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Oral History -The Sinking of USS Indianapolis

Recollections of Captain Charles B. McVay, III, USN, Commanding Officer of USS Indianapolis (CA-35) which was sunk by Japanese submarine I-58 on 30 July 1945 near the Philippines

Painting of USS Indianapolis (CA-35)

Source: Charles B. McVay, III, interview in box 21 of World War II Interviews, Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command.

The [heavy cruiser USS] Indianapolis [CA-35] had come to the Navy Yard, Mare Island [in San Francisco Bay] in early May 1945, to get heavy underwater damage repaired from a Kamikaze [Japanese suicide aircraft] hit that she took in [the Battle of] Okinawa on 30 March [1945]. We had more time there than anticipated and knew that we were due back in the forward area at the earliest practicable date.

On about 12 July, I got orders which indicated that we had to perform some special mission, so that we knew that we would not be able to take our usual refresher course on the west coast, but had been told we would receive that in the forward area. On 15 July, I was in San Francisco, and talked with Admiral Purnell and Captain Parsons who I know were connected in an intimate way with a secret project, but I did not know what this project was. I was informed at that time that when we were ready for sea on 16 July, we would proceed as fast as possible to the forward area. On Sunday, the 15th of July, about noon, we were at Hunters Point and they put on us what we now know was the Atomic Bomb.

We sailed from San Francisco, 0800 the morning of 16th July. We ran into a little rough weather outside the Golden Gate, so the first day we only made 28 knots. The next two days we made 29 knots and we discovered when we arrived in Pearl [Harbor, Hawaii] that we had established a new record from Faralens Light Ship to Diamond Head (an extinct volcano on the Hawaiian island of Oahu - a prominent landmark from the sea). The old record, which is given in the World Almanac of 1944, was established by the [USS] Omaha [CL-4] in 1932 when she made a trip which took 75.4 hours. We made the trip in 74-1/2 hours. 

When I arrived at Pearl [in Indianapolis], I knew the approximate date that I had to get out in the Marianas [island chain located 1,400 miles south of Japan] and since we were able to reach that area in within a week prior to the time that I knew I had to arrive, I said that I would make from Pearl to the Marianas a speed of 24 knots at which I would arrive out at Tinian [in the Marianas] the morning of the 26th. We made this sustained speed without any difficulty so that we arrived in Tinian the morning of 26 July and unloaded the material and the bomb which was later to be dropped over Hiroshima.

We left Tinian immediately upon unloading and went to Guam [largest island in the Marianas], an overnight trip, where we arrived the next morning and went through the usual anti-aircraft practices. We got into Guam about 1000. We replenished ammunition, stores and fuel and left Guam Saturday morning at about 0930. We were given a routing from Port Director, Guam, and a speed which we were told to maintain except under conditions which we thought we had to make a greater speed in order to avoid either navigational or other obstructions. 

We had no incidents whatsoever. We passed an LST [Landing Ship Tank] headed toward Leyte [Philippine Islands], as we were also, on Sunday, and talked to them. They were north of us and were they were preparing to go further north in order to get out of our area to do some anti- aircraft shooting. My instructions from Guam called for me to make an SOA [speed over-all] of 15.7 knots and to arrive at Leyte at 1100 Tuesday, 31 July.

Zigzagged Until Dark

On Sunday night, the 29th of July, we had been zigzagging [evasive movement, making the vessel a difficult target for torpedoes fired from submarines] up until dark. We did not zigzag thereafter. We had intermittent moonlight, so I am told, but it was dark from about 2330 until sometime earlier the next morning. 

At approximately five minutes after midnight [on 30 July], I was thrown from my emergency cabin bunk on the bridge by a very violent explosion followed shortly thereafter by another explosion. I went to the bridge and noticed, in my emergency cabin and charthouse, that there was quite a bit of acrid white smoke. I couldn't see anything.

I got out on the bridge. The same conditions existed out there. It was dark, it was this whitish smoke. I asked the Officer of the Deck [senior officer on duty] if he had had any reports. He said "No, Sir. I have lost all communications, I have tried to stop the engines. I don't know whether the order has ever gotten through to the engine room."

So we had no communications whatsoever. Our engine room telegraph [device used to communicate speed changes from the command bridge to the engine room] was electrical, that was out; sound powered phones were out, all communications were out forward. As I went back into my cabin to get my shoes and some clothes, I ran into the damage control officer, Lieutenant Commander Casey Moore [USN], who had the midwatch [midnight to 4 a.m.] on the bridge as a supervisory watch. 

He had gone down at the first hit and came back up on the bridge and told me that we were going down rapidly by the head [i.e., sinking bow-first], and wanted to know if I desired to pass the word to abandon ship. I told him "No."

We had only about a three degree list [ship leaning to one side from perpendicular axis]. We had been through a hit before, we were able to control it quite easily and in my own mind I was not at all perturbed. Within another two or three minutes the executive officer [second in command on the ship] came up, Commander Flynn, and said, "We are definitely going down and I suggest that we abandon ship."

Well, knowing Flynn and having utter regard for his ability, I then said, "Pass the word to abandon ship."

As I had this word passed, I turned to the Officer of the Deck. This had to be passed verbally, [and] the man on watch, the boatswain's mate, had to go below. Two people did go below and the word was passed. However, I knew from past experience that we had had in Okinawa, since we had our blood bath, you never had to pass the word for anybody to man the general quarters station [battle station] or get on topside when something was wrong. The ship and crew sense it. They come to their stations immediately. So I am sure that everybody who could get up topside was up topside before we ever passed the word.

