On July 30, 1945, two Japanese torpedoes hit an American battleship, sinking it in 12 minutes. 900 sailors survived the accident, but they couldn’t exhale a sigh of relief: burned, wounded, and with limbs severed, the men were soon confronted by a swarm of sharks. Even according to the most cautious estimates, the animals murdered at least 150 of them before aid came four days later.
The USS Indianapolis had just delivered the first operable atomic bomb components to a naval installation on the Pacific island of Tinian. The bomb would destroy Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The Indianapolis, however, was heading from Guam without an escort on July 29 to join the battleship USS Idaho in the Philippines’ Leyte Gulf to prepare for an attack of Japan.
The day went by without incident, with the Indianapolis sailing at around 17 mph through five to six-foot waves in the apparently unending Pacific. The sailors were playing cards or reading as the sun sank over the ship, and some of them were speaking with the ship’s chaplain.
A Japanese torpedo hit the starboard bow of the unsuspecting American warship shortly after midnight, precisely where the ship’s gasoline was stored: roughly 3,500 gallons of it flowed into the ocean, where it promptly ignited, sending up flames several hundred feet high.
A second Japanese torpedo struck closer to midship, exploding gasoline tanks and powder magazines. The chain effect was unstoppable, and the Indianapolis was torn in half. The ship, which was still moving at tremendous speeds, was filled with water in seconds and sunk in 12 minutes. Around 900 of the 1196 guys survived the blasts and made it to the river alive. Many people felt they could finally exhale a sigh of relief, but the hardest part of their suffering had only just begun.
“When I glanced down at myself, I discovered I was coated in this oil, and my first impulse was to run away from it, because if it caught fire, you’re in big trouble.” The initial instinct is to swim away from it, which I did, and it happened just after midnight. I was still swimming around 5 or 6 a.m. I couldn’t think of anything. “I didn’t even have a life jacket, so I was swimming from midnight until 5:30 a.m.,” said survivor Lyle Umenhoffer, a Seaman First Class.
As the light dawned on July 30, it shined down on hundreds of agonized survivors with severed limbs and burns, most of whom had no place on the few available life rafts, in addition to a few pieces of wreckage still floating and scores of bodies. Many of them didn’t even have life jackets, so they stole them off their fallen companions.
Several smaller and one bigger group of more than 300 persons were created in the goal of maintaining some order. Soon, two foes attacked the increasingly tired men: hunger and sharks.
The sounds of the explosions, the sinking ship, the spilt oil, and, of course, the blood drew the animals to the site. None of the shark species that live in the open ocean are as violent as the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus). The floating bodies were the first targets of these marine predators, but when more sharks came, they began to attack the continuously moving individuals battling to live on the water’s surface.
According to survivors’ accounts, the guys were assaulted by dozens, if not hundreds, of predators spread across hundreds of square meters. Because they were primarily drawn to blood, everyone attempted to swim away from injured and bleeding seamen.
“The sharks never stop attacking. We had a cargo net with Styrofoam attachments to keep it floating. There were roughly 15 sailors on board when 10 sharks attacked and there was nothing left. “This continued on and on and on,” said survivor Eugene Morgan, a Boatswain’s Mate Second Class.
Most soldiers froze in panic and were unable to think rationally. Some of them made the mistake of opening a can of Spam, but the meat brought a swarm of sharks around them, forcing them to throw away their food.
“While I was perfectly coherent, I had this thought: Keep fighting and staying alive.” It was uncomfortable since the sun burned the skin and there was no way to avoid it. It was like having your head in a hole in the midst of a mirror, with all of the sunshine reflecting off your face and scorching it. It was unbearably hot – like hell. You couldn’t wait till the sun went set. It was a comfort when the sun went set. Then it would become chilly and you’d start shivering, and you couldn’t wait for the sun to come back up,” Signalman Third Class Paul McGinnis told History.
As the days passed, more and more of the sailors succumbed to despair: they began to hallucinate as a result of the heat and dehydration. Many couldn’t handle it any longer and drank from the salty saltwater, committing suicide through salt poisoning. These sailors quickly went insane and returned to their comrades with frothing mouths, swollen lips, and tongues. They were frequently a larger menace to the survivors than the sharks lurking below, with many pulling their colleagues underneath as they perished.
“Men were dizzy from drinking so much salt water.” In fact, several of them carried knives and were so insane that they would fight amongst themselves and kill one another. Others would drink so much [salt water] that they started seeing things. “The Indy is down below, and they’re handing out fresh water and food in the galley!” they’d remark. And they’d swim below, only to be eaten by a shark. “And you could see the sharks devouring your friend,” said survivor Granville Crane, a Machinist’s Mate Second Class.
Although three US Navy radio stations got news of the accident, none of them sent it to their superiors: the commander of one station was inebriated, and another commander at another station had forbade his subordinates from disturbing him. The third commander assumed it was a Japanese fake and ignored the signal as well. Meanwhile, the sailors discovered that their greatest chance of survival is to cluster in a group, and if feasible, to be in the center of the mob, because predators may easily approach them from the outskirts.
At 11 a.m. on the fourth day, a Navy patrol jet discovered the survivors and radioed for assistance. A aircraft came a few hours later and dropped improvised rafts and survival packs among the seamen. The survivors were ultimately rescued a few minutes after midnight by the cruiser USS Doyle.
Only 317 of the Indianapolis’ 1,196-person crew survived. According to estimates, at least 150 individuals were murdered by sharks, with the others dying of insanity, dehydration, and exhaustion. It was the deadliest shark attack in history, as well as the most frightening maritime tragedy in US Navy history.