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, using two torpedoes, sank the Indi­an­ap­o­lis as the heavy cruiser was en route to Leyte in the Philip­pines for gunnery drills in anti­ci­pa­tion of the inva­sion of Japan. In so doing I‑58 inflicted the greatest loss of life in U.S. naval his­tory: 300 sai­lors and Marines were killed in the attack, and the remaining 800 bobbed in the unfor­giving sun and shark-infested waters of the South Paci­fic for four days and nights with­out the U.S. Navy being aware they were mis­sing. When at last they were acci­dentally spotted by recon­nais­sance air­craft and rescued, just 316 out of the origi­nal 1,196 crew had sur­vived the sinking, expo­sure, dehy­dration, salt­water poisoning, and shark attacks—reputedly the most shark attacks on humans in history.

(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, although his conviction still stands in Navy records. McVay committed suicide in 1968, 32 years before he was exonerated by an act of Congress in 2000.)

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 at the time (over $157 bil­lion in today’s dollars), “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, the chroni­cally ill, and the recovered wounded), nuclear wea­pons and their peace­ful off­spring have exerted a pro­found impact on the rest of the twentieth century and into the present.

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 in numerous head­line-grabbing naval engage­ments, among them the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Mid­way, the Guadal­canal Cam­paign, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Battle of Oki­nawa, the Battle of the Philip­pine Sea, and the Battle of Iwo Jima. The Indi­an­ap­olis served as a fleet 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. Torpedoed by Japa­nese sub­marine I‑58 on July 30, 1945, the Indian­apolis rolled com­pletely over and sank, bow first, within 12 minutes of being hit. About 800 of the 1,196 crew­men aboard ini­tially sur­vived the fiery sinking, although the ship’s life­boats—that is, those that cleared the vessel—could accom­mo­date few of them. Many of the men treaded water with­out life vests. By the time the ema­ci­ated sur­vi­vors were rescued four days and five nights after their war­ship went down, only 321 remained; four soon died. Most of the deaths on the Indi­an­ap­olis were due to expo­sure, thirst, and salt­water poisoning, with the dead being dragged off by sharks.

Mission of Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis

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