Then I turned to the Officer of the Deck, Lieutenant Orr, and said, "I have been unable to determine whether the distress message which I told the Navigator to check on has ever gotten out."

I had asked Commander (John H.) Janney, the navigator, when I first went on the bridge to make certain that he got a message out. He went down below and that was the last I saw of him. So knowing that it was absolutely essential that someone be notified where we were, since we were unescorted, I felt that was the most important thing to know at this moment and told the Officer of the Deck I was going to Radio Room One, below the bridge, to find out for myself if this message had gotten out. Also I wanted to take a look at the at a part of the main deck which some people had said had split near No. 1 stack. Also I could not yet visualize why we were going down by the head. Nobody had given me any report that we were other than just badly damaged. 

I passed through the charthouse and picked up in my emergency cabin a kapok life preserver which I put on and stepped out on the after side of the bridge and Captain Crouch who was a passenger and who had been sleeping in my cabin said, "Charley, have you got a spare life preserver?" I said, "Yes, I have. I've got a pneumatic life preserver," and I stepped back into my cabin and picked this up and handed it to, I believe, a seaman quartermaster by the name of Harrison and asked him to blow this up for Captain Crouch.

I then stepped to the ladder on the bridge which leads down to the signal bridge and as I put my foot on the first rung [of the ladder], the ship took a 25 degree list to starboard [the ship's right side]. People started to slide by and I went down to the signal bridge. As I reached that platform, she [the ship] went to about 40 or 45 degrees [of list]. I managed to get to the ladder leading from the signal bridge to the port [left] side of the communications deck. As I reached the communications deck, she [the ship] seemed to be steadied at around 60 [degrees of list]. There were some youngsters there that were jumping over the side and I got to the lifeline on the communications deck and yelled at these boys to not jump over the side unless they had life jackets, or to go back by the stack which was just behind me and cut down the liferaft, or the floater net rather, and throw that over the side before they jumped. 

Within another few seconds the ship listed to 90 degrees and I jumped to the forecastle deck and pulled myself up on the side and started to walk aft [the ship was laying over on her side and the captain was able to walk toward the rear on the ship's side]. She apparently stayed in this position for some time, at least long enough for me to walk from abreast the bridge to approximately No. 3 turret on the after deck, at that point I was sucked off into the water by what I believe was a wave caused by the bow going down rather rapidly, because I found myself in the water and looked above me and the screws [propellers], port screws, which by this time had been stopped, were directly overhead.

I immediately thought "Well, this is the end of me", and turned around and immediately swam away from the descending screws. Within a few seconds, I felt hot oil and water brush over the back of my neck and looked around and heard a swish and the shop was gone.

The sea at this time was rather confused. There had been storms up north and I was buffeted about quite a bit. We had a long, heavy, ground swell, the wind was from the southwest and force about two. We could still see nothing. I was still dark and I could hear people yelling for help.

Got on a Potato Crate

Something bumped into me, it was a potato crate and I got astride of that with some more debris which I had under my right arm and I considered myself pretty well off and in a few minutes, a few seconds later I would say, two life rafts came by. They apparently had been released from the ship when she went down, or had been torn loose as one was on top of the other. 

I crawled on these two life rafts. I couldn't find any paddles or anything whatsoever on them, and I yelled back at the people who I heard yell and we picked up three others, pulled them on the raft. That was all that we saw, or all that we heard. There were two of them, two youngsters, that were pretty well filled up with salt water and oil and I placed them on one of the rafts by themselves, and a quartermaster by the name of Alert and I took the other raft. We secured the two rafts together, and nothing that I remember happened that night. I guess everybody was pretty well exhausted. These two boys that were on the other raft didn't move all night and I thought probably they had died, but they pulled through perfectly all right, about 36 hours later. 

The next morning, at daybreak, we ran across another raft and a floater net with five men on the raft, a Machinist Mate, First Class, by the name of Malden and four others that were of inferior ratings. We secured their raft to ours and also the floater net, so that we had then three rafts, a floater and nine people. 

When I got light, I had discovered why I could not find anything on the rafts, they had fallen into the water upside down, and I didn't know that anything was secured on the other side. We did manage to get from the three rafts, two good paddles. Most of the gratings had been broken from the explosion. We had nothing left on the raft, except one canvas bag in which we found a Very [flare] pistol and 12 Very cartridges. 

We had the covered impregnated matches, that is covered with a cardboard impregnated material which had soaked through during the night. Consequently, all the matches were useless. Also, our first aid kit was made of the same material. It's cardboard with a paraffin impregnation, I believe, that had almost disintegrated. Consequently, anything that was soluble in the first aid kit such as the sulfathiazole and the sulfanilamide tablets and crystals--they had disintegrated. We did have some bandage which was wet; we did have the tubes of ointment which came in useful later, small tubes, and some morphine styrettes [small injection units of narcotic painkiller for the seriously wounded] which, fortunately, we did not have to use because nobody was badly hurt in our group. 

The next morning, as I say, we took stock of what we had and found the material that I spoke of in this canvas bag. We had nothing else, except the two canoe paddles. The water breakers, things of that nature had all been blown loose from the raft. That morning I saw two other rafts in the distance. I did not know how many people were on these rafts, but we could see them when we got up on the crest of a wave and when they got up on the crest of a wave. One raft was about 1,500 yards from us[;] there was somebody on there calling for help. 

Well, we were all so exhausted the first day we could not even make an attempt to get over to him. The other raft was way off in the distance and apparently nobody on that seemed to be in any difficulty. 

We all supposed that small group were the sole survivors of the Indianapolis. We thought we probably had about 25 or 30 people. I was the only officer in the group and naturally I told them what they should do. 

