When the blockbuster “Jaws” first terrified audiences in 1975, not all of the fear was due to the effects or haunting soundtrack. One of the most chilling scenes was fisherman Quint’s telling of how he was bobbing in the Pacific’s waters for days while sharks were circling him and his fellow sailors. That grim story isn’t just a scene written for the big screen.
It was based on the real-life events after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the end of World War II. A Japanese submarine torpedo sent the ship and its 1,200 men into the ocean’s open waters. Of about 800 sailors who went into the water, 316 survived the nearly five-day event. The rest succumbed to dehydration, shark attacks, exhaustion, and I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest. That alone is a story to be told, but there are lots of layers to this story, involving a 12-year-old boy whose school paper helped exonerate the ship’s captain after all these years.
After decades of unsuccessful searches, the wreckage of USS Indianapolis was found on the bottom of the Philippine Sea on August 19, 2017. A team of researchers led by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen located the remains of the ship 18,044 feet below the sea. It’s been over 70 years since the ship sank during World War II.
The discovery actually brings some closure to one of the most tragic naval stories in US history. But as tragic as it was, the story is also deeply inspiring and worthy of reflection. And you’ll see why soon. But we’re going to start from the beginning. It happened on the night of July 30th, 1945, two weeks before war was going to end. The ship was sailing from Guam to Leyte.
At 00:15 on July 30, 1945, the ship, with a crew of 1,199 men, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the waters of the Pacific. It was struck on the starboard side by two Type 95 torpedoes. The explosions caused massive damage, and within 12 minutes, the ship sunk. It rolled over completely, and after the stern rose into the air, it plunged right down.
300 of the men aboard went down with the ship. With only a few lifeboats and many without life jackets at all, the remainder of the crew was set adrift in the open waters of the Pacific. Thanks to the survivors’ stories, we can take a rare look into one of the worst naval disasters in US military history.
The Navy didn’t know of the ship’s sinking until survivors were spotted in the ocean three and a half days later. Now, just think of what three and a half days would be like after such a disaster, in the shark-infested ocean. Those three and half days were so intense and horrific that those who survived basically have never had a bad day since.
Survivors of the sinking spent days bobbing in the sea, enduring sharks, the blistering sun, and dehydration. And the way they managed to survive and how they conducted themselves in those waters and even afterward is an affirmation of life. Today, only 12 of those men are still living, and each summer since 1960, they meet in Indianapolis for a reunion.
As the men floated in the sea, they endured more than one can imagine. They were blinded by the sun, tormented by hallucinations, thirst, and hunger and attacked by sharks. But what also plagued them was the realization that no one was coming to rescue them. Some, feeling all hope was lost, purposefully swam away to die. Others surrendered but didn’t give up.
Many of them were certain that rescue would never come, yet they carried on, helping struggling shipmates even when it didn’t seem to matter in the end. By becoming selfless, they held on to who they were as individuals. As most of the men essentially gave up on being rescued, they had no idea that help was on its way…
At 10:25 on August 2, on a routine patrol flight, a plane flown by Lieutenant Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn and his copilot, Lieutenant Warren Colwell, spotted the men adrift. Gwinn immediately dropped down a life raft and radio transmitter. 24-year-old pilot Gwinn was later affectionately called their angel by the survivors, as they felt that they were reborn.
The first rescue plane was able to pick up 56 survivors. By nightfall, the first of seven rescue ships used its searchlight as a beacon to give hope to those still in the water. The rescue ships picked up the remaining survivors. Many of the survivors were injured, and all of them were suffering from a lack of food and water.
There were cases of dehydration and hypernatremia. Some of the men managed to find some rations of Spam and crackers among the debris of the Indianapolis. But these men were exposed to the elements, dehydrated from the hot sun during the day, and experienced hypothermia at night. They also suffered severe desquamation due to the continued exposure to saltwater and bunker oil.
Let’s not forget the shark attacks, while others killed themselves or even other survivors in various states of delirium and hallucinations. 316 of the 900 men set adrift after the sinking survived. Two of the rescued survivors, Robert Lee Shipman and Frederick Harrison, died soon after the rescue, in August 1945. As for the other survivors, many of them consistently say how since their rescue, they’ve “never had a bad day.”
