By Richard Hulver, Ph.D., Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division
Remembering Indianapolis primarily as a five-day shark attack detracts from the history of a decorated warship, the crews that served on her throughout WWII, and the ordeal faced by her final crew.
The monologue delivered by Robert Shaw as the eccentric Captain Quint in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws pervades public understanding of the July 30, 1945 loss of USS Indianapolis. Many viewers of the film likely recall the matter-of-fact conclusion Quint offers at the end of horrific description – the days of shark attacks the survivors faced. “So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men came out, the sharks took the rest. . .” Captain Quint is a fictional character, but the story he recounted includes enough basic fact to make it seem like the whole story—Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine, the ship had just completed a top secret mission to deliver atomic bomb components, it did take days for a rescue to be initiated, sharks certainly did terrorize crew stranded afloat in the Philippine Sea, and there was a catastrophic loss of life. However, reports made shortly after the rescue clearly indicate that sharks, although present, were not the prevailing cause of death perpetuated by Jaws. Remembering USS Indianapolis primarily as a five-day shark attack detracts from the history of a decorated warship, the crews that served on her throughout WWII, and the ordeal faced by the Sailors and Marines that made up her final crew.
Separating Fact From Fiction
The majority of the 800-plus Sailors and Marines who went into the water, and spent 4-5 days adrift, died from wounds sustained in the torpedo explosions that sunk the ship and by drowning caused by overexposure and dehydration. Sailors and Marines survived by forming groups in the water. The largest groups were composed of over one-hundred men who had no life rafts and few, or no, supplies. These groups organized themselves around floater nets, connected themselves with life vests, and rotated time in life rafts (if they were a group fortunate enough to have rafts) depending on their condition. As men became increasingly dehydrated and the severity of injuries worsened, death tolls increased. The life preservers of fatalities were commonly removed and the deceased body let loose from the group to sink. Deaths associated with severe dehydration were the most common and sorrowful stories from survivors. Many men suffered from hallucinations as their conditions worsened. Some swam off alone to reach mirages, attacked shipmates who they mistook for Japanese enemies to the point of exhaustion, or succumbed to thirst and quickened their death by drinking salt water. Often, hallucinations were contagious. One man in the largest group reported that he had found the stern of Indianapolis just below the surface, entered it, and drank large amounts of fresh milk. This resulted in others swimming below the surface to drink ocean water and drown.
Sharks certainly are a part of the Indianapolis story. Capt. Charles McVay, III ended up in a small group of survivors with a life raft. He reported in an interview months after his rescue that a shark with a sun bleached dorsal fin followed their raft around for days. The shark caused annoyance more than fear, as it stymied the survivors’ ability to catch any food because it chased away fish. McVay also noted that he heard of sharks causing more serious trouble for his crew in the water—many of them reported to him afterwards of seeing the sharks swim below them in calm water. McVay visited two of his crew in the hospital with shark bites, and joked with one that if he wanted anyone to believe that he was bitten by a shark he better take some castellan paint and outline the[shark bite] before it healed.
Lt. Cmdr. Lewis Haynes, the Medical Officer for Indianapolis, was adrift with the largest group of survivors. In an interview with him after the sinking he was somewhat confused as to why the sharks had become such a prominent piece of the story. Out of his 110 hours in the water, he recalled seeing only one shark, but did feel numerous unknown bumps against his body during the nights.
Sharks certainly took the lives of men in the water, but historic records indicate that they fed on the dead more so than the living.
How Did the Sharks Become the Focus?
If sharks were not responsible for taking the lives of most men in the water, why have they obtained such a prominent place in the Indianapolis story? The traumatic experience of being exposed to shark attacks certainly became a defining moment for the survivors who experienced them. Another part of the answer likely comes from reports of the rescue crews. When pilot Lt. Adrian Marks arrived on the scene of Lt. Cmdr. Haynes’s group in his PBY Catalina plane he saw sharks swimming among the survivors feeding on remains. The presence of sharks was part of the reason he decided to make a dangerous sea landing. Nearly all of the rescue ships arriving to the search area reported picking up remains badly mutilated by sharks, some to the point of being primarily skeletal. Crew of the USS Helm (DEb 367) had to fire at sharks with rifles to get them away from the dead before pulling them on deck for identification. Sharks certainly took the lives of men in the water, but historic records indicate that they fed on the dead more than the living. Lt. Cmdr. Haynes read over the rescue reports and deduced that sharks must have left his group alone because they were satisfied with the remains. The grim scene that rescuers arrived to, and recorded, amplified the presence of sharks in the story. Sharks inevitably came to dominate the way Indianapolis was remembered.
The USS Indianapolis should not be synonymous with shark attacks. The ship earned ten battle stars for her service in WWII and was credited with shooting down nine enemy planes. She was out of her home port, Pearl Harbor, for training on December 7, 1941 but was part of the task group formed immediately after the attack to search for the Japanese aircraft carriers responsible. She was a fixture in nearly all of the major Pacific battles, often serving as the flagship for the Fifth Fleet. The atomic components delivered by her contributed to the end of the war in the Pacific.
Some died bravely, some managed to survive, all were heroes who faced unimaginable dangers to protect and serve.
Remembering Indianapolis primarily as the sunken ship whose survivors were attacked by sharks obscures the whole story of a decorated American warship that played a vital role in the Pacific victory. Focusing on the sharks unduly directs attention away from the complete story of the final crew’s ordeal. The Sailors and Marines that went in the water from Indianapolis faced terrible travails—sharks, dehydration, wounds, mental collapse, and a feeling that their service abandoned them. Some died bravely, some managed to survive, all were heroes who faced unimaginable dangers to protect and serve.
Editors Note: Dr. Richard Hulver is a historian in the Histories and Archives Branch of Naval History and Heritage Command. He is leading a project to revisit the sinking of USS Indianapolis and make historic material readily available to the public and Navy that tells the whole story of the loss. Hulver received a B.A. in history from Shepherd University and a Ph.D. from West Virginia University. Prior to joining the Naval History and Heritage Command he worked as a historian for United States Southern Command, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and was a part of the Army Chief-of-Staff’s Iraq War Study Group.