San Francisco, California July 15, 1945

On this date in 1945 the USS Indianapolis, a fast Port­land-class crui­ser in Cali­for­nia for repairs, received orders to pick up some special cargo at Hun­ters Point (prede­ces­sor name for the now-closed San Fran­cisco Naval Yard). Eleven days later, on July 26, the Indi­an­ap­olis unloaded her mysteri­ous cargo—a large crate that had been secured to its deck and a 2-ft-long metal cylin­der placed in the flag lieu­ten­ant’s cabin—all delivered under tight security to the B‑29 Super­fortress heavy bomber base on the Central Pacific island of Tinian in the Marianas.

Four days later, just after midnight on July 30, two, possibly three Long Lance torpe­does from Japa­nese sub­marine I‑58 sank the Indi­an­ap­o­lis as the heavy cruiser was en route to Leyte Gulf in the Philip­pines for gunnery drills in anti­ci­pa­tion of the Allied inva­sion of Japan. In so doing I‑58 inflicted the greatest loss of life in U.S. naval his­tory: 300 officers, sai­lors, and Marines were killed in the attack, and the remaining 800 of the ship’s com­ple­ment 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 a Navy patrol bomber on a routine mission and rescued the next day, August 3, just 316 out of the origi­nal 1,196 sailors and Marines had sur­vived the sinking, ­expo­sure to sun and sea, dehy­dration, salt­water poi­soning, and prowling sharks—reputedly the most shark attacks on humans in history. News of the tragedy was with­held from the Amer­i­can public for 16 days and went largely unnoticed owing to the momentous events of August 6 and 9 on the Japanese homeland.

(A scapegoat Naval court-martial convened in late 1945 would declare the Indi­an­ap­o­lis’ skipper, 46-year-old Cap­tain Charles B. McVay III, cul­pa­ble for the loss of his ship, although the Indi­an­ap­o­lis, which had a top speed of 32.5 knots, had neither escort ves­sel [requested but rejected as unnec­es­sary] nor under­water detec­tion equip­ment, which con­ceiv­ably could have altered events. The ill-fated cruiser was on her own in pre­sum­ably safe waters. 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 the U.S. Congress in 2000.)

Of course the key item on the Indi­an­ap­o­lis’ top-secret cargo mani­fest was none other than the precious 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 (roughly $27.7 bil­lion in 2018 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 9,800‑ton, 610-ft-long heavy cruiser 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 Vice Admiral Ray­mond Spruance when he com­manded the U.S. Fifth Fleet in its battles across the Central Pacific. Sunk a half month before Japan’s uncon­di­tional surrender, the Indianapolis was the last victim of the Japanese Navy.

Right: USS Indi­an­apolis’ survivors on Guam, probably August 8, 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 life rafts—there were no life­boats—could accom­mo­date few of them. Many of the men treaded water with­out life vests. The wounded or badly burned simply drowned. By the time the ema­ci­ated sur­vi­vors were rescued four days and five nights after their cruiser went down, only 321 remained; four soon died. Most of the deaths on the Indi­an­ap­olis were due to expo­sure, thirst (the fresh water aboard the life rafts was undrink­able), and salt­water poisoning, with the dead and injured and those in shock being dragged off by sharks.

Mission of Misfortune: The Tragic End of the USS Indianapolis