Captain Charles McVay of the USS Indianapolis survived the sinking, though he was one of the last to abandon the ship, and was one of the 316 who were rescued from the waters. In November 1945, McVay was court-martialed, making him the only captain in American history to ever be court-martialed for losing his ship in the act of war.
He was court-martialed on two charges: failing to order his men to abandon ship, and hazarding the ship. He was cleared of the charge of failing to order the men to abandon ship, but was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag.” But several aspects of the trial were controversial. For one, there was evidence that the Navy placed the ship in harm’s way.
McVay’s orders were to “zigzag at his discretion, weather permitting.” But McVay was never informed that a Japanese submarine was operating in the area of his route from Guam to Leyte. But Mochitsura Hashimoto, the commander of the Japanese submarine, later testified that zigzagging wouldn’t even have made a difference.
In the end, McVay was sent back to active duty. He retired in 1949 as a rear admiral. But while many of the survivors said McVay wasn’t to blame for the sinking, the families of those who died thought otherwise. For example, one piece of mail read: “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son.” The guilt that riddled McVay eventually took a toll on him…
Giles McCoy, one of the founders of the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization, once promised McVay captain that the Navy would one day exonerate him. Amazingly, thanks to a 12-year-old boy named Hunter Scott and his school paper, the captain was indeed exonerated in 1996, as McCoy had promised him that one day.
But unfortunately, McVay didn’t wait around for his redemption. It was too late. The guilt was too heavy for the former captain. In 1968, he committed suicide, using his Navy-issued revolver. He was discovered on his front lawn in Litchfield, Connecticut, by his gardener. McVay had a toy sailor in one hand, and the revolver in the other. He was 70 years old.
In 1996, a 12-year-old sixth-grader, Hunter Scott, began his research on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis for a class history project. That assignment eventually led to a United States Congressional investigation. The boy from Pensacola, Florida, created a National History Day project on the sinking of the famous ship.
He was interested in the subject after having seen it discussed in the film ‘Jaws’ with his father. Scott took the initiative and interviewed nearly 150 survivors of the sinking and reviewed about 800 documents. His thesis held the notion that the ship’s Captain, Charles Butler McVay III, who had been blamed for the tragedy, was really innocent. With the support of his Congressman, Joe Scarborough, Scott’s research got a lot of attention.
Scot’s paper brought the Indianapolis sinking and the heavy loss of life to the public’s attention. Scott even appeared before the US Congress with some survivors of Indianapolis to argue that McVay should be exonerated, even after his death. In his testimony, Scott said: “This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back.”
He continued: “I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis.”
Their testimonies resulted in the passage of a Congressional resolution. In October 2000, the US Congress passed a resolution that Captain McVay’s record should be changed and state that “he is exonerated for the loss of Indianapolis.” It was signed by then-President Bill Clinton. The resolution also noted that, while several hundred ships of the US Navy were lost during World War II, McVay was the only captain who was court-martialed for the sinking of his ship.
By July 2001, the United States Secretary of the Navy cleared McVay’s official Navy record of all wrongdoing. Scott went on to study economics and physics at the University of North Carolina on a Naval ROTC scholarship. He graduated in May 2007. Lieutenant Hunter Scott is now a Naval Aviator. Scott’s story was told in “Left for Dead: A Young Man’s Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis” by Pete Nelson.
The survivors and other advocates of the Indianapolis struggled for years to clear McVay’s name. When his shipmates were asked why they stood behind the captain, he said, “The skipper never blamed anyone but himself.” The captain clearly carried the blame – so much so that he ended his life because of it.
But he blamed himself even though the Japanese submarine commander claimed that there was nothing McVay could have done to stop it anyways. But McVay believed otherwise. His sense of duty was profound, and the efforts made to clear his name can be seen as something of redemption to his salvation for his suffering. It took 56 years, but never late than never, right?
