Skip to comments.The jaws massacre: How 900 stricken men were surrounded by killer sharks (USS Indianapolis)
Posted on 08/18/2007 10:18:49 AM PDT by wagglebee
For the men strung out in the oil-streaked water, clinging to the sides of flimsy rafts or floating in sodden life-jackets, the sight was terrifying and the underwater brush of leathery skin against a submerged leg, or the nudge of a snout, was gut-wrenching.
These men were already survivors, the remaining 900 sailors of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Just three-quarters of the crew had managed to get off the heavy cruiser when she was blown apart by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine and sank in 12 minutes.
But now, wounded, bloodied and adrift in the deepest, remotest part of the Pacific Ocean, they faced this new menace.
"There were hundreds of them," recalled survivor Woody James. "You'd hear somebody scream, and you'd know the sharks had got him."
Terrifying: The men werr surrounded by killer sharks
Seaman First Class Loel Cox lost one of his friends in a flurry of bloody mayhem just a few feet away: "I was that close, the shark's tail struck me."
"They were upon us every three or four hours," said another survivor, counting himself lucky to be alive.
Bugler First Class Donald Mack would never forget those screams and the realisation "that there was one less man to be rescued".
The sharks were gathering from miles around. The terrible noise of the flagship of the U.S. Fifth Fleet exploding and the disturbance of the sea as it plunged bow down, screws in the air, into the depths, brought the first of the predators to the area.
Then the blood, urine and vomit of humans in distress drew them even closer. In the forefront were the oceanic white tip sharks, renowned for their ferocity and feeding frenzies.
James and the others - though they didn't know it - were in the middle of what has gone down as the largest recorded encounter ever between men and sharks. Only 316 men came out of the water alive. More than 500 perished.
James was with about 150 other men bobbing about in the swell, lifejackets tied together. Groups of differing sizes - one as big as 300, others just a handful clinging to each other - dotted vast acres of ocean. Some were in sight of others but the pitch black at night and the searing glare of the tropical sun during the day left most of them of them oblivious to anyone else's existence.
Isolated and helpless, alone on an unfriendly sea, they waited for rescue. But would it come in time? Would there be anyone left to save?
The Indianapolis: Sunk in shark-infested waters when she was struck by torpedoes
Next week the sinking of the Indianapolis and the ordeal of its crew in the summer of 1945 is reconstructed in a Discovery Channel TV documentary. The Worst Shark Attack Ever: Ocean Of Fear plots their four days and five nights in the water, with men dying in droves, before it was even realised they were missing.
It still beggars belief that they were left to the mercy of the elements for so long - that this massive warship and its 1,200 crew had, as it were, dropped off the radar in the final days of America's Pacific war against Japan.
Part of the reason is that the Indianapolis had been on a top secret mission. She had been diverted from her front-line duties to San Francisco to pick up a special cargo. The sailors watched a large wooden crate being lifted on board and stowed on the deck, guarded by marines.
They set sail for the island of Tinian, the busiest U.S. air base in the Pacific, where the crate was unloaded, amid ribald speculation from the crew that all it contained was a delivery of luxury lavatory paper for the commander-in-chief,
General Douglas MacArthur. The crate was a decoy. Few of the sailors had noticed the real object of their voyage - a bucket-shaped cylinder that had been slipped on board and welded to the floor in the Admiral's cabin. Inside was the uranium component of an atomic bomb, and it was being delivered to Tinian to meet up with its other half, which was arriving by plane.
When put together they would form Little Boy, the device shortly to be dropped on Hiroshima.
Her ferrying job done, the Indianapolis was ordered to Leyte in the Philippines, but her mysterious trip to Tinian seems to have made her invisible to the naval authorities who should have been tracking her.
No one noticed when she did not arrive. Incredibly, there was no procedure to check that she had done so. No one was tasked with raising the alarm if she was overdue or, as turned out to be the case, at the bottom of the sea.
Court martial: Captain McVay was blamed for the tragedy of the Indianapolis
The problem was compounded because of the speed with which she sank. There was time to get off just a single SOS, but it was ignored. A handful of radio operators heard it but the destruction of the flagship so late in the war, with the Japanese on the defensive, was thought so incredible that it was dismissed as a Japanese hoax. The sinking had indeed been incredible. Woody James was sleeping on deck, avoiding the stifling heat below, when the first torpedo hit.
"I saw 60ft of the bow chopped off, completely gone. But we were still under way and scooping in water at the front so that within two minutes we were starting to go down. There were screams like you couldn't believe from the men trapped below.
