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How Tales of Shark Attacks Shaped a U.S. Warship’s Legacy

The U.S.S. Indianapolis's sinking in shark-infested waters was a low point for American forces in World War II.

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This story appears in the August 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

On July 26, 1945, the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis landed on Tinian Island in the northern Pacific and delivered components for the atomic bomb that 11 days later would be dropped on Hiroshima. World War II was almost over. But for the crew of the Indy, the worst of the war was yet to come. Four days later, en route to the Philippines, the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The ship sank in 12 minutes, taking some 300 men down with it. The remaining 900 men were set adrift for the better part of five grueling days. Only 317 survived. It was the worst disaster at sea in U.S. naval history.

It was also perhaps the U.S. Navy’s most shameful debacle. The stranded sailors died in many ways, all horrible: injury, hypothermia, saltwater poisoning, shark attack—even homicide, when men began slipping into hallucinatory madness, stabbing and drowning shipmates they mistook for enemies. But most of those deaths had the same ultimate cause: the Navy’s failure to notice the Indianapolis was overdue at its next port of call and its failure to investigate. No search party was dispatched; the survivors were rescued only after a passing plane spotted them. To deflect blame, the Navy court-martialed the ship’s captain, Charles McVay, for failing to elude the attack—the only U.S. captain court-martialed for losing a ship in the war. He later committed suicide. After a campaign to clear his name, McVay was exonerated in 2000, and the Indy survivors had something to celebrate at last: their story told truly.

1,000 mi

United

States

1,000 km

San Francisco

July 16, 1945

Departed carrying components and nuclear material for atomic bombs

N

Hawaii (U.S.)

July 19, 1945

Refueled

Pearl Harbor

PACIFIC

OCEAN

July 26, 1945

Delivered the cargo in record time, taking only 9 days to travel more than 5,000 miles

July 28, 1945

Departed for Leyte Gulf in the Philippines

Tinian

Guam

Philippine

Sea

July 30, 1945, 12:05 a.m.

Hit by two torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58, it sank in 12 minutes

August 2, 1945

Survivors were sighted by a patrol plane and rescue operations began. Only 317 men were saved out of a ship’s complement of 1,200.

Matthew W. Chwastyk, NGM Staff

Source: NAval History and Heritage Command, U.S. Navy

July 16, 1945

United

States

Departed carrying components and nuclear material for atomic bombs

Korea

San Francisco

PACIFIC

OCEAN

China

July 26, 1945

Delivered the cargo in record time, taking only 9 days to travel more than 5,000 miles

July 19, 1945

Refueled

Hawaii

(U.S.)

Philippine

Sea

Pearl

Harbor

Tinian

Guam

July 28, 1945

Departed for Leyte Gulf in the Philippines

July 30, 1945, 12:05 a.m.

Hit by two torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58, it sank in 12 minutes

1,000 mi

1,000 km

August 2, 1945

Survivors were sighted by a patrol plane and rescue operations began. Only 317 men were saved out of a ship’s complement of 1,200.

Matthew W. Chwastyk, NGM Staff

Source: NAval History and Heritage Command, U.S. Navy

On Course for Tragedy

The Indianapolis’s covert mission set the stage for the horrors the crew would face. The unescorted ship sped to its destination of Tinian carrying the components of the new secret weapon that U.S. commanders hoped would force Japan’s capitulation.




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