U.S.S. Indianapolis

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In one of those “This Date in History” type of things this week, I noticed that July 30, 1945 was the date of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

On July 30, 1945, during World War II, the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis, which had just delivered components for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine; only 316 out of some 1,200 men survived the sinking and shark-infested waters.

I’ll admit, I first learned about the Indianapolis from the above scene in “Jaws,” where Quint (Robert Shaw), Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the Chief (Roy Scheider) are drinking and comparing scars on the Orca during the hunt for the shark.

If you haven’t seen “Jaws,” I probably wouldn’t like you.

The story Quint tells is generally true, although some details, like the date (he’s off by a month and a day) are wrong. Some guy named Ellis Sharp details some of the factual errors his blog. Since I’m worried his blog, which hasn’t been updated since 2007, will disappear, here are some details from his Sept. 12, 2005 post …

It’s a brilliantly choreographed scene, almost Shakespearean in its intensity and in its shifts of tone. Everything clicks perfectly – the camerawork, the dialogue, the soundtrack, the acting. Shaw’s performance at this point is dazzling. A lesser actor would have played it sombre and tragic, but Shaw tells the story with a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face. The abbreviated sentences hint at the emotions churning below the surface of Shaw’s composure; the chopped off dialogue is brilliantly appropriate to the tale being told. The thudding repetition of the word “chief” is like a drum beat, and it becomes almost mocking. On land, chief Brody is an important man, in control of law and order. Out on the ocean he’s an inexperienced ignorant landlubber, subordinate to the expertise of the two men he’s with.

But as I watched and listened I thought: is this true? Like chief Brody I’d never heard of the USS Indianapolis. Is Shaw’s monologue rooted in historical truth or is it just a fiction?

The answer turns out to be though there really was a USS Indianapolis which sank with massive loss of life, Spielberg alters the historical reality in various ways. The USS Indianapolis did not deliver the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, because the bomb was not assembled in the USA but on the captured Japanese island of Tinian. The Indianapolis sailed from the USA and on July 26 1945 delivered two important parts of the Little Boy bomb – the gun and bullet (as they were called). But there were other components, which were delivered separately by air, including the three parts of the target assembly, the initiator and plutonium core. Little Boy was not ready until July 31. The full story is in Richard Rhodes’s excellent and authoritative book The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986).

After unloading its cargo at Tinian, the Indianapolis sailed on to Guam. From Guam it continued on towards its destination of Leyte in the Philippines, where the 1,196 combat troops it was carrying were to undergo training. It sailed unescorted, which was not unusual following the destruction of the Japanese surface fleet and airforce. At midnight on Sunday July 29 a Japanese submarine, mistaking it for a battleship, fired six torpedoes at the Indianapolis.

Is it true, as Quint says, that “our bomb mission had been so secret no distress signal had been sent”? Absolutely not. The torpedoes destroyed the ship’s power system; the radio officer was simply not able to send a distress signal.

The ship went down, but 850 men escaped. Most of the survivors had lifejackets. During the night 50 men died of their injuries. The survivors then spent three days and three nights afloat until on Thursday morning, 2 August 1945, a Navy plane spotted survivors, and a massive rescue operation began. There were 318 survivors.

Is it true that around 500 men were devoured alive by sharks? No. Some were killed by sharks, but others died in a variety of ways. Some of the survivors were so thirsty they drank seawater, became deranged, then comatose, and drowned. Some men hallucinated and removed their lifejackets, believing they could see an island, or the outline of the Indianapolis just below the surface, or fountains of fresh water. They also drowned. Some survivors believed that there were Japanese infiltrators among them. Fights broke out. Men frenziedly stabbed each other to death with their knives.

Most of the facts he pointed out about the tragedy can be found here.

Also, there’s an organization for survivors of the worst Naval disaster in U.S. history can be found here.

And, just for fun, here’s a fan site for the movie “Jaws.”

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