"The word got passed down to abandon ship. I went over the side."
Dr Lewis Haynes was sleeping when the first explosion hurled him into the air. The second torpedo slammed home directly beneath him, and he opened his door to a wall of smoke and flames. He burned his hands on the red-hot deck before hauling himself out of a porthole.
He saw wounded men everywhere, some so badly burned that they shrieked with pain when touched and could not don life-jackets. The doctor helped those he could, and then, as the ship rolled on one side, he walked out on to the hull and into the water.
More than 300 men died on board the Indianapolis. The Captain, Charles McVay, wondered whether he should have been one of them as he trod water and saw the stern of his ship tower above him, the propellers still spinning.
He thought it might crash directly on him but she slipped gracefully under the waves. It might have been better if she had fallen on him, he thought to himself.
He already knew the recriminations that were coming his way. Captains were supposed to go down with their ships.
When ensign Harlan Twible ordered the men under his command over the side, they refused. They were just boys - some were as young as 17.
"Everyone held on for dear life, even though the deck was now almost vertical. They were scared to go into that forbidding water.
"I yelled 'Follow me' and swam away. Then I realised they had no idea what to do. I called out 'Get away or the ship will suck you down when she sinks.' We swam as fast as we could. Then I stopped and looked back and she was going down by the bow, just like in a movie."
Into the water that night went 900 men but their numbers immediately dwindled. Some were already dying from their injuries, others drowned.
Ensign Twible knew the men he was leading had to stick together to have any chance at all. "We had four rafts and I ordered the men swimming to tie themselves to them. But some cut themselves loose and drifted away, and when the sharks first arrived at daybreak on the second day, these were the ones they took first.
"I set up a shark watch. As soon as anyone saw one they were to shout out and then we would all kick and scream, make a commotion and try and chase them off."
As no rescue ships appeared and hopes of survival began to fade, many went mad, overwhelmed by thirst and the sheer helplessness of their predicament. In desperation they drank the salt water around them and died in agony within hours.
There were mass hallucinations. Men shouted out that they could see the Indianapolis beneath the waves, intact and inviting. Woody James recalled being urged to just dive down and get some water out of the drinking fountain: "The commissary is open and you can buy ice cream, cigarettes, candy, whatever you like.
"And then three or four guys would believe the story and swim off and we'd never see them again."
Others were convinced there was an island close by, though the nearest land was 250 miles away.
"We've already been there," they said, "it's not very far and it has a very nice hotel. Come on, we'll swim there."
One sane survivor watched in anguish as a whole line of men struck out for this imaginary heaven, only to find they were still in hell.
It took great strength to remain sane and alive through the freezing nights and the scorching days. "At night, the water was so cold, we prayed for the sun, and in the day the sun so hot we prayed for darkness," said another of the men, Loel Cox.
The doctor, Lewis Haynes, was, as he said himself, by now little more than a coroner, struggling from one unconscious body to another. "I'd just paddle over and look into his eyes and if his pupil was dilated and he didn't blink I'd declare him dead. Then we would take off his life-jacket because we needed every damned one we could get our hands on."
But by now, even the life-jackets were giving up. Their buoyancy limit was 48 hours and that had long since gone. They were waterlogged, and dragged many a wearer beneath the surface. And then there were the sharks.
Surprisingly, the very first account of the sinking of the Indianapolis, by American journalist Richard Newcomb in 1958, made only a handful of references to them.
It detailed and exposed the incompetence and culpability of U.S. Navy officials over the sinking, but of the predators in the sea it said very little.
It was film-maker Steven Spielberg who brought the horror to public consciousness in his blockbuster, Jaws, when the old sea-dog Quint (played by Robert Shaw) explained his obsession with catching sharks. He had, he said, been on the Indianapolis.
"The sharks came cruisin'. I don't know how many, maybe a thousand. Lost a hundred men in that first dawn alone. I bumped into a friend of mine bobbing up and down in the water just like a top. Upended him. Well - he'd been bitten in half below the waist.
"Eleven hundred men went in the water, 316 come out. The sharks took the rest."
The new documentary suggests that while there was indeed a feeding frenzy, the sharks fed mostly on dead bodies which had drifted away.
But attacks on the living certainly did happen. One survivor recalled being woken by the pain of teeth crunching his hand. He fought back - the men were discovering that if you poked a shark firmly in the eye it would retreat, unused to retaliation.