There is one pivotal interview with Captain McVay, in which he detailed the events of the night. He described how on Sunday night, July 29, 1945, about five minutes after midnight, he “was thrown from my emergency cabin bunk on the bridge by a very violent explosion followed shortly after that by another explosion.”
He went to the bridge and noticed, in his emergency cabin, that there was acrid white smoke. “I couldn’t see anything. I asked the Officer of the Deck if he had had any reports. He said, ‘No, Sir. I have lost all communications.’” Within a few minutes, the executive officer came up and said, ‘We are definitely going down, and I suggest that we abandon ship.’”
As McVay turned to the Officer of the Deck and said, “I have been unable to determine whether the distress message, which I told the Navigator to check on has ever gotten out,” he was suddenly thrown into the water by what he believed was a wave caused by the bow going down quickly. Within a few seconds, he felt “hot oil and water brush over the back of my neck.”
That’s when the captain looked around and heard a “swish,” and the ship was gone. It was dark, and they couldn’t see anything. But he could hear people yelling for help. According to McVay, most people onboard were sucked down by the ship. Or they were full of oil and saltwater and became violently ill or so exhausted that they lay in a stupor.
“The first night, the first day, Monday, and Tuesday night were… very uncomfortable. We then had two days of almost no wind and a glassy sea.” But McVay said that the sea still contained those rolling swells which didn’t let you see very far. He thought that they should have been so far north of the larger group of survivors.
The captain called that large group of survivors the life preserver group because hundreds of them had nothing but life preservers. And some of them didn’t even have a life preserver. McVay described how most of them were experiencing mass hallucinations. He said how three or four would swim away at dark, and by the next morning, they’d come back and say how the Indianapolis didn’t go down at all. That it’s right over there and they were on the ship all night.
McVay explained how it was in ways like that that people died of exhaustion. Either that or they drank salt water and went “completely out of their head.” Those who survived in the ‘life preserver group’ feel sure that a number of people gave up hope. They were with the group at sundown, and in the morning they would be gone.
McVay also conveyed how the group said that on calm days, they knew there were sharks around because they could see them underneath. According to survivors’ stories, hundreds of sharks emerged and circled them. And as sharks do, they attacked. The once optimistic men were then vulnerable and helpless. Apparently, the sharks would attack in the morning, cruise through the wounded all day, and feed on the living again at night.
According to the book “In Harm’s Way” by Doug Stanton, each man had to ask himself the same question: ‘Will I live, or do I quit?’ For those who didn’t give up hope, they started betting who would survive the longest. It also helped them to remember loved ones back home who had told them never to give up.
They would tell themselves and each other that rescue was on its way. They prayed out loud. They made deals with God, promised to read the Bible, to write to their parents more, never to cheat – just let them survive the day. It’s hard to even fathom what these men went through. But luckily, although it was too late for many, rescue finally came.
Captain McVay explained how they were picked up by a rescue team. McVay talked to the aviator, Lt. Wilbur C. Gwinn, who told McVay that he was on a regular routine reconnaissance from Palau when he went back to take a Loran [navigational] fix. He happened to glance down towards the water and saw a large oil spill.
Pilot Gwinn then decreased his altitude and followed the oil for a number of miles until he saw the group of what he thought were 30 or so survivors. He had no idea that they were from the USS Indianapolis. He didn’t even know the Indianapolis was missing in the first place. It was August 2, 1945 – four days after the sinking. His message to headquarters: “Send rescue. 150 survivors in lifeboat and jackets.”
The nightmare was over. After a thorough search on August 8, 1945, 316 men in total were rescued out of the crew of 1,199. In the end, those who survived did so by helping each other and by vowing to live for others: for God, their kids, their sweethearts and wives, and their parents.
Let’s go back to the beginning of this article and remember that Paul Allen, from Microsoft, and his crew of researchers found the Indianapolis just a few years ago. But before that, in the summer of 2016, a Naval historian by the name of Richard Hulver discovered records that pinpointed the ship’s location 11 hours before it sank. It was the breakthrough that led Allen’s search in the right direction.
Richard Hulver, a historian for the Naval History, knew that an LST (a cargo and troop carrier) came across the USS Indianapolis 11 to 12 hours before its sinking. Wanting to learn more about the location of that encounter, Hulver did a Google search on “USS Indianapolis” and “LST.”