We managed some time during Monday to pick up a water breaker with three gallons of water in it; it apparently had been cracked because I tasted the water and it was unpalatable. It was salty. The other people in the group, however, did not know that this water could not be used. I told them that we had the water, I would give it to them when it became absolutely necessary that they have a drink. 

Well, it so happened that during the 107 hours we were on the raft, nobody ever asked for a drink. I didn't think it was possible to get along without water, but I discovered you can do it very easily. I understand after the fifth day, it becomes more difficult.

We picked up an emergency ration can which was excellent. It's beautifully packed, has a double tin tip which would prevent any water getting into it. It had a number of cans of spam, the Hormel spam [a canned loaf of precooked processed meat]. It's a salty spam, but it is not dry as the usual thing that you get aboard ship, and it is very palatable. We had a number of those cans, I've forgotten the exact number now. We also had the usual tins of malted milk tablets and the tins of biscuits. Everything packed in the emergency ration tin is packed in an air-tight and water- tight container inside. So whoever did that job, did a very fine one. 

I looked over the material that we had, the food stuffs, and told the people that I would open one Hormel tin per day. It contains 12 ounces and we would divide that evenly, and I also figured out each person could have two biscuits and two malted milk tablets, which I knew would last us about ten days.

On Tuesday I decided that we would try to paddle over and try to pick up this other raft, since this man had been calling to us. We thought he was injured. We could see him quite plainly, we were about 1,500 yards away. So we took the two canoe paddles and paddled the three rafts by alternating shifts of two people paddling at half hour intervals. It took us four and a half hours to reach this other raft which we secured to the ones we were with, and there was nothing wrong with the youngster except that he was by himself and as misery loves company, he wanted somebody to talk to. He had spent two nights and a day by himself and he was a little fed up with this. So we put him in the tail end of our group and we then had the four rafts, one floater net and only ten people. 

I knew that there was one other raft, as I said, in the vicinity, because I could see it every now and again. It was quite a ways off. I knew that we could reach it, if necessary, but this four hour and a half paddle that we had made, the people were so exhausted from that , I decided that except in a case of dire necessity we would not put forth the effort to get to this other raft. Also we had worn blisters on our hands and it was quite evident that every abrasion, or cut, or blister that you had on your body was going to develop into a very nasty salt water ulcer. The thing to do was to try to keep as still as you could and preserve your strength. We talked to this other youngster who we brought over and he knew of no other people that were in the water, so that further convinced us, although it seemed impossible, that there was nobody that had survived other than this very small group. 

Had Fuel Oil in One Eye

We discovered later why this was [that there were no other survivors around]. A number of people had jumped off the ship at the first inclination [when the ship started to list], or they had slid off the deck, and since she did go down rapidly, she had not lost way [forward motion], and apparently these people had been left to the rear of us. So that when we got in the water, there was consequently nobody except the three or four we heard who were yelling for help.

We managed to get along very nicely during the first two days. The sea was quite rough, the wind was not very high and we were not uncomfortable because none of us had been badly injured and were at that time in fairly good shape. As each hour went by, people became more exhausted from lack of sleep and from the usual tension caused by wondering whether we were going to be sighted or not. It gradually sapped people's strength.

To go back to the midnight of Sunday [when the ship sank] after we had gotten into the water, I don't believe anybody saw anything at all that night. Most people had been sucked down by the ship or were full of fuel oil and salt water and were violently ill or else so exhausted that they lay more or less in a stupor. I was fortunate, insofar as I had not been sucked under. I had only one eye that I had gotten fuel oil in and I could see with my other eye. The rest of the people, their eyes were filled with fuel oil and consequently, they spent a very uncomfortable 36 to 48 hours trying to get the fuel oil out of their eyes. It smarts very badly, you are not to uncomfortable when your eyes are closed for any length of time. Its rather peculiar that when you open them for about the first ten minutes, you have a very excruciating, smarting feeling in your eyes. Then it subsides and your eyes are quite comfortable. When you close them again, you have exactly the same smarting feeling. So that it was a question of either trying to keep them open when you got them open, or trying to keep them closed when you got them closed. 

This Alert, this Quartermaster, Third Class, took a large piece of canvas, there is a large piece of canvas in each bag, and by the way, one of the other rafts had a bag of canvas, or had the usual canvas bag with the matches, first aid kit and such as that in it, so that he was able to make hats for everybody. That was the thing, I believe, that saved most of us from very bad sunburn. He made sort of cornucopia type hat[s] and during the heat of the day we pulled that down over our ears. You could pull the collar of the life jacket up above your neck, of course; we were sitting in the water and you could keep your hands under cover. That and the fact that we were all covered with fuel oil, I believe, is the reason that none of us were badly burned.

The first night, the first day, Monday, and Tuesday night, were, as I say, very uncomfortable. We then had two days of almost no wind and a glassy [calm] sea. However, the sea still contained those long rolling swells which did not permit you to see very far. Also during the nights and the days, we had seen a number of planes. At night we would fire the Very stars at the planes which to us were very clear. We could, in cases, see their red and their green running lights; we also, at one period, saw their revolving white light, which I thought meant that they had seen us.

We knew now that these eight or nine planes that we saw and that we either during the day time flashed these signal mirrors, the emergency signal mirror at, nobody ever saw the mirror, us, or any of the Very stars. The reason being, of course, that planes fly too high to see anything visually. They need their radar, they are looking at their radar and also their instrument board, and they naturally, at the height they fly, you cannot see an individual in the water. You cannot see a raft.

