Remembering America's Worst Naval Disaster | Opinion

It took a movie about a shark terrorizing a New England town in the summer of 1975 for millions of Americans to discover the story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the worst disaster in U.S. naval history.

It was the night scene in Jaws in the cabin of the Orca, as the intrepid shark hunters used the down time to drink booze and swap fish stories. It's a scene anyone not living under a rock for the past half-century has seen, and it's worth sharing before telling, as Paul Harvey loved to say, the rest of the story of that fateful day back in late July of 1945.

In the cabin, sharing those fish stories, was the town cop played by Roy Scheider, the new age shark hunter played by Richard Dreyfuss and the old-school sea captain named Quint played by Robert Shaw The scene begins with some laughs, but when Quint tells the guys he'd been a crew member of the USS Indianapolis, everything turned somber. He proceeded to tell the boys one of the wildest fish stories of all time:

Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer. You know how you know that when you're in the water, chief? You tell by lookin' from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn't know...was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn't even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, chief, sharks come cruisin'. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. Y'know, it's...kinda like ol' squares in a battle like, uh, you see in a calendar, like the Battle of Waterloo, and the idea was, shark comes to the nearest man and that man, he'd start poundin' and hollerin' and screamin', and sometimes the shark'd go away... sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. Y'know the thing about a shark, he's got...lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'...until he bites ya. And those black eyes roll over white, and then...oh, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin', the ocean turns red, and spite of all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and they...rip you to pieces.

There was a long pause, as the crew—and movie audiences across America—caught their breath. Quint continued:

Y'know, by the end of that first dawn...lost a hundred men. I dunno how many sharks. Maybe a thousand. I dunno how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin', chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland—baseball player, boatswain's mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up...bobbed up and down in the water just like a kinda top. Upended. Well...he'd been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, a young Lockheed Ventura pilot swung in low and he saw us, and three hours later, a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. That was the time I was most frightened, waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a life jacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water, three hundred sixteen men come out, and the sharks took the rest.

I was a teenager when I saw that scene, and I was not unfamiliar with the costs of war. My mother's only brother volunteered to join the Army in 1944. He never came home. He's buried in a gravesite in St. Laurent, France.

The next day, I went to my local library, and started reading up. Remarkably, the scene was accurate in almost all aspects. It turns out the USS Indianapolis was no stranger to adversity. The ship, commissioned in 1930, was struck by a kamikaze attack during the Battle of Okinawa. The ship was sent back to California for an overhaul, and was soon at sea again—this time on a top-secret mission transporting critical components of the atomic bomb to Tinian Island, 1,500 miles from Japan. The uranium on the ship was nearly half of the total U.S. supply.

The crew was unaware of the nature of the cargo, or its intended use. But the commanding officers knew something urgent was happening. They were under direct orders from President Truman that "the ship was not to be diverted from its mission for any reason."

"What the hell was on the ship?" an officers on board wondered, according to Dean Kurzman in his bestseller, Fatal Voyage. A week later, the world would know the answer. The Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on a city that was until then pretty much unknown: Hiroshima.

USS Indianapolis
USS Indianapolis US Navy/Interim Archives/Getty Images

After completing its mission, the Indianapolis headed back to sea. "Shortly after midnight on July 30, halfway between Guam and Leyte Gulf, a Japanese I-58 submarine blasted the unescorted Indianapolis, sparking an explosion that split the ship and caused it to sink in 12 minutes, with 300 men trapped inside," according to History.com.

The 900 crew members not trapped in the wreckage found themselves in the water. Some men had life jackets. Many didn't. Many men were injured, some with broken bones, others with severe burns and lacerations.

One of those men—a real-life Quint—was Corporal Edgar Harrell, a 20-year-old Marine. "Harrell found himself in a group of 80 men that first night, including another Marine, badly injured," wrote Diana Penner of the Indianapolis Star. Harrell