The dark demise of the USS Indianapolis

The ship played a key role in the end of the Second World War- and got its first real pop culture mention in a Steven Spielberg classic

Patrick Hollis
4 min readMar 19, 2024
The USS Indianapolis sunk in July 1945 (Photo: Wikipedia)

In July 1945, the Second World War had ended in Europe, and the conflict in the Pacific was reaching its climax. Although few knew it at the time, Atomic Bombs were to be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following month, murdering thousands of innocent civilians.

The USS Indianapolis was tasked with transporting vital components of the bomb to scientists in Tinian, part of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean. After dropping off its cargo, it was sent to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to take part in training or an offensive against Japan. However, it would never arrive.

On July 30, it was hit by torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine. The heavy cruiser sank in just 12 minutes with 1200 crew onboard. Around 900 of the men survived the initial sinking, but it was what followed that claimed more lives.

The men faced more problems once in the water. It was four days before they were discovered, and during this time they had to endure shortages of food and drinking water. Many of the men succumbed to drinking salt water and drying of dehydration, and the location of where the ship sunk would play a crucial part in how many more men died.

The story of the ship’s demise was one rarely covered by pop culture. That was until 1975 and the Steven Spielberg cult film ‘Jaws’. Grizzled shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) tells Brody and Hooper about his time in the Navy during the Second World War, and how he was a survivor of the USS Indianapolis.

The USS Indianapolis had been attacked in shark-infested waters, and for the men left it would be days until they were discovered. The explosion and the scent of blood in the water attracted the sharks to the survivors. The remaining men were split into several groups, some around 20 miles away. At first, the sharks came for the dead, but eventually, they started to attack those men still alive.

Although sharks played a big part in this disaster, it is now thought that the majority of the men died in other ways. Exhaustion and dehydration are thought to be the two biggest causes of death, with several of the men thought to have been struck with hallucinations as a result of both or either.

An aerial shot of the USS Indianapolis (Photo: Atomic Heritage Foundation)

The survivors would spend four days in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, and they were only discovered by accident on August 2. Only 300 men remained alive, just a quarter of the crew that had set sail from Guam just days earlier. An article in the US Naval History Magazine outlines that many of the myths from the sinking of the USS Indianapolis are just that: myths.

Much of the investigation into what happened with the USS Indianapolis is centred around her captain, Charles McVay. He was held responsible for the sinking and the subsequent loss of life, but it has been realised over time that there were many other factors at play.

Amongst these are the timing of the sinking, unsuitable equipment, and inexperienced crew members. Also, the fact that the ship was unable to send an SOS signal before it sunk meant that the US Navy was unaware of the situation. One of the Japanese torpedoes struck near to a communications room, and a subsequent power failure meant that the chances of a signal being sent were even more slim.

A myth that has been completely dispelled is that the USS Indianapolis’ secret mission status was its downfall. This isn’t true as, when it sunk, it was no longer on a top-secret mission. Its work to deliver parts of the Atom Bomb was top secret, but since this was complete the ship no longer sailed under this pretence.

McVay was tasked with getting the Indianapolis to its destination quickly enough so that ant-aircraft manoeuvres could be carried out. This was done by not setting a zig-zag course, a tactic that would have made the ship able to manoeuvre enemy vessels more easily. This desire to cut journey time would lead the USS Indianapolis right into the path of the Japanese submarine.

The blame was put on McVay, but research has shown that reports from the ship's captain helped to change the Navy protocol. From this point on, no ship with more than 500 souls on board would go without an escort. Additionally, became a requirement for any U.S. ship five hours overdue to be immediately reported. McVey also pushed for improvements to life rafts on combat ships, including each life raft being equipped with emergency radios.

The sinking of the USS Indianapolis saw around 900 men killed. Whilst some were killed instantly by the torpedo attack, many others suffered for days or were picked off by sharks as they tried desperately to fend them off. The blame game of who is responsible for the disaster may never come to an end, but instead, the memory of those who suffered should never be forgotten.



Patrick Hollis

I am a journalist with an honours degree from Coventry University. I’m a published author and journalist with several years experience in the industry