There have been some devastating maritime disasters in the history of mankind, and perhaps few as bad as the one we will talk about today. In terms of loss of life, the worst ever was that of the German ship, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, which was sunk by torpedoes in 1945. It’s thought that 9,400 people were killed that day. The deadliest in terms of passenger ships was the sinking of the Philippine-registered passenger ferry, the MV Doña Paz, which collided with an oil tanker and caught fire, killing an estimated 4,386 people in 1987. Only 24 survived. While today’s show isn’t the worst in terms of life loss, it might be the worst in terms of how the sailors died.
The heavy cruiser served as a U.S. flagship, launched in 1931 and was sunk in 1945. To date, it’s the worst maritime disaster for the USA and there wouldn’t be another U.S. ship sunk during World War Two. It had served well in numerous battles until its fateful day.
That day was 30 July and the time was 15 minutes past midnight. At that moment in time she was hit on her starboard side by a duo of Type 95 torpedoes, one after the other. These were the creations of the Imperial Japanese Navy. After the Type 93 it is now viewed as likely the most destructive torpedo of the war, and the fastest the Japanese had. It had a 9,000 meter range (9,800 yards) at 49–51 knots (91–94 km/h). This was very much superior to anything the USA had in its arsenal at the time. In other words, getting hit by one of these was the very last thing a navy wanted.
It was fired by the Japanese B3 type cruiser submarine, the I-58. After causing considerable damage to two destroyers, her greatest triumph is what we are discussing today. She only retired on September 2 when the Japanese surrendered.
After the initial hit it’s thought it took about 12 minutes for U.S.S. Indianapolis to go down, putting an abrupt end to her intended journey from Guam to the Philippines. It’s thought around 1,199 crew ended up in the waters of the Pacific. Around 300 crew died quickly as they went down with the ship. Because it sank so fast there was no time to send message to the US Navy, and that meant nobody besides the enemy knew what had happened.
One of the survivors recounted what happened to him once the ship was under water: “I never saw a life raft. I finally heard some moans and groans and yelling and swam over and got with a group of 30 men and that’s where I stayed.”
Another survivor, Captain Charles B. McVay, explained what happened on impact: “I was thrown from my emergency cabin bunk on the bridge by a very violent explosion followed shortly thereafter by another explosion.” Smoke was everywhere and soon he was informed that indeed, the ship was going down. He described in horrific detail: “I was sucked off into the water by what I believe was a wave caused by the bow going down rather rapidly.” Hot oil covered his back and neck; it was dark, and he couldn’t see where the screaming was coming from. And then swish, he heard the ship plunge into the ocean.
So, with all those sailors in the sea, what happened? Well, for a start, many of them had fuel in their eyes and this made life very hard. People that could see couldn’t see far because of the waves, but fortunately survivors later told the press that for the most part the ocean was quite calm. They just stayed afloat in their lifejackets, waiting, hoping, for rescue to arrive.
And then things took a turn for the worst. Those in the water were hungry, and worse, dying from dehydration. The lucky ones found snacks in the flotsam. Others died, especially those that were already injured. But imagine floating in the middle of the Pacific, waiting to die. This feeling of despair didn’t sit well with some crew, and according to survivors some men just took their own life. Hours, days, passed and still no rescue. This sent some of those clinging onto life to literally go mad. Delirious men struggled in the water, some hallucinating, hearing voices. Others swam away and then came back to the group, saying the ship hadn’t gone down at all. They’d just been back, and stuffed their faces with food. They weren’t even thirsty anymore. This was of course psychosis. They said this as they were on the verge of dying. Others actually drank salt water, speeding up the dying process.
But a worse fate was in store for even those still strong. Sharks came, and they came from far and wide for one of the Pacific’s biggest feeding frenzies. One of the survivors told the British press about this. “We were sunk at midnight, I saw [a shark] the first morning after daylight. They were big. Some of them I swear were 15ft long.” The water being so calm wasn’t a help. Some men were so freaked by the sharks underneath that in the words of one survivor, they “just slipped out of their life jackets and just decided that they didn’t want to face it any longer.” A survivor said the good news for the men not injured was that the sharks had plenty of dead men to eat. “Thank goodness, there were lots of dead people floating in the area,” he said. He also said even if you were alive the sharks would check you out by bumping into you. He was bumped three or four times, he said, but it seemed he was not going to be on the menu. On average, during dinner time for the sharks, he said that they’d finish off three or four new guys a night.
According to reports there were hundreds of these sharks feeding or thinking about feeding on the men. They would attack in the morning and then just cruise around all day, sometimes after leaving some men injured but not dead. At night the feeding started again. “Like lightning, one would come straight up and take a sailor and take him straight down,” said a survivor. The water turned red, and from far and wide more sharks heard about this feast of humans and joined the hundreds of other sharks. To date, it’s said this is easily the worst case of shark attacks in human history.
But according to one book on the matter, “In Harm’s Way,” some men refused to die, and in moments of levity they would place bets on who would die next and who would survive. Others shouted to the heavens, making promises with God that they would be good forever on if ‘He’ allowed them to survive the ordeal. Four days after the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis the surviving men were spotted from the air by the crew of a Lockheed PV-1 Ventura when it was on a patrol route. First some men were bravely picked up when a US air force pilot landed his PBY Catalina plane down in the ocean, and later the destroyer USS Cecil J came to pick up the other men, some on the edge of death from injury and exposure.
Of those that did survive, some 317 men, many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder when they got home. But as German philosopher Nietzsche said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Many of these men were telling the story of their survival into their 90s. As for the ill-fated ship, thanks to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who sent a submersible down to video the wreckage in 2017, the world was treated to views of the ship laying on the ocean floor.
Do you think you would have survived? What would you have done in that situation? Tell us in the comments, and as always, please don’t forget to like, share and subscribe.