Seventy Years Ago Today, 900 Men Went Into the Water

Commissioned Nov. 7, 1931, the U.S.S. Indianapolis earned 10 battle stars before being sunk by Japanese torpedoes on July 30, 1945.

Commissioned Nov. 7, 1931, the U.S.S. Indianapolis earned 10 battle stars before being sunk by Japanese torpedoes on July 30, 1945.

(This one of my occasional non-sports pieces and another one that focuses on an incident from World War II, in this case the tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.)

By Glen Sparks

The best scene in the 1975 blockbuster movie Jaws takes place in the disheveled cabin of a rickety fishing boat.

Three men (Quint, Hooper and Brody), as much drunk as sober, discuss broken hearts, lop-sided arm wrestling contests and, finally, a long-ago piece of war history that began to unravel in tragedy shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945.

Brody points to a scar on Quint’s arm. Old tattoo, Quint grumbles. Hooper makes a joke. “Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me. ‘Mother.’” he says with an unfortunate giggle.

Quint, a grizzled fisherman (especially of sharks), just grimaces. “U.S.S. Indianapolis.”

Hooper, a marine biologist, turns sober at the mere mention of the Indianapolis. Brody, a police chief, remains clueless.

Now, Jaws, as you probably know, is quite the fish tale. It seems that a large great white shark in Amityville (on Long Island) has chosen to turn local bathers into snacks. This being bad for tourist business, Messrs., Quint (Robert Shaw), Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Brody (Roy Scheider) head out to sea in hopes of catching the ornery shark.

So, Quint begins the narrative. Here is the story:

(Semi-quick sidenote: Carl Gottlieb is credited with writing the screenplay for Jaws, along with Peter Benchley, who wrote the book. By almost every account, neither man wrote the U.S.S. Indianapolis scene. Supposedly, uncredited writer Howard Sackler conceived the idea of an Indianapolis speech. John Milius, a writer-director, took it from there and created a 10-page speech. Shaw, an accomplished writer besides being a fine actor, whittled it down. Jaws director Steven Spielberg liked the backstory because it helped explain why Quint hated sharks so much. The character in the book has an almost pathological hatred of sharks, but Benchley never explains why. Anyway, the movie is much better than the book. Every human character is unpleasant. As Spielberg explains, if you read the book, you root for the shark.)

The U.S.S. Indianapolis, a Portland-class heavy cruiser, left San Francisco harbor on July 16, 1945, carrying enriched uranium and other parts for the atomic bomb Little Boy. The ship delivered its cargo to the U.S. Navy airbase at Tinian island on July 26 and left for Guam to pick up some sailors. The Indianapolis departed from Guam, heading for Leyte, on July 28.

A Japanese submarine, the 1-58, hit the Indianapolis with two torpedoes. The first one crushed the ship’s bow. The second one hit near midship next to a fuel tank and a powder magazine. It was 14 minutes past midnight, midway between Guam and Leyte Gulf in the Pacific When the Japanese torpedoes hit, 1,196 men were aboard the ship. Approximately 900 made it into the water.

The shark attacks began at sunrise on the first day. “You know,” Quint says, “the thing about a shark is that he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes like a doll’s eyes … ‘til he bites you.” Quint figures that 1,000 sharks, “maybe more”, circled the bloody scene.

Over the next few days, the sailors also suffered from exposure, dehydration and saltwater poisoning. No one reported the Indianapolis missing even after it did not arrive as scheduled at Leyte on July 31. At 11 a.m. on the fourth day, a Lockheed PV-1 bomber on routine antisubmarine patrol spotted the survivors.

Lt. (j.g.) Wilbur C. Gwinn, the PV-1 pilot, radioed his base on the island of Peleliu. “Many men in the water.” Navy commanders sent a PBY seaplane, piloted by Lt. R. Adrian Marks, to help. Marks overflew the destroyer U.S.S. Cecil Doyle and reported the emergency. The Cecil Doyle captain diverted to the rescue scene. Marks, against orders, landed on the sea. He and his crew pulled in 56 sailors. The Cecil Doyle arrived in total darkness and began taking aboard survivors.

“That’s when I was most frightened,” Quint says, “waiting for my turn.” Of the approximately 900 who made it into the water on July 30, 317 were finally rescued.

The public did not learn of the Indianapolis disaster until Aug. 15, the same day of the Japanese surrender in World War II. Following an investigation, Capt. Charles B. McVay III, commander of the Indianapolis, was court-martialed and convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag (to avoid enemy submarines).”

The investigation was fraught with controversy.  No Navy directive had ordered McVay to zigzag, for instance, and a decorated U.S. submarine commander testified that given the identical circumstances facing the Japanese submarine on July 30, he could have sunk the Indianapolis whether it had been zigzagging or not.

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz later remitted Capt. McVay’s sentence and restored the officer to active duty. Even so, many families wrote angry letters to McVay over the years, blaming him for “killing my son.” In a tragic end to a tragic episode, McVay committed suicide on Nov. 6, 1968, at the age of 70. When family found him, he was holding a metal toy sailor in one hand.

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