He dragged his mangled hand back, but then faced a different sort of savagery: his raft-mates saw the blood and tried to push him away, afraid he might provoke another attack.
It's impossible to tell how many fell victim to the sharks. Phil Craig, the documentary's executive producer, estimates that, out of the hundreds who died, no more than two dozen living men were victims of sharks. Others put the figure much higher.
Survivor numbers had dwindled by more than 500 and all hope had gone when the pilot of a U.S. bomber on a routine anti-submarine patrol looked down quite by chance and saw an oil slick with heads bobbing about in it.
He radioed back to base, though even at this point no one had realised the Indianapolis was missing. Planes were sent, including a Catalina flying boat whose pilot, Lt Adrian Marks, bravely landed it on the open sea.
He hauled in as many survivors as he could, cramming them into the cockpit and lashing them to holes he punched into the wings, until the first rescue ships arrived.
Ed Brown owed his life to Marks. "I was spent, just dazed in the water. Then I heard somebody holler: 'Grab that ring,' and I looked up and there was a white life-belt. The other end of the rope was tied to the seaplane.
"They lifted me up onto the side of the plane. All those sores and scabs I had on me peeled right off. But I was happy to be aboard."
Marks rescued 56 men that day, riding the ocean swell in his flimsy fuselage until he could transfer them to the ships which, now the penny had dropped, were arriving fast.
One by one the 316 survivors were taken to safety. Woody James, like most of them, was naked and covered from head to foot in black oil. "All I had on was my bosun's whistle hanging round my neck on a lanyard."
Loel Cox's skin was so rotten from the salt water that it stuck to the canvas bunk he was placed in. The medics wrapped him in gauze but still his skin and hair came off, "like a peeled onion".
Captain McVay was facing more than just physical suffering. The recriminations he had feared followed quickly. It was obvious the sinking and the failure to rescue the crew was a scandal, which the navy first tried to hide by revealing the loss of the Indianapolis on the same day that President Harry Truman announced the Japanese surrender.
But the Press and the families of the dead were not so easily fooled. They wanted explanations, they wanted heads to roll for the human error and poor procedures that had led to so many men being left to die when their lives could have been saved.
Instead, the blame was dumped on McVay, who was convicted at a court martial for "jeopardising his vessel by failing to ziz-zag" - the accepted manoeuvre for frustrating submarine attacks.
It ruined an otherwise exemplary record and McVay never escaped the trauma. In 2000 he was exonerated by the U.S. Congress - far too late, because he had killed himself in 1968 after years of mental illness.
More than 60 years on, the whole episode remains a serious blot on the record of the U.S. Navy. In popular terms, too, it is also a blot on the reputation of sharks.
But, as shark experts explain, they were only doing what millennia of evolution have honed them to do - to attack and eat voraciously whatever helpless creatures they find in the water.
Survivor Michael Kuryla agreed. "They came around and did their thing. We were in their territory, and that's where a shark belongs, not us."
Its a horrific story. We have several of the memorabilia that the survivors sell to raise money for their group. Brave men. Brave families. I read their book in their own words. I can’t even imagine.
Was a movie ever made from this horrible nightmare?.............
As far as I know, the only movie reference was Robert Shaw’s story in “Jaws.”
“In 2000 he was exonerated by the U.S. Congress”
An inappropriate move. There were other reasons he should not have been let off the hook with the key one being as to how the ship was first discovered by the Japanese sub - noise transcience originating from the galley. Sorry. The captain failed in his job.
Excellent thread btw. Thank you for posting it!
Book, movie, and TV show. The worst part is that nobody bothered to search for the ship for a few days after it disappeared.
Yes they did.
What was the movie?
Let me tell you something--galley noises are the least of your concerns when you're driving a WWII-era battle cruiser. As a former sonarman, I think I know a little about that.
Furthermore, McVay had asked for an escort ship, prior to setting out to the Philippines; he was denied.
Sometimes in the fog of war, when you're time is up, you're time is up. The Japanese submarine captain did not have one kill throughout the entire war. Then, with only weeks left, with the Japanese navy in a shambles, this sub stumbles across a big target, one not designed for sub-hunting. In fact, the Japanese captain testified: it would not have made one bit of difference if the Indianapolis was zig-zagging or not. She was a relatively easy kill.
Mission of the Shark was one...
Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis - Stacy Keach.
Thanks, I had never heard of that.