In May 2015, a son of one of the sailors on that LST wrote a blog post for the website of a fudge shop his family owns in Mackinaw City, Michigan. His post didn’t provide the number of the LST, but Hulver was able to find records that Seaman 1st Class Francis G. Murdick hitched a ride on LST-779. Hulver’s research provided new information on the Indianapolis’ whereabouts at the time of the sinking.
As it turns out, the ship was farther west than the Navy thought at the time of the attack. “This brings us closer to discovering the final resting place of the ship and many of her crew,” Hulver explained in a statement to the Navy about the discovery. There have been attempts over the decades to find the Indianapolis, but the 2017 search was successful thanks to Hulver’s work.
Several searches, even one led by National Geographic, failed to find the ship. Hulver noted that no distress call from the USS Indianapolis was ever received, and there wasn’t a record of the ship’s sinking location, either. Allen’s crew used the historical data, along with remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technology, to look for the wreckage.
They searched within a 600-square-mile area of ocean. “I’m very happy that they found it. It’s been a long 72 years coming,” said Arthur Leenerman, a 93-year-old Indianapolis survivor. “I have wished for years that they would find it. The lost at sea families will feel pretty sad, but I think finding the ship will also give them some closure.”
Paul Allen wrote on Twitter: “Important chapter of WWII history concludes. I hope survivors/families gain some closure.” A lot can be learned from this historical event. The loss of the USS Indianapolis brought major changes to procedures in reporting for arrivals and nonarrivals of ships. Back in WWII days, those were not required. But now there are reporting requirements. The Indianapolis was also sailing alone. Since then, any vessel with 500 or more onboard has to have an escort. And lifesaving equipment has also been improved.
For years, the haunting story of the Indianapolis seemed almost forgotten. That is until the movie ‘Jaws’ hit theaters in 1975. Captain Quint’s now-infamous monologue about the shark attacks thrust the real-life incident into public consciousness. Actor Robert Shaw, who played Quint, gave the chilling monologue when Richard Dreyfuss’ character, Hooper, asked him about the Indianapolis.
Quint said how he and the other men who survived bunched up in the water to ward off prowling sharks. “And the idea was, the shark goes to the nearest man, and then he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’, and sometimes the shark would go away… Sometimes he wouldn’t go away,” Quint said. Historian Richard Hulver claimed that Quint’s story is largely accurate, but likely exaggerated the number of those killed by sharks.
The truth is, no one really knows for sure just how many men were killed by sharks. In some moments, the sharks targeted the bodies of those who had already died from the harsh elements. “There certainly are sharks,” Hulver said. “You read more of dehydration, overexposure, and the mental collapse. That is the tough part of the story to read.”
‘Jaws’ wasn’t the only film to cover the story of Indianapolis. ‘USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,’ featuring Nicolas Cage, who plays Capt. Charles McVay III came out in 2016. The movie wasn’t so well-received, but it portrays “the remarkable true story of survival. Filled with tense action and brave heroes, it is the ultimate untold story of WWII.”
There are, at this moment, 10 living survivors of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. More than 70 years after the disaster, the veterans shared their stories of suffering, reconciliation, and healing. Since 1960, they have been meeting every year without fail. It’s their time to bond with their fellow shipmates, tell their stories, and remember the worst week of their lives.
During their 2015 reunion, 14 of the 31 survivors gathered for the 70th anniversary of the incident. Because most of the survivors are in their nineties, a vote is taken every year as to whether or not to continue with the tradition. “Our numbers are dropping fast,” said Harold Bray, a retired police officer from California, who at 88 is the youngest survivor in the group. “We’ve lost three since the last reunion. It’s really tough to belong to a club like this.”
Amazingly, for an event that seems overshadowed by death, the tone is mainly celebratory. Among many things, their story is one of victory. Four days before the ship sunk, the crew of the Indianapolis landed at Tinian island. They had actually delivered the components for the atomic bomb that would later be dropped on Hiroshima within two weeks, bringing World War II to an abrupt end.