The thing that I couldn't understand was when one of these planes would come near us, I thought that the way we had the rafts spread out, which covered about 75 feet, the fact that the rafts are about 2-1/2 feet wide, we had two mirrors, we also had some yellow colored bunting, which is an emergency signaling apparatus, you might call it, a signaling flag, we had two of those, so the two of us would use the mirrors, two of them would wave the two pieces of bunting and the others would wave their arms and legs in the water, and it just didn't seem possible to us that nobody that we could see so plainly could fail to see us.

Of course, we knew later that they didn't know that we were missing, so consequently, they didn't expect to see anything. It's the same old thing, if an aviator doesn't expect to see anything, he doesn't see it. He's too busy trying to fly his plane.

I was not particularly perturbed by not being picked up by planes, nor were the people with me, because I had told them that they probably couldn't see us or wouldn't see us until they had really discovered we were missing. And I was basing my hopes on ships. I did not believe that any ships could reach the area prior to about sometime Thursday. 

Well, about Thursday noon, we did see quite a ways to the south of us a plane circling and later some other planes circling. I didn't know what they were doing down there, and then that night we saw some searchlights of ships down there, so we naturally thought, well, there must be other survivors. They were quite a ways south of us and we said, "Well, I guess we do have other people than just this small group that is apparently is quite a ways up north here." But the planes kept getting further away from us and I must admit I had several misgivings, I commenced to think I was north of the northern limit of their search. I thought that "We are in a fine fix now. If they're going south all the time and we're going north, why, it looks as though they'll miss us."

Well, on that assumption, I decided to cut the rations in half. We had been getting 1.2 ounces of spam, the two crackers, the two malted milk tablets, which seemed to maintain us. Nobody seemed to be particularly hungry, but that night when I saw the ships down there, I decided that I would let them have the normal ration. We had been too excited during Thursday to eat. We didn't each until after dark, by that time we had seen the searchlights so I said, "Well, I'll give you the normal ration again. We won't cut it in half."

The next morning we saw planes quite a ways to the north of us, we saw a plane quite a ways to the north. It was making a box search and it was gradually getting closer to us, so we felt a lot better. It made this very wide search, would disappear and come back again, then go way north and then come back on a westerly leg and fly its easterly leg fairly close to us. Just about the time that we had figured out the next sweep he should see us, somebody said, "My God, look at this, there are two destroyers bearing down on us. Why, they're almost on top of us."

So one of the kids said, "Well, the hell with the planes, we know these people will pick us up." They were almost on top of us when we saw them.

Picked Up by [USS] Ringness [APD-100]

When one of them, the [high-speed transport] USS Ringness, the APD-100, picked me up and the group on my raft, the other one the [USS] Register, APD-92, went on north and we discovered there was another raft north of us which we had suspected, and picked up that small group. We were never sighted by a plane.

The Ringness picked us up by radar. We had a 40 mm, empty ammunition can which I had spent a good deal of energy and time trying to get to, thinking it was an emergency ration, but we picked it up anyhow and saved it and she [Ringness] got a [radar] pip from this can. She picked us up [i.e., detected them] at only 4,046 yards, but she had not seen us visually at that distance, and the only reason she knew something was there was because of the radar pip. So it goes to show how difficult it is to seen anybody in the water, when you have a large ground swell, or a heavy ground swell.

She came along side and, as I say, picked us up. We were all able to crawl aboard on our own power. People were pretty well exhausted, I think more or less nervous exhaustion. I think we had lost probably about 15% of our weight and I was naturally so elated to get on the ship, as were the others that we didn't turn in at all. We were given something eat, ice cream, coffee, such as that. The doctor said, "You can eat all you want", which most of us did. We drank quite a bit of water. Nervous energy kept us going. I did sleep quite a bit that night and the next morning, let's see, that was the morning of the 3rd that we were picked up. We sort of lolled around all day of the 5th and we got into Palau on the 6th when we were put in the hospital. 

The interesting point to me is that we should have been so far north of the large group of survivors which I will call the life preserver group, as those people, hundreds of them, had nothing at all except life preservers. Some of them didn't even have a life preserver. They had to share their's [sic] with one of the others. I have one or two officers who had only pneumatic life preservers, that managed to live in those for four days, which to me is very remarkable. I don't see how anybody could stay up that length of time. 

To go into some detail of what I have been told conditions were in this life preserver group: first of all, I would like to give thanks to the Commander, Western Sea Frontier, who was able to put enough pressure on somebody to enable us to get our supply of kapok life preservers. We were unable to obtain any until about 48 hours from the time we [on the Indianapolis] were due to leave, and ComWestern Sea Frontier, himself, his office unearthed some someplace, and had we not had those, of course, we now know we would have saved almost nobody, but fortunately these were new and although I understand kapok is only supposed to hold up for about 64 hours, we know that these held up for as long as four days. 

It's true that after about 48 hours the wearer had sunk low enough in the water so that if his head fell forward he would drown. Consequently, the people had to look out for one another. One tried to sleep while the other watched him. Very little sleeping was done the first 48 hours, but after that the people became so exhausted that they would drop off to sleep. There were apparently two groups of these survivors all in approximately the same position. 

The reason I knew nothing about them was because we were apparently about seven to ten miles north of them. They were being carried southwest with the current, whereas we were being blown a little northeastward or else being just held against the current. So that is the reason, another reason, why when morning came [after the sinking], we could not see any of this survivor group which was south and, as I said before, we did not know of their existence until we saw planes and ships down south and then we knew that there must be somebody there.