They do a pretty good job. Goes into the courts martial quite a bit. I think I read recently that the captain of the Japanese submarine had died. They used him to nail the Captain of the Indianapolis. He wasn’t “zigzaging” so therefore, he presented an easy target. I think the sub would have gotten them anyway.
In Stanton’s book “In Harm’s Way,” that line of thinking is debunked.
First, the galley noise was cited by the Japanese sub commander during McVay’s courtmartial as preciesly what gave him away. Second, even though the “Japanese navy was a shambles” the war was still on, McVay was still in command and thus those evolutions should have been secured. He took a laid back approach thinking the war for him and his crew was over and they paid a terrible price for it. His court martial was the right punishment and its removal was due probably more to placate aging WWII survivors rather than as a rectification of a miscarriage of justice.
always overlooked is the fact more men died from drinking salt water than died to sharks. Still the story is horrific
About 8 years ago I ran into an older gent in a grocery store with an Indianapolis baseball cap on.
I went up to him and asked if he was a crewmember? He said he was. I told him I was so very sorry and thanked him for his incredible service.
He started crying like a little boy and shook his head and walked away.
So very painful.
GOD bless them all.
I just saw a movie on the history channel of this about a week ago. Very well done. The history channel was pushing its agenda on shark week and tried telling us in commercial breaks that there wasn't that many actually killed by sharks. The movie showed otherwise and, to me, was very well done.
On the History channel...and Jaws, post 20.
That was one of the half dozen best movies scenes ever.
It had to be a horrific thing to live through and I could see how it would still haunt the survivors sex decades later.
I never knew. Dear God in Heaven, what an ordeal to live through.
I challenge you to name a better movie scene.
More from Wikipedia:
"When the Indianapolis did not reach Leyte on the 31st, as scheduled, no report was made that she was overdue... Thus it was not until 10:25 on August 2 that the survivors were accidentally sighted."
Which lends itself to the beauty of the writing.
Yes. “The Mission of the Shark”. Good movie, but diffucult to watch the attack sequences.
- The opening segment of "Saving Private Ryan"
- The schoolyard scene in "The Birds"
- Marlon Brando's "I could have been a contender" monologue in "On the Waterfront"
- The chariot race in "Ben Hur"
- The opening speech in "Patton"
I'm sure there are others, but these would be the ones I can come up with off the top of my head. A few others would be the Russian roulette scene in "Deer Hunter," the segment where all of the Corleone enemies are killed in the end of the first "Godfather" and Robert Duvall's "smell of napalm in the morning" scene in "Apocalypse Now." I also left out comedy scenes on purpose, though there are plenty of great ones.
Capt. McVay’s name would never have been cleared if it weren’t for this amazing schoolboy.
I would agree. The opening in Private Ryan was great because a battle scene had never been done as realistically before, but that is mainly due to technology. Shaw’s scene in Jaws was great because he made it that way and I would certainly give it the edge over the other two scenes that is simple dialog (”On the Waterfront” and “Patton”).
The sinking of USS Juneau and the aftermath is an eerily similar story. Out of 700 crew members, only 10 survived. “Left to Die” is an excellent read.
“Leetle brown eel comes outta the cave, into the hole, comes outta the hole and back into the cave again.”
—Quint describes how to tie a bowline.
If memory serves, Quint was the one who drew it. It was at the town meeting, he drew the picture and then scratched his fingernails across the chalkboard.
Maybe so, but I don't buy it. Acoustic analysis wasn't nearly as sophisticated in WWII. The screws, and other propulsion-related transients on the Indy would've gave her away long before the galley noises.
JAWS - Quint’s USS Indianapolis Speech
Watch it at:
Note : The only error Robert Shaw made in this scene was saying the date June 29, 1945. The actual date of the Indianapolis disaster was July 29-30, 1945.
Everytime I hear about the Indy...Its one of the few things that really put a lump in my throat...
I almost have to change the channel when the promo’s come on...
You are entitled to your opinion regarding Captain Charles McVay’s court martial, but I STRONGLY DISAGREE. He was denied an escort, prior to the start of his top secret mission despite having requested one. McVay was also THE ONLY CAPTAIN COURT MARTIALED DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR for losing his ship. Also, Fleet Admiral Nimitz who served as CNO after the war restored Captain McVay to duty. McVay never received another command at sea, but resumed his ruined career and was promoted to Rear Admiral on the day of his retirement. I venture to say that the Sailors of the USS Indianapolis who survived that ordeal would also disagree with you, Mister.