It’s also a story of reconciliation. Among the guests at the 2015 reunion were the daughter and granddaughter of Mochitsura Hashimoto, the Japanese commander who ordered the sinking of the Indianapolis. “At first I wasn’t sure if I would feel like the enemy,” said Atsuko Iida, who lives in Illinois, and came to her first reunion in 2001. But Atsuko Iida was warmly embraced. And the forgiveness even goes both ways. Iida joined the applause when one speaker mentioned the Hiroshima bombing as the beginning of the war’s end, despite her grandfather’s family having lived in the suburbs of Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped.
It’s a story of healing, too. “We all came home and tried to forget the war,” said Dick Thelan, a survivor from Lansing, Michigan, who drove trucks for a living after the war for 44 years. “In seven years, I didn’t say one word to my wife about the sinking. She didn’t know nothing.” At first, the silence was something like an unwritten rule.
That was how the men coped at first. That is until the survivors started gathering for reunions. It was there that they began talking about their experiences, which made it easier to finally talk about them with their families. “That relieved a lot of pressure off a lot of people, including myself,” Thelan explained. “I think it’s very important for my family to know what happened. I’ve got five kids here, and grandkids—four generations will be here this weekend. This reunion has been the biggest thing for me, healing up.”
It’s also a story of appreciation. When 91-year-old Cleatus Lebow arrived at the Indianapolis airport from his home in Memphis, Texas, a few years ago, he was wheeled off the plane towards a cheering crowd organized by the USO. “I’ll bet you there were 3,000 people there, all clapping and waving flags,” he said, tearing up. “It was the best feeling I’ve ever had.”
Another survivor said, “This is the reception we didn’t get when we returned from the war.” One of the most honored guests at the 2015 reunion was Hunter Scott, the boy-turned-man who exonerated Captain McVay. It’s a story of community: “I’ve been coming to these reunions since I was ten years old,” Carol Burnside, the daughter of Chuck Gwinn, said. The survivors still call him an “angel.”
And it’s a story of faith. On the day of the reunion, as a memorial service for the deceased drew a close to the event, it was announced that Florian Stamm, a 91-year-old survivor from Wisconsin, died the night before in his nursing home. His 24-year-old grandson, Mitchell, who in college made a film about the survivors for a class project, placed a rose on the stage in his honor.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 16 million Americans served in World War II. Of those, about 497,000 are with us today. These folks are in our neighborhoods, at our grocery stores, and at family gatherings. But sadly, around 350 are dying every day. In a very short period of time, we will no longer be able to walk up to these gentlemen and shake their hands.
Here are some actual quotes from some of the survivors of the Indianapolis:
“When the sharks were around, I would pull my legs up as far as I could,” pilot Louis “Kayo,” Erwin recalled.
“The rescuers told me, ‘We picked you up last because we thought you were dead,” radioman Arthur “Art,” L. Leenerman said.
“They told us to go home and forget about it. These reunions helped me a lot, as far as talking about it,” Seaman Harold Bray recalled.
“When you think you could die at any moment, you don’t get used to anything,” Seaman Don McCall said.
“I didn’t talk about it, but no one ever asked me anything,” said Seaman Lyle Umenhoffer.
“We don’t ever go swimming, but give us a drink, and we’ll take it,” said Cleatus Lebow, a fire control man.
Paul Allen, who led the discovery of the sunken ship, passed away on October 15, 2018. Microsoft’s co-founder and son of a World War II veteran himself, Allen supported his research team that spent years looking for shipwrecks associated with the war. Other discoveries led by Allen include the U.S.S. Lexington and the world’s largest sunken battleship, the Musashi.
David Mearns was a marine scientist who worked with Allen, and he shared an email he wrote to National Geographic: “Paul’s interest in marine exploration and shipwrecks was very personal, which grew in part from his father’s service during WWII. But in pursuing his passion and curiosity, he also invited the world to join these exciting explorations through the computers he helped create. His important discoveries and illumination of naval history have ensured that the sacrifice of those who served is not forgotten.”