There are all kinds of horrible stories that have come out of the experiences that this life preserver group had. They're very unpleasant. I hope none of the parents will ever know that their boy was in that group for some time and then could not keep up until help arrived, but for the record, we had two doctors in that group, the senior doctor and the junior doctor and a Chief Pharmacist's Mate who were all saved. They were, of course, topside administering aid to people aboard ship who had been injured prior to the ship rolling over and that is why they were apparently among the survivors.

The people who were in this group had mass hallucinations. One of the stories is that three or four people would swim away at dark and the next morning they'd come back and say, "Why, the Indianapolis didn't go down after all. She is just over there and we were on her all night. We got fresh milk, we got tomato juice, we got water." When they would tell these stories, immediately there would be a break from the group and these people would try to swim away in the direction in which they thought the Indianapolis was.

Another hallucination that they had was some of them said they had been on an island all night where they had coconut milk and were able to refresh themselves and after those stories were told people would then break away from the group.

It was in that way that so many people apparently died of exhaustion. Either that or else they drank salt water and went completely out of their head. One that comes in my mind particularly was Captain [Edward L.] Parke of the Marines. He was a very strong, athletic man, a young man, he just killed himself with exhaustion through trying to keep those people who were swimming away, trying to keep them with the group. He died of exhaustion, from that alone. The injured, of course, that were in the group didn't last more than 24 hours. 

The people who had kapok life preservers on tied themselves together to try to keep themselves together during the night. They also had quite a long piece of manila line which they had taken off a ring life preserver which they used to secure their ties on their kapok life jackets, which they managed to keep together during the night, but it must be realized that most of those people within 48 to 60 hours went out of their head. Some of them lived through the period, but those who went out of their head earlier than, say 48 to 60 hours, didn't last. The people that were down in that group feel quite sure that a number of people just gave up hope because they were be with the bunch at sundown and in the morning they would be gone, so they feel that people just slipped out of their life jackets and just decided that they didn't want to face it any longer. We do know that people who had pneumatic life jackets were able to get kapok life jackets from people who did die or just slipped out of the jacket and it was found in the morning.

How many people actually got off the ship I don't think anybody will ever know but we tried to make estimates, we made guesses, I think we actually guessed at a figure between five and six hundred, but I don't believe that anybody could definitely say, if you pinned them down, that that number did get off, because they weren't seen that night. It was too dark to see anybody until between two or three o'clock in the morning when the moon came out. 

Attacked by Sharks

But the following morning they counted noses down there and they had a considerable group, quite a number more than actually were survivors in the final analysis. We had that group down there, I shouldn't say "we" because I was not with it, I didn't know it existed until Friday morning when I was picked up. I have been told by officers who were in that survivor group that there were people who when they did find something to eat would try to hide it, and they got food Thursday. Planes came out and dropped food and water and things like that to them.

They were, I think, you might say a cross-section of what you would expect in any group of 300 people. There were a few who were willing to sacrifice their lives for others and did so. There were those who were in more or less of an exhausted state and stupefied and they didn't know much of what was going on. There were others who took the attitude that "I'm going to save myself and the hell with everybody else." But, I don't think that you can censure any of that because so many people by that time were out of their heads, most of them didn't know what they were doing. 

You can't pin anybody down. There are people who think certain things happened. Nobody naturally, now, in their right mind would ever admit that he did anything like that and he would deny it if you confronted him with it. There were no flagrant cases that we could bring to light, there were just people who said, "Well, I know somebody who got more food than I did", and somebody said, "Well, I didn't have any food at all. I wasn't eating anything." So you can't definitely state that there were really, you might say, acts of violence.

We had sharks, or rather they had sharks down there [in the life preserver group]. We know that because we have two survivors who were bitten by sharks and as I told this one boy in the hospital. I said "You'd better take some castellan paint and put on that thing before it heals up because nobody will ever believe you've been bitten by a shark. You might as well outline the teeth mark and you will have it for the rest of your life and can say `I know I was bitten by a shark'."

We have one boy who was bitten on the thigh. The group down there said that on the calm days, they knew there were sharks around because they cold see them underneath. They didn't actually seem to bother them on the surface. It was different with my group who were in rafts. We had a shark that adopted us apparently sometime in the early morning of Monday. We couldn't get rid of him. The kids who were in rafts by themselves on this one raft were scared to death of this shark because he kept swimming underneath the raft. You could see his big dorsal fin and it was white, almost as white as a sheet of paper, apparently [the shark] spent most of his time on the surface and this fin had bleached out so he didn't blend in with the water at all. 

He had the usual pilot fish [remoras] which we were trying to catch, hanging on him and we could knock this pilot fish off with a canoe paddle, but the shark would then swim away and the pilot fish would be gone. 

We were trying to get some fish to use as bait. We had a couple of the very excellent air tight fishing kits that are put up for the rafts that are the finest that I've seen. They're a delight to any fisherman's eye. They have the lures, the hooks and even a net [and] a gaf, but a spear in them, harpoon, I should say. But the fact that this shark was with us all the time prevented us from catching any except the smallest black colored fish. It looked to me like a member of the Parrot family and, although the meat was very white, I would not let anybody eat.

Alert, who was with me, turned out to be an excellent fisherman. He caught most of the fish. But as I say, every time we caught a little one and used that for bait, the shark got it before we could get any other fish. There were a number of good sized schools of fish that we saw and since I've done a great deal of salt water fishing myself, I know they were either Bonito or small Mackerel or one of those families which were edible, but we could never get any of those fish to bite due to this shark.

So about the 3rd day we were getting a little annoyed with this thing [the shark] and we only had a small knife, the knife that's put up in this fishing apron which has about a blade I suppose an inch long, and I would suggest that someplace in this kit that they put a larger knife, a knife such as a sheaf [sheath] knife. 

