Gaining New Appreciation for the Crew of USS Indianapolis

Off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 10 July 1945, after her final overhaul and repair of combat damage. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

Off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 10 July 1945, after her final overhaul and repair of combat damage. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

By 2nd Lt. Garrett Boyce, United States Naval Academy Class of 2016

A torpedo ripping into the guts of a ship. Sailors scrambling, boilers exploding. The once-proud cruiser slipping beneath an uncaring ocean. And then an agonizing four day drift across the Pacific, with only a merciless sun, dehydration and sharks for company . . .

These were the horrors that the surviving Sailors and Marines of USS Indianapolis (CA-35) experienced in August 1945, when their cruiser was sunk in the closing days of WWII by the Japanese submarine I-58. The U.S Naval Academy and the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) gave me an opportunity this semester to not only learn more about the story of USS Indianapolis, but to also be part of a team tasked with tracking down the lost shipwreck.

As a senior at the Naval Academy this year, I was expected to complete a Capstone final project for my oceanography major before graduation. I chose an assignment in the field of shipwrecks, a subject familiar to me. Growing up in Long Island, New York, my father was a SCUBA diver for the New York City police department. My childhood was filled with stories of lost ships and the heroics of Sailors who tried to save their vessels. These stories developed in me a strong passion for history, and I knew that if I had an opportunity to pursue this interest as a midshipman in the Navy, I would take it.

As luck would have it, my academic honors advisor, Professor Peter Guth, was able to put me in contact with the Navy’s Underwater Archaeology (UA) Branch in Washington D.C. The UA Branch is responsible for the Navy’s management and preservation of its sunken military craft. When my professor contacted its staff, asking if there was any project that a midshipman could do, they assigned me to assist in researching the final resting place of the USS Indianapolis.

I would need to go through the logs and squadron reports of the vessels and aircraft that last saw the Indianapolis before she sank, and who then rescued her survivors floating in the Pacific Ocean. The weather reports and court-martial testimonies related to the sinking were also examined for clues about the current location of the cruiser. The NHHC staff was extremely helpful to me in my research, diving into countless records from World War II to pull out important clues that could lead to the shipwreck.

Once I had this historical data, I spent hours plotting the locations of sinking reports, ship sightings, and rescue locations in a computer program in an effort to determine a search area for the Indianapolis. Trying to balance the fascinating assignment with my other duties as a midshipman, I completed the work on my own time at the Academy between classes and after homework. I was able to refine the search area that underwater survey teams may potentially use in the near future.

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This assignment made me appreciate the amount of hard work and effort the UA Branch does to preserve the history of our Navy, and their determination to protect its lost warships and aircraft within the oceans. It also developed in me a respect and a sense of awe for the survivors of the sinking, who in the midst of devastation and utter hopelessness maintained the honor and professionalism of the Navy until their rescue four days after the sinking. The stories of Navy Lt. Adrian Marks, Ensign Donald Blum, and Marine Cpl. Edgar Harrell should be taught in leadership classes at the Academy, as examples of conduct expected of us as potential Navy and Marine Corps officers.

As a future 2nd Lt. in the Marine Corps, my focus is now learning how to lead a platoon of Marines. However, the study of shipwrecks and maritime archaeology is one that I hope to pursue later in my life, either in the Marine Corps or after my service. I can only hope that I can continue to contribute in preserving the history and legacy of the Navy and Marine Corps, and tracking down the resting places of lost ships, such as the USS Indianapolis.

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