Just last month, a search team located the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1945. The search team was funded by Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen.
The team’s robotic submarine has provided us with the first look at this ship since it sank beneath the Pacific 72 years ago. The exact location of the wreckage is kept secret but it lies at a depth of about 18,000 feet, or nearly 3.5 miles, in the Philippine Sea.
The sinking of the USS Indianapolis was the single greatest loss of life in the history of the US Navy from a single ship. Of the 1,196 crewmen aboard, only 317 survived. About 300 went down with the ship with the rest lost due to exposure, dehydration, saltwater poisoning, and shark attacks as they remained adrift at sea for nearly four days.
Before she sank, the Indianapolis was on an incredibly important and secret mission for US forces in the Pacific. The ship set off from San Francisco loaded with important materials, including half the world’s supply of Uranium-235, for the construction of the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’, which would be dropped a few months later on Hiroshima.
On her way to Guam to drop off the secret cargo, the Indianapolis set a record for the fastest journey by ship to Hawaii of 74.5 hours, a record that still stands to this day. After the successful delivery of her cargo, the Indianapolis set sail for the Philippines. It was on this journey that the Indianapolis met its unfortunate fate.
A Japanese submarine spotted the Indianapolis sailing alone and fired its torpedoes, two of which struck the ship. The Indianapolis sunk in just 12 minutes. She sank so fast that by the time the submarine repositioned itself for another barrage of torpedoes the ship had disappeared.
Because the ship sank so fast, hardly any lifeboats were launched and many of the crew were unable to grab lifejackets. Of the nearly 900 crewmen who made it off the ship, only 317 survived the four days adrift at sea.
Besides the exposure, hunger, and thirst, the sinking of the Indianapolis resulted in the most shark attacks on humans in history.
The US Navy had no knowledge of the ship’s sinking, even after she didn’t arrive at the Philippines at her scheduled date. A Navy scout plane on routine patrol flight spotted the remaining crew and dispatched all available units to their location at once.
The Indianapolis’s quick sinking time meant that only a short distress message was sent out. Only three stations received the signal but none of them responded. One station commander was drunk, another had ordered his men not to disturb him, and the third thought it was a Japanese trap.
In popular culture, a character in the movie ‘Jaws’ is depicted as a USS Indianapolis survivor, emphasizing the numerous shark attacks and setting up the tension for the shark attacks later in the movie.