San Francisco, California · July 15, 1945

On this date in 1945 the USS Indianapolis, a Port­land-class crui­ser in Cali­for­nia for repairs, received orders to pick up a piece of special cargo at Hun­ters Point (prede­ces­sor name for the now-closed San Fran­cisco Naval Yard). Eleven days later, on July 26, the Indi­an­ap­olis delivered her mysteri­ous cargo to the B‑29 base on the Cen­tral Paci­fic is­land of Tinian in the Mari­anas. Four days later Japa­nese sub­marine I‑58 sank the Indi­an­ap­o­lis en route to Leyte in the Philip­pines in the greatest loss of life in U.S. naval his­tory: 400 sai­lors were killed in the tor­pedo attack, and the remaining 800 bobbed in the un­for­giving sun and shark-infested waters of the Paci­fic for four days with­out the U.S. Navy being aware they were mis­sing. When at last they were spotted by acci­dent and rescued, just 316 out of the origi­nal 1,196 crew had sur­vived the sinking, ex­po­sure, dehy­dra­tion, and shark attacks. (A scape­goat Naval court-martial in Novem­ber 1945 would declare the Indi­an­ap­o­lis’ skipper, Cap­tain Charles McVay III, cul­pa­ble for the loss of his ship, although the Indi­an­ap­o­lis had neither escort ves­sel [requested but rejected] nor sonar gear, which con­ceiv­ably could have altered events. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz remitted McVay’s sen­tence. McVay com­mitted sui­cide in 1968.) Of course the Indi­an­ap­o­lis’ mysteri­ous cargo con­sisted of the key fis­sile com­po­nents for “Little Boy,” the code­name for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiro­shima on August 6, 1945. Developed by the Man­hattan Project headed by J. Robert Oppen­heimer at a cost of nearly $2 billion, “Little Boy” derived its explo­sive power (equi­va­lent to 15,000 tons of TNT) from the nuclear fis­sion of less than 35 ounces of ura­nium-235. The Hiro­shima bombing was the second nuclear explo­sion in history, after the Trinity test near Alama­gordo, New Mexico, and the first ura­nium-based deto­na­tion. (The Trinity test occurred one day after the Indi­an­ap­olis left port for Tinian.) “Little Boy” killed perhaps 70,000 peo­ple outr­ight. With the deto­na­tion of the more powerful plu­to­nium-239-based “Fat Man” over Naga­saki three days later, which added 40,000 more deaths to the tally of the dead (to say nothing of the forever-maimed and recovered wounded), nuclear weapons and their peaceful off­spring had a pro­found impact on the rest of the twentieth century.

USS Indianapolis, July 1945

USS Indianapolis off Mare Island, July 1945 USS Indianapolis’ survivors, Guam, August 1945

Left: USS Indianapolis off California’s Mare Island, July 10, 1945, days after the heavy cruiser’s final over­haul and repair of com­bat damage (incurred on March 31, 1945) and five days before setting off for the Cen­tral Paci­fic is­land of Tinian to deliver crit­ical ele­ments of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiro­shima, Japan. The Indi­an­ap­olis served as flag­ship for Admiral Ray­mond Spruance while he com­manded the U.S. Fifth Fleet in its battles across the Central Pacific.

Right: USS Indi­an­apolis’ survivors on Guam, August 1945. The Indi­an­ap­olis was tor­pedoed and sunk on July 30, 1945, by Japa­nese submarine I‑58. About 900 of the 1,196 crew­men aboard ini­tially sur­vived the fiery sinking, although the ship’s life­boats could accom­mo­date few of them, and many were with­out life jack­ets as they treaded water. By the time the sur­v­ivors were rescued four days and five nights after their ship went down, only 321 remained; four soon died. Most of the deaths on the Indi­an­ap­olis were due to exposure, saltwater poi­soning and thirst, with the dead being dragged off by sharks.

Mission of Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis