USS Indianapolis: An Extraordinary Story of a Sunken Ship, Resolute Sailors and the Will to Survive

On August 18, a team of researchers led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen discovered the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis. The warship was torpedoed by the Japanese on July 30, 1945, and for 72 years its whereabouts remained a mystery. In 2016, Doug Stanton, author of In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors, told the harrowing tale of those who lived through the attack for Naval History Magazine. In light of the recent discovery of the ship's wreckage, Newsweek is reprinting Stanton's essay, with the author's permission.

Related: Shipwreck of USS Indianapolis found after 72 years

Fourteen minutes after midnight on July 30, 1945, two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine hit the USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Fires blazed, the ship took on water as she steamed ahead, men leaped overboard. The heavy cruiser capsized and sank quickly, in about 12 minutes.

Thus began the epic story of the survivors who battled the ocean, sharks and finally their own faltering minds—and each other—before a miraculous at-sea rescue. The last men were pulled from the water nearly five days after the ship went down. This is a story of ordinary men doing extraordinary things at the least likely, and at the most difficult, moment. It’s also the story of humble acts of heroism. And heroism, as I came to learn while talking with these men, is really a matter of doing the right thing even when no one is looking. Especially when no one is looking.

During an illustrious World War II career in which she earned 10 battle stars and served as the flagship of 5th Fleet commander Admiral Raymond Spruance, the Indianapolis had been the home of about 1,200 sailors. Shortly before her sinking, she had delivered a mysterious cargo—unknown to all but a few on board—to Tinian Island. It turned out to be some of the components of the atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” that the world would learn of on August 6, 1945 when it exploded over Hiroshima, Japan.

For the officers and sailors on board that fateful late-July night, it was hard to believe the 610-foot “Indy” was sinking so quickly. An estimated 300 men went down with the ship; close to 900 were cast into the Pacific, into one of the deepest parts of that ocean. There the sailors began their ordeal of floating and drifting for nearly five days; the furthest group would travel an estimated 124 miles. Of the men who abandoned ship, 317 would survive. (As I write this, 19 survivors remain; 124 were living in 2001 when In Harm’s Way was published.)

In the immediate aftermath of the sinking, the survivors thought they would be rescued quickly. After all, how could the naval command not know that one of its ships had been sunk? The Indianapolis was sailing a standard route; surely when she didn’t show up in the Philippines, her planned destination, someone would come looking for them. As it turned out, no one came. Because of a series of human errors and a flawed “check-in” system, the ship wasn’t missed when she didn’t arrive at Leyte.

Covered in fuel oil and pitched up and down by waves, the sailors suffered from dehydration, hypothermia, sun exposure, and shark attacks. As the hours and then days ticked by, many came to believe that their ordeal would last forever. Some were so thirsty they drank seawater; men began hallucinating that they were being attacked, and fights broke out. Others simply gave up.

By about the third day, some of the men reached a turning point, one of this nightmare’s many existential moments—moments that would shape the rest of their lives. They accepted the realization that they didn’t know if they would live or die. These sailors surrendered to this fact, but they didn’t give up; that’s an important distinction that became clear to me in talking with survivors. These struggling men vowed to fight for life until their lives ended.

Lieutenant Commander Lewis Haynes, the Indianapolis’s chief medical officer, took it upon himself to bury the dead. As the 33-year-old doctor from the small town of Manistee, Michigan, paddled around groups of men in their water-logged life vests, he would call out to the sailors” “Are you still with us?” If a man’s eyes were bloodshot and swollen, a sign of saltwater ingestion, and there was no reflex when the doctor tapped an eyeball, Haynes reluctantly would declare the sailor dead.

Some of the survivors didn’t have life vests, so the doctor moved quickly. He loosened the knotted straps of the dead sailor’s vest and removed his dog tags, which he wrapped around his own arm. Paddling behind the body, Haynes grasped the vest’s collar and with a gentle pull eased out the shoulders and then the arms. The corpse slid free.

In my book, I wrote about the stunning act of selflessness that the doctor performed next:

Haynes quickly tossed the vest aside and then snatched the body before it could sink.… He was determined not to let any corpse sink without first praying over it.…

Sometimes he made it to the end of the Lord’s Prayer, and sometimes he didn’t.… Often he was so spent that he could do nothing more than hold the dead boy and pray in silence, feeling, in his addled state, that he’d been an utter failure as a doctor.

He opened his arms and watched the body fall. It dropped for a long time, twirling feet first, like a man falling down a crystalline elevator shaft, getting smaller and smaller, no bigger than a doll when it finally disappeared.

Why, oh why, Haynes wondered, can’t I do anything to save these boys?

The doctor’s actions raised some critical questions for me. Who did Lewis Haynes think was watching as he carried out his duties while floating in an oceanic void? And why go on at all? What code didn’t allow him to give up? He told me that he was watching himself; other than that, the doctor felt utterly alone. He gently and reverently buried the dead because it had to be done.

I often wonder what I would’ve done had I been floating alongside Dr. Lewis Haynes. Would I think about how I was failing those around me? Under the extreme circumstances, it’s more likely I would’ve been trying to figure out how to save myself.

While Haynes, along with other sailors, did everything he could do to save his comrades, some were beyond help. These were the men who’d given up. They would untie their life vests and swim away from a group. Maybe they weren’t injured—but they believed their dire situation would never end. One of the survivors, Seaman First Class Edward Brown, remembered a buddy saying: “Ed, this is never gonna stop. I’m leaving.” Brown never saw him again.

Brown himself almost swam away, but stopped when he heard his father’s voice saying, “You’re Ed Brown, and you don’t quit.” Seaman Second Class Richard Thelen also heard a voice: “You’re Dick Thelen. You don’t give up.”

As I traveled around the country on a book tour for In Harm’s Way, I began learning how certain Indianapolis survivors had heard these voices—not necessarily the voice of God, but often that of someone who had fostered them and imparted an identity as person who doesn’t quit. At some point in the past, the individuals behind the voices had instilled in the sailors a sense of responsibility and self-worth. These hallucinatory voices that kept many of the young men from swimming away literally became lifelines back to the real world. And therein, for me, is the legacy of this story of these humble, heroic men.

When a reporter once asked me why I’d written In Harm’s Way, I paused and while standing in the doorway of my tiny office strewn with maps and transcripts of interviews of Indianapolis survivors looked out at my young children playing in the backyard. I told the reporter that I wondered if I’d ever spoken words of encouragement or fortitude to someone that would one day serve as that person’s lifeline back from an abyss. I admitted I didn’t know but hoped I had.

That’s the potential power of a single voice—a neighbor’s, a teacher’s, a parent’s, a friend’s. It can change you, make you feel as if you have a place in the world. Ultimately, the Indianapolis story is about selfless acts, large and small, and moreover the power of community to gather, collect, and bind us together, to call us back from the void when we need each other the most.

Simple words of encouragement subsequently saved many of the Indianapolis’ sailors during their ordeal in the summer of 1945, and those men took the lesson to heart. Similarly, questions each of us faces are: “What will I say to someone today or tomorrow that he or she might one day grab onto in time of need? How am I a lifeline for others?”

Doug Stanton is the New York Times best-selling author of In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers, which is the basis for a movie by the same name starring Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon, to be released in January 2018. Stanton’s new book, The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle to Survive the Vietnam War, will be published September 19. He previously wrote about the FBI’s counterterrorism squad.

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