Well, Heavens! All of you had a sheaf's knife, you wore them on the ship which is perfectly true. You wore them and they were uncomfortable, you sat on them and they were uncomfortable and nobody when we actually got in the rafts had a sheaf knife, either lost out of the sheaf or else had failed to pick it up and put it on when he got out of his bunk. Of course, it was unfortunate that this happened at night, because nobody had a chance really to pick anything up. So maybe if it [the sinking] happened in the daytime, we may have had people who would have had sheaf knives, but it is essential that you have a knife with a blade larger than an inch. 

We believe we could have killed the shark if we had had a large blade knife, and then we might have been able to get some fish to eat. We felt that if we had a knife with a sufficiently long enough blade, we could have killed the shark and we, therefore, could have gotten some fish to eat. 

Another thing I would like to point out is that obsolete water breakers should be done away with. We ought to have the water in tins, preferably, I believe, in a 11-ounce tin so that you can open that, drink it and it is small enough so that it will fit in the packet of a kapok life jacket. The matches should be in water-tight tines, the first aid material should be in water-tight tins. In fact everything that you expect to use in abandoning ship should have the best protection there is.

The Very rocket--that is well protected. It has a tin covering which may be opened with a can opener and inside of that is a lucite cylinder which further protects the material. The one thing that we noticed in the two containers we had that the first night when I tried to use one, we opened it with the can opener that lifts the top off. It has a narrow edge which you are supposed to grab with your fingers an pull out from the rest of the tin container. All that we saw had been damaged to such an extent that you could not pull this out. Consequently, you should have a small can opener inside this tin which will allow you to cut longitudinally to remove the tin from the inside container which holds the cartridges. I was afraid to cut this off at night the first time I tried it because I didn't know what I was running into. I realize now that it is essential that everybody aboard ship should be thoroughly familiar with every type of material which he may run into when he abandons ship.

Suggests Raft Radar Screen

I would certainly make certain that the crew and the officers were familiar with all this material. They should actually see it opened up to know what's in it, to know how to use it rather than wait until the time you have to use it. The emergency signaling mirror is not an easy, not by any means an easy gadget to use. It takes quite a bit of ingenuity. I say this because I think I have normal intelligence, it took me about an hour and a half to two hours to chase this so-called reflected cross on your body around to see that it reflects back in the small cross in the back of the mirror and then you have to at the same time see a plane in that. It is not at all easy when you're going on a raft which is not a steady platform. I felt that after two days trying this I had at least mastered the technique and I felt certain that we were shining this thing directly on planes, but maybe were weren't. Certainly nobody saw the mirror or saw either on of the mirrors that we had with us, nor was any other group able to attract the attention of a plane with them. In fact, we could not attract planes with either the mirror in the daytime or with the Very stars at night.

The Very stars are excellent; however, they are not strong enough. They might possibly have a parachute attached, something that will stay up a longer period of time. Of course, we know now that they have perfected a light which they think can be seen by a plane at night regardless of whether he's looking for anything or not. But certainly the old type Very star has proved to my mind that it's a very difficult thing to see from a plane. Of course, we know we can see them from ships very easily. On ships, although we have radar, we have not secured [i.e., removed] our lookouts. In a plane you can't watch your radar, your instruments and also have lookouts, because you can't carry that many people. 

So I think that every raft should have a radar screen on it, should have some method of giving signals or certainly reflecting signals so that they may be seen by a plane. I believe the aviators have these, if we had one of those on each raft, we unquestionably would have been picked up much sooner. 

I understand that the group that was down south did have a reflector dropped to them and also a talkie [hand-held radio]. Well, none of them knew how to use this talkie, what the pilot was trying to do was determine who was down there. He knew there were people, but he didn't know from what ship the survivors were from and he was trying to make his report. He made his report saying that there were survivors but he didn't know from what ship. 

I don't know that I can personally add anything regarding life saving equipment. I naturally feel very strong that our present material is inadequate, because I tried for some hundred hours to attract people to us and was unable to do so [while floating on the life rafts].

I would like to go back to the actual damage of the ship and from what we have been able to piece together with the help of the people from the [US Navy's] Bureau of Ships, we now have what we think is a fairly good idea of about what did happen. We believe we were hit by two torpedoes, one around frame 8 or 10, because the bow was blown off forward around ten. Another one [torpedo] around frame fifty. We believe that they were large torpedoes, that they were running close to the surface, because none of us believe the magazines blew up, that is the only way we can account for the flashes of flame through the ship.

We do know that the doctor, for instance, whose room is second on the starboard side forward on the port bow, was blown out of his bunk. He said flames shot through the deck in his room. He gained the passageway and flames shot by him and he pulled back and then went in to the wardroom [officers' dining and socializing room] where he fell. He supported himself with his left hand, apparently on the deck. He touched the deck with his right hand and his right hand was very badly burned. So he knows the deck was very hot. He got up and got to a port[hole] in the wardroom on the starboard side. He got that open and crawled through the port. 

He said it was so hot in the passageway forward, so hot in the passageway aft, that that seemed to him the only way he could get out. The fact that it was very hot in those passageways was borne out by people who were aft the wardroom sleeping in offices. They opened the doors of the office and found the heat so intense that they closed them immediately and opened the ports, went out the ports. That happened on both the starboard and port side of the ship. 

