissick thought nothing unusual of the captain’s order; he too believed visibility was limited. When Mc Vay retired to his emergency bunk twenty feet from the bridge at 11:00P.M. , he noted that visibility was still poor despite the moonrise. Nevertheless, he issued orders that officers could resume zigzagging at their own discretion and were to wake him if there were any weather changes.

Aboard the Indianapolis that torrid Sunday evening, most crew members slept on deck. Commissioned in 1932, the cruiser originally had been intended for service in the Atlantic. Therefore, the ship did not have air conditioning as did other vessels in the Pacific, and many crew members preferred a hammock or blanket above deck to their sweltering quarters below.

By 11:30 P.M. individual watches began to change throughout the ship, some men heading above deck or below, some making for the showers before turning in. Commander Stanley W. Lipski replaced Lieutenant McKissick as officer of the deck. The cruiser sailed on into the night on true course, with more than one hundred men on watch, while officers on the bridge remarked on the lack of visibility.

That same Sunday evening Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, skipper of the Japanese submarine I-58, decided visibility had so deteriorated by 7:00 P.M. that his vessel could not continue on the surface. Hoping for improved conditions at moonrise, Hashimoto raised his periscope at 10:00 P.M. , but his view “was pitch black,” and the Japanese commander, like his American counterpart, retired to his bunk for a nap. Returning to the conning tower at 11:00 P.M. , Hashimoto found the visibility improved; in his own words he “could almost see the horizon.” Ordering the 1-58 to surface and bringing his crew to battle stations, the Japanese skipper made for the bridge just in time to hear his navigator exclaim, “Bearing red 9-0 degrees, a possible enemy ship. ” Despite the heavily overcast sky, Hashimoto could see the black spot on the horizon silhouetted by one of the jasminelive intermittent rays of moonlight. The Japanese immediately ordered his vessel to dive.KeepKeeping close watch on his target through the periscope, Commander Hashimoto ordered torpedo tubes and his one-man human torpedoes, calledkaitens , readied for firing. The time was 11:08 P.M.

Although Hashimoto could make out the distant outline of a ship, he was unable to determine the type of vessel. At first the submariner believed it might be a destroyer making a depth-charge run, since it was sailing toward the 1-58. When the approaching ship slowly veered away from the submarine, however, the Japanese commander decided he could easily sink it. Now the Japanese skipper believed he had either a cruiser or battleship of the Idaho class in his sights.

On board the Indianapolis , no telltale “blip” appeared on the radar screen; the I-58’s periscope did not protrude far enough above the surface to be detected by the cruiser’s main antisubmarine defense. Scanning the horizon for the escorts he believed must be following such a large ship, Hashimoto gave his orders. Despite the pleas of his kaiten crews that they be used, the captain decided on conventional torpedoes. He waited until the vessel was fifteen hundred yards away and then fired a spread of six torpedoes. The projectiles hurtled toward the unsuspecting ship at a speed of fortyeight knots, each carrying a lethal 1,210-pound explosive charge.

Hashimoto saw the dark sky erupt as huge columns of water and bright red flames enveloped the cruiser’s numberone turret, followed by another explosion amidships. Then a final column of water rose from the number-two turret and appeared to cover the entire ship. “A hit, a hit!” Hashimoto shouted as crew members danced jubilantly. Several secondary explosions followed, resounding enough to make the submarine’s crew believe they were being depth-charged.

The first blast shook the Indianapolis at 11:35 P.M. The tremendous explosion sent a column of water rising higher than the bridge; seconds later the next burst closer to the bridge. Because of the explosions that followed, it is unclear whether two or three torpedoes struck the vessel; some survivors remembered three initial blasts, others only two.

Two would have been enough. The first blew off the ship’s bow forty feet back to the forward turret, while the second knocked out the vessel’s power center, touched off an ammunition magazine and supply of aviation fuel, and tore away great sections of the cruiser’s bottom. Everywhere on board men found the ship’s communication system dead. With the bridge unable to contact the engine room, the cruiser continued plowing ahead at seventeen knots, scooping up tons of seawater through the gaping hole forward.

As secondary explosions rocked the vessel, the Indianapolis began listing to starboard. On the bridge the officer of the deck, John I. Orr, ordered a coxswain to ‘go below and pass the word, ‘All hands topside.’”

Thrown from his bunk by the second torpedo blast, Captain McVay scrambled to the bridge to receive a report from Lieutenant Orr. Although informed that communications were dead, the skipper’s first thought was to send a distress signal; he sent Orr below to relay the ship’s position and report its torpedoing. Returning to his emergency cabin for clothes, McVay ordered that additional damage reports be carried by runners. When the captain made his way back to the bridge, dressing as he went, he received his first report from Lieutenant Commander K. C. “Casey” Moore. Commander Moore explained that most forward compartments were flooding quickly, then asked the dread question, “Do you want to abandon ship?”

Captain McVay believed the vessel’s list was still slight and that she could possibly be saved. He ordered Moore to make a further check below. The tranny cams commander obeyed—and was never seen again. With no word yet from Radio Shack I, McVay ordered Commander John H. Janney to the ship’s communications center to make certain a message was sent. Janney, too, disappeared.

Radio I, containing the ship’s receivers, was a shambles after the second hit. “We can neither send nor receive—no power,” watch officer Lieutenant Dave Driscoll reported to the ship’s radio officer, Lieutenant N. P. Hill. Despite this, Hill ordered the transmitters warmed up and a distress signal sent. Although the message was dutifully tapped out on the brass keys, no one believed the signal was transmitted.