Finding USS Indianapolis – After 70 Years, What Changed?

For Memorial Day 2015, Mackinaw City businessman John Murdick decided to honor the World War II service of his father Francis Murdick on the website of his family business by sharing a story his dad told about his tank landing ship being passed by USS Indianapolis (CA 35) on the cruiser’s final day.

Screen grab from Murdick’s Famous Fudge Blog. This new piece of information led to Richard Hulver’s, Ph.D., Indianapolis breakthrough.

What the younger Murdick couldn’t have known was that his humble tribute would set in motion a series of studies that would change the Navy’s understanding of a 70 year old mystery and a little more than two years later, play a small role in providing closure to the nearly 1,200 families of Indy’s crew and resolve one of the greatest mysteries of World War II naval history.

The story begins shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945.

After more than three years of gallant, war time service that included earning 10 battle stars, and just days after having delivered components of the weapon that would eventually end the war, hundreds of American Sailors and Marines made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of freedom when Indianapolis was sunk by enemy torpedoes.

The story was made more tragic by the fact that more than half those who were able to abandon ship died from wounds suffered in the attack, exposure, dehydration, drowning, and shark attacks. Of the 800 or so Sailors and Marines who went into the water as the ship went down, fewer than 320 survived after four to five days of drifting at sea.

For more than 70 years the exact location of the ship’s final resting place remained a mystery. Then on Aug. 18, 2017, a team of civilian researchers led by entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul G. Allen glimpsed an image of wreckage on a video monitor relayed from an unmanned underwater vehicle more than three miles beneath the ocean’s surface. Finally, Indy was found.

Indianapolis was one of the “Holy Grails” of ship wreck hunters since the finding of the Titanic, and a number of researchers have approached the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) for historical, navigational and archaeological support over the years including Allen and his director of subsea operations Robert Kraft.

Then Navy historian Richard Hulver, Ph.D., while working to reexamine the history of Indianapolis in preparation for upcoming World War II 75th anniversary commemorations, came across Murdick’s blog post about his dad seeing Indianapolis.

 

At Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, circa 1937. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

 

That blog post led Hulver to the deck logs of Murdick’s ship LST-779, which were on file at the National Archives. The deck logs contained an entry noting their gunnery practice in detail which lined up with what Indianapolis’ Captain McVay remembered about the chance passing encounter. While the LST deck logs did not specifically mention passing Indianapolis, the matching narratives of the gunnery practice was enough to use as the basis to get new, reliable coordinates for the ship during her final hours.

But coordinates only get you so far.

In the wake of Hulver’s discovery, another research project was undertaken in which NHHC, the Naval Historical Foundation, and the U.S. Naval Academy collaborated to examine historical accounts, logs, and other archival texts, as well as climatic data, navigational analysis, and drift modeling, to see if there might be something new to learn about the location where Indianapolis was torpedoed.

The outcome changed the Navy’s understanding of where Indianapolis went down.  The Navy now believed Indianapolis sank about 35 miles to the south and west of the previously accepted location.

 

 

This new theory offered an opportunity to refocus the search for Indianapolis, but finding the ship was far from a “sure thing.” That required the staggering investment of time and resources from Allen, and the expertise of the research team and expedition led by Kraft who had also come to a similar conclusion about the location of the ship’s wreck. Allen was seriously interested in locating the wreck and made a significant investment in refitting research vessel Petrel.

Description: Bow-on view, taken off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 10 July 1945, after her final overhaul. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 19-N-86913 Rights Notice: This photo has been released and is available for public use.

Description: Bow-on view, taken off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 10 July 1945, after her final overhaul. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.
Catalog #: 19-N-86913
Rights Notice: This photo has been released and is available for public use.

After news of Hulver’s discovery broke, Kraft reached out to the Navy to see if there was interest in sharing information. Known throughout the oceanographic community as experts, Kraft’s team previously surveyed other World War II and U.S. Navy wreck sites, even sharing their research data with the Navy, in keeping with their professional reputation. As managers of the Navy’s sunken military craft,  NHHC was supportive of the team’s responsible approach to the search.

In keeping with one of NHHC’s objectives to conduct and share its research, the details of the work performed by Hulver as well as the collaborative research from NHHC, NHF and USNA, and a proposed 10-day search area were shared with Kraft and his team. The wreck was found a mere six miles outside the Navy’s proposed 10-day search area – 40 miles from the location where the Navy previously assumed the ship had gone down.

Since mid-May, the collaboration continued with the Navy providing the following to the expedition:

  • The types of aircraft onboard the ship at the time she was sunk
  • The impact of the torpedo attack on the ship’s speed
  • The types of zigzag patterns the ship would likely have used including historical zigzag plan documents
  • Information about the variance in the proposed position of the ship’s location when it sunk which resulted from differing inputs from the Indianapolis Court of Inquiry (COI) and I-58
  • A detailed minute-by-minute timeline of the sinking combining reports from I-58’s commanding officer and COI testimony
  • A copy of the I-58 battle chart of the engagement with estimated sinking position

    View from astern, off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 10 July 1945, after her final overhaul. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 19-N-86914 Rights Notice: This photo has been released and is available for public use.

    View from astern, off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 10 July 1945, after her final overhaul. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.
    Catalog #: 19-N-86914
    Rights Notice: This photo has been released and is available for public use.

The wreck could not have been located without the significant investment of time and resources by Allen and the scientific research expertise of Kraft. Having strong relationships with Indy survivors, and upholding a key element of NHHC’s mission to always remember and honor the service and sacrifice of American Sailors and Marines, the Navy was proud to offer assistance in the search for the wreck of Indianapolis.

The Navy family is grateful for the work of Paul Allen and his team, and just as thankful for the honor and tribute paid to his dad by John Murdick, whose small gesture had such far-reaching consequences. Now the families of more than 800 heroes, of whom so much was asked and from whom so much was taken, at least know the location of their loved ones’ final resting place.

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