I have one officer, the chief engineer, who had the eight to twelve watch [8 p.m. to midnight], and his room is on the forecastle deck, starboard side, just aft the Captain's cabin. He had come down and was in what we call the head of department's head [bathroom] and shower, which is amidships, there just by the ladder which leads down to the main deck in the midships section there. He was in there when we were hit. He came out of there and remembers that there was intense heat, his hair was singed, he knows that, his fingers were very badly burned. H doesn't know how they were burned, although he feels that he must have touched something that was particularly hot. 

He was able to aft on the starboard side, although badly injured, he didn't get to the main engine room, No. 2 engine room, where he found No. 2 engine had lost vacuum and that was shut down. He did talk to somebody in No. 1 engine room. They told him that apparently the main steamline going through the port side of the forward engine room had been knocked loose. They had no steam and asked for instructions.

He told them to secure everything in No. 1 engine room and to abandon it, which they did. At that time, there was very little water in No. 1 engine room so that we feel that the No. 1 fire room must have gone up and possibly that is what caused the explosion which caused the heat. On the other hand, there were no more sparks or fire noticed from the No. 1 stack than you would expect to see when you fired a salvo.

Since there were only two explosions, I don't feel the boilers went up. We have men who were in No. 1 [main battery gun] turret and No. 2 turret who got out, so that I do not feel that a magazine blew up.

I do not know about the aviation gas. We had one full tank of that [for the use of the cruiser's spotter aircraft]. We only had one tank left at the time, about 3,500 gallons. The people who were up there don't seem to think that there was a gasoline fire. We have two or three officers that got out of the second deck space, Warrant Officers [commissioned officers below the rank of Ensign], who by the time they reached the deck outside their room, it was filled with oil and water. So we do know that there was very rapid flooding.

The No. 2 engine room was perfectly all right. Of course, securing No. 1 would stop your outboard [propeller] shafts, No. 1 and No. 4 We know that No. 2 had lost vacuum, therefore that was secured. He [the chief engineer] was still making about a hundred rpms (revolutions per minute) on his No. 3 engine. When "abandon ship" went, he secured.

All power all lights were lost forward. The fact that the [torpedo] hits were there, at least we think they were up forward, are borne out by the fact we have almost no Marines who were reported in that section of the ship. We have not a single steward's mate and their compartment was up there and we have very few officers that were in their rooms at the time of the explosion. So we believe all of those people were killed almost instantly.

We do now that sick bay [the medical dispensary compartment] was a shambles. We have evidence to indicate that the number one mess hall [enlisted dining compartment] which is under the main deck, the quarterdeck, was flooding. I think that many people lost their lives because the ship rolled over so rapidly. They got caught under some debris or they got caught in a compartment. How Lieutenant Redmayne, the Chief Engineer, got off the ship he himself doesn't know. He knows that he got out of the engine room, he knows that he got in the passageway on the port side when the ship took almost a 90 degree list and after that he just knows he was in the water. He can't imagine how he got out of that debris and stuff that piled on top of him. He was probably just lucky.

All my other heads of departments, (except the senior doctor and the chief engineer), are missing. I talked to the damage control officer; the navigator; to Captain Crouch, a passenger; to my executive officer; and in fact talked to all the heads of departments except the chief engineer and the gunner officer before the ship went down. I talked to them on the bridge. Whatever happened to those people, I haven't the faintest idea. I can only say that, as somebody put it, maybe they went back to their room to get a flashlight, a knife, or some money or something else. That's the only thing that would make any sense to me.

I can't believe that they got in the water and were never seen and it's true that we did not see any of them, so they must have gotten caught and not gotten off. It was very embarrassing to me, being the old fud on the ship, to find out that there is nobody between me and, well, the doctor's about 31 or 32, but I have no line officer above a [naval] reserve lieutenant. I can't account for that in any way except possibly the fact that when I thought I was going to be sucked under with the ship, I tried to swim away.

You have rather peculiar thoughts that go through your mind. I thought that, well, it may be embarrassing if I'm the only one left, or at least if I, as a Captain, am left and my ship is gone. But, I decided that I would attempt to save myself. I must admit that I had the thought that it would have been much easier if I go down, I won't have to face what I know is coming after this. But, something stronger within me decided that, spurred me to get out of the way, at least to attempt to save myself.

And, on the raft, of course, I had a great many hours to think of the disaster and I knew of some of the people I had lost. I hated to think of having to see their wives and a great many of them I knew quite well, having been in the States over two months just previously. Most of them had been up at Mare Island. I knew there was nothing I could say to them, and I think probably the fact that I enjoyed life, that I thought of many a cocktail hour that you have at home after you have an exhausting day and you come back and take a bath and can relax for a few minutes and get away from the worries of the office. I thought I would certainly like to repeat some of those evenings and I guess that's what kept a good many people going. They just thought of some of the happiness that had been theirs in life and decided they'd stick it out.

On the other hand, we know of many people who apparently just decided it wasn't worth it.

To go back to the time when we were hit [torpedoed] and I said that I was attempting to get to Radio One to find out if the message had gotten off. I knew what the message was, as I had told the navigator that besides the ship's position which should be going out now. I wanted to say that we had been hit by two torpedoes, I wanted to give our exact latitude and longitude. I knew we were sinking fast and we needed immediate assistance.

And I know that message got to Radio One because we have a survivor who was in Radio One sending that message out--at least he thought he was sending the message out. Of course, now we know that that message apparently did not get out. At least, we know of nobody that picked it up.

We know that we had lost all power forward, but we have evidence from people who were in Radio Two, (unfortunately my radio electrician, Woods, who is an excellent man and who was in Radio Two was not saved), but we have evidence from some men there that they know that power was on, they knew that a message was apparently being sent out and we can't understand, nor can they why no message got off the ship. I suppose that our antenna must have been knocked down our grounded by the explosion.

