75 Years Ago: The Sinking of USS Indianapolis

USS Indianapolis off Hawaii, 1937 (Naval History and Heritage Command)
USS Indianapolis off Hawaii, 1937 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Published Jul 28, 2020 2:21 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy will hold a moment of silence to remember the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine at 0003 hours local time on July 30, 1945 (July 29 in the continental United States). 

The Indianapolis had just completed a voyage that changed the course of the war. On July 16, 1945, she set sail from San Francisco, bound for Tinian Island at high speed and carrying a top-secret package. Unbeknownst to her crew, she was delivering components for an atomic bomb, which would soon be dropped on Hiroshima.

Indianapolis arrived at Tinian ahead of schedule on July 26 and safely delivered her cargo. After a quick refueling and replenishment stop at Guam, she made a course for Leyte. However, about halfway through the voyage, she was spotted and intercepted by the Japanese sub I-58. The submarine fired six torpedoes, striking Indianapolis multiple times.

The cruiser sank in just 12 minutes, and there was little time for sending a distress signal or deploying her survival equipment. About 880 members of her crew managed to abandon ship, but the Navy was not immediately aware that the cruiser had gone down. 

The survivors spent four days in the water before an anti-submarine patrol plane spotted them. Over the intervening period, shark attacks, dehydration, exposure and drowning claimed the lives of hundreds; ultimately, just 316 out of the 1,195 sailors and Marines who sailed out with Indianapolis survived.

"While much is written about the crews four harrowing days in the waters of the Pacific waiting to be found with few lifeboats, over-exposure to the elements, and almost no food or water, one thing is certain: those brave sailors and Marines endured impossible hardships by banding together.  And we must do the same today," said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday in a message to the fleet. "So, I ask you to pause and take a moment on July 29, between 11:03 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. EDT . . . Remember their courage and devotion to each other in the face of the most severe adversity.  Remember their valor in combat and the role they played in ending the most devastating war in history. Honor their memory and draw strength from their legacy."

The wreck was rediscovered in August 2017 by a civilian search team funded by American entrepreneur Paul Allen. Thanks to new research on the cruiser's by final voyage by Naval History and Heritage Command, Allen's research vessel Petrel was able to locate the wreck at a position about 35 miles from where Indianapolis was previously believed to have gone down. 

“The sinking of the Indianapolis was one of the darkest chapters in the history of the U.S. Navy, in which errors ashore compounded the suffering of those in the water. Nevertheless it is also an incredibly inspirational story of courage and survival in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. The credo of the survivors - 'never, ever, give up' - are words for the Navy to live by, today and in the future," said Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox (ret'd), the director of Naval History and Heritage Command.