INDIANAPOLIS -- For 84 hours the survivors of the torpedoed USS Indianapolis floundered in the shark-infested Pacific, drifting in small groups or alone in life jackets, waiting to be rescued.
In the August issue of American Legion magazine, World War II author Richard Newcomb tells the story of the men who spent four long days and nights battling sharks and their own fatigue in a sea of burning oil.
The 10,000 ton cruiser went down with 1,196 men aboard on Sunday, July 30, 1945, two weeks before the end of World War II. The Indianapolis was on a routine return trip from Guam, after delivering the main parts of the atomic bomb that one week later would hasten the end of the fighting.
After midnight, two torpedoes -- carrying more than a ton of high explosives -- blasted into the ship's hull, tearing off the bow and splitting the ship in half. Within minutes, the Indianapolis began to sink, head first, sending some 900 men who were still alive into the sea.
The ship sank so quickly after it was hit that there was no time to send out a distress call. By the time help arrived, only 316 men were left.
Most of the victims had burned to death or drowned inside the hull. Others washed off the starboard side, and died within minutes from burns or serious injuries.
Those who survived the torpedo blast began their second struggle to survive. What began as a wait for sunrise and the expected rescue crews turned into a long nightmare.
They had no lifeboats. The two the Indianapolis carried went down with the ship. But there were rafts, nets, and life jackets. The men grabbed what they could and organized into groups.
At noon Monday a plane flew high over the survivors. Two hours later another passed over, and later that night still another. But the pilots did not spot the floating dots below them.
The ship was due in Leyte Gulf Tuesday so the men anticipated rescue ships by noon. But there were a thousand ships in Leyte Gulf and no one missed the USS Indianapolis immediately. Besides, the non-arrival of fighting vessels could not be reported since the Japanese monitored all radio channels.
By Wednesday, sharks preyed on many of those who had overcome the injuries.
It was a routine anti-submarine patrol plane which finally flew close enough to view the oil slick created by the sunken ship. Lt. Wilbur Gwinn's Ventura was preparing for a bomb drop Thursday at noon over what the pilot believed was an enemy sub, when he saw a human head bobbing in the water.
Closer inspection revealed lots of heads, and after radioing for rescue ships -- all of them at least 200 miles away -- the Ventura went down to 1,000 feet, opened its doors, and dropped survival gear instead of bombs.
By afternoon, 56 men had been pulled from the water by a Navy patrol seaplane that had landed against regulations in 12-foot swells. More than 250 men faced a fourth night in the sea.
Just before midnight a searchlight cast its beam on the dozens of men in the water. The USS Cecil J. Doyle, a destroyer escort, had arrived on the scene and began scooping up bodies, some of them dead -- torn by sharks.
Lt. Comdr. Lewis Haynes climbed aboard the Doyle's bridge and reported, 'This is all that's left of the Indianapolis. We have been in the water four days.'
The last 19 survivors were discovered floating far to the northwest and were rescued at 10:30 Friday morning.
Three days later, the ship's original cargo of parts -- then placed in the atomic bomb -- were dropped on Hiroshima.