We know that we attempted to send an SOS [radio distress call] over the distress frequency, at least the people back there thought it was going out. It does not seem possible that such a message could have gotten off the ship, because it would have been picked up because that distress frequency is guarded [i.e., continuously monitored] by about four stations in that area. As I say, until I was told that no message got out I could not believe from what I knew that we hadn't gotten one out, and even now, I haven't any idea why the message never got off the ship. I have no explanation for that. All I have is the word of several people that we picked up who are positive that the message got off, apparent evidence to the fact that the message was never intercepted, so you can't come to any other conclusion but that the message didn't get off the ship. 

Moran, who was a first class radioman, has said that he has a feeling that possibly the ship's call with the SOS that he believed went out--his feeling personally is that if he had been on watch, he might have been standing a split phone or that might have been tuned in on a loud speaker as sometimes it is on a smaller ship, he feels that if it had been keyed only two or three times the average radioman would have said, "I think I hear an SOS," and then listen more closely to make certain whether he actually did hear it and not hearing the thing again would say, "Well, I guess I was mistaken." Moran said, "That's my personal feeling of what could have happened, since I feel that that might have happened to me under similar conditions." 

The fact that no help arrived, of course, is certainly mute evidence to the fact that apparently no message did get out, or was picked up by anybody else. It was this unfortunate circumstance that caused such loss of life and it is natural that the public will criticize the Navy for not getting aid to us sooner, yet if all the circumstances would be told, I don't believe you can hold any one outside the ship responsible for not getting there sooner. I don't believe you could--might say "pin it" on anybody.

You might blame us for not getting a message out. However, since we believe that we made every possible attempt to get one out, I don't think that that is a just criticism. The thing is just one of those unfortunate disasters which many of us have thought of during this war.

Whenever I was traveling without an escort, I always had the feeling that "Suppose we go down, we can't get a message off. What will happen?" Well, we know now what will happen--it happened to me. I know that you can't escort every ship, but I know that people who have had similar experiences are bound to have that in their mind. It's inconceivable that you can't get a message off or that we didn't get a message off. However, we do know that we were in the water about 107 hours, therefore, next time we think that we would like to have a positive means, in case we went down, of somebody saying, "They're gone", somebody with us and tell the outside world about it. The's not a criticism, that's just a personal feeling that I have.

To give some explanation as to how we were picked up and when, I talked to the aviator, Lt. Wilbur C. Gwinn, USNR, who was piloting a [PV-1] Ventura [a patrol bomber manufactured by Lockheed]. He as stationed on Palau and in VPB [patrol-bomber squadron] 152. He was on a regular routine reconnaissance and search from Palau when he said he went back to take a Loran [navigational] fix. Ordinarily, he said he wouldn't take a Loran fix, that the radioman would do it, but the radioman was busy and he stepped back there to get the fix and happened to glance down towards the water and saw a large oil slick. 

He then decreased his altitude and followed the oil slick for a number of miles when he sighted the group of what he thought were about 30 survivors. He did not know that they were survivors from the Indianapolis. He did not know the Indianapolis was missing.

This was about 1125 K time (11:25 a.m. local time) Thursday, 2 August, that he sighted these survivors in what he believed was 11 degrees 30 minutes North Latitude and 133 degrees 30 minutes East Longitude. He also said he had dropped a transmitter and life boat and emergency IFF. He then, an hour later, sighted another group of survivors and sent a message, "Send rescue, 11 degrees 54 minutes North, 133 degrees 47 minutes East, 150 survivors in life boat and jackets. Dropped red ramrod."

That message went out, and that, of course, started things going. Gwinn said that he saw the slick only by the Grace of God. He happened to go back to get a Loran fix. He wasn't looking for it. He didn't know there were any people that he was supposed to be looking for and he just was plain lucky in finding us. 

Of course, it appears that everybody came to about the same time and realized that the Indianapolis was missing. It was one of those peculiar chain of circumstances that everything is quiet for a certain length of time and then suddenly all hell busts loose and everyone starts doing what they should do.

As I say, this was around noon on Thursday and most of the survivors in that group were picked up that night by ships which had been diverted from their spots that could get close to us, close to that group within 12 hours. 

I was sighted the next morning, Friday, 3 August, at about 1030 (10:30 a.m.) and we were picked up then. There was one group of survivors that had been picked up the previous night by the [high-speed transport USS] Bassett [APD-73], 155 [sailors], which were taken to Samar [Philippine Islands]. They did not get the message to come to Palau and the skipper knew there was a hospital in Samar so he headed for there rather than Palau or Ulithi, even though Samar was a little further away.

The groups which were picked up by the Ringness and the Register were taken to Palau. There were 166 in that group. In Palau when they reached there, two of the enlisted men died. In Samar when that group reached there, two of those enlisted men died. So that the total number of survivors originally picked up was 320. We had left, finally 316, 15 officers and 301 men.

All the people who did survive were apparently in quite good physical condition. They had some people with fractured arms or fractured ankles, but on the whole those who survived the four days in the water were in very good shape.

I think I've said before, everybody was suffering from exhaustion, most people had quite bad sinus problems from the salt water and oil that had been washed up their nose[s]. A lot of people had burns, everybody had those salt water ulcers which are very painful and take quite a while to heal up, and my personal feeling is that had we not been sighted when we were , within another 24 hours, we would probably have had only 50% and 24 [hours] after that we might not have had hardly any in that life preserver group, because eve we, on the rafts, were getting very uncomfortable.

Related resource: The Sinking of USS Indianapolis

20 April 2003

Published: Mon Aug 24 09:02:51 EDT 2020