There’s no shortage of incredible survival stories when it comes to war, especially the Second World War. This is a story of survival against all the odds and one of the most extraordinary in military history. Little is known about the events surrounding the service of Commander Ian Forbes, the man who was sunk four times and lived through a brutal POW camp.
But after his collection of wartime medals went on sale, some never before heard information has been revealed. Just like Uncle Albert from “Only Fools and Horses,” Commander Forbes went down with nearly every ship he served on during World War II. He saw comrades get killed but managed to dodge the torpedoes, fire, and enemy aircraft.
The officer incredibly escaped shark-infested waters and even swam away from an uninhabited desert island to nearly be executed by natives on another. His life story reads like a thriller novel. He also witnessed the Allies’ worst naval disaster of the war: the sinking of HMS Hood. The sinking of HMS Hood saw the loss of 1,400 men by the German battleship Bismarck.
Forbes was eventually captured by the Japanese after his last ship was sunk in March of 1942. He then had to endure three years of hell at the hands of the guards. Like hundreds of other prisoners in POW camps, the Royal Navy officer was beaten, punished, and tortured. Somehow, he survived.
Immediately after the war, Forbes was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for such courage while serving on two of his previous ships. The former commander, however, died in 1992 at the age of 73. After his passing, his medal collection had been in the hands of a collector of gallantry medals. The collection was then sold at an auction.
David Erskine-Hill, an auctioneer in London, said, “The war at sea produced some extraordinary tales of survival, among them those of men who escaped unscathed from torpedoed ships on more than one occasion. But over 30 years as a specialist in medals, I have never heard of a man who survived the loss of four ships in such horrific circumstances, not to mention a close encounter with the Bismarck and the shocking trauma of three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.”
Ian Forbes entered the navy in 1933. By the time the war broke out, he was a sub-lieutenant on the escort vessel HMS Bittern. That ship was sunk off Norway in April of 1940, after being attacked by German planes. The survivors were then picked up by the destroyer HMS Janus. Forbes was promoted to lieutenant and joined the battleship HMS Prince of Wales.
That ship, alongside HMS Hood, was also attacked by the Bismarck in May of 1941. The Prince of Wales would have also sank had Captain Forbes not withdrawn from the battle after being hit by four shells with the loss of 13 men. The battleship was later relocated and sunk near Malaysia in December 1941 after an attack by Japanese bombers.
327 men were killed in action, while Forbes scrambled into a rubber dinghy and was rescued by a navy destroyer and finally taken to Singapore. Two months later, Forbes was on the very last ship to depart from the island during the Fall of Singapore. The man with good luck (or bad luck – it depends on how you see it), succumbed to another hit.
The river gunboat, HMS Grasshopper, was destroyed by a hit from a Japanese bomber and attacked by 30 fighter planes. In his official report, Forbes wrote: “I began to realize that I had a charmed life. For some reason, I changed position at the last minute a couple of paces to port. The bomb dropped. Where I had just been was riddled with large holes. I only got a small graze on my right forearm.”
The Grasshopper beached at Lingga Island in the South China Sea. Many of the men survived only to be bombarded in the water or on the beach when by enemy planes. Forbes was one of 24 survivors from that ship. He and a sailor swam to a neighboring island to find help.
He wrote in his report: ‘When I swam from the desert island on which we were beached to a neighboring island, which was inhabited, a Malay sailor volunteered to come with me and his astute handling of his fellow countrymen saved my life. On first meeting me, they were of a mind to put me to death. Through his intervention, they changed their minds and became most helpful.”
Forbes was later transferred to destroyer HMS Stronghold, which was involved in the battle of the Java Sea. The battle in which 2,300 Allied sailors were killed. Five minutes after jumping ship following a torpedo attack, in a life raft, he watched as another torpedo blew the vessel up. This time, he and other survivors were picked up by the Japanese.
Forbes had to spend the next three-and-a-half years in POW camps in East Asia. After the war, he became the British naval attaché to Sweden. He served in NATO before retiring to Dumfriesshire. Forbes, like many in the war, lived through unbelievable circumstances.
And it’s stories like these can san serve as reminders as to how precious life is. Hug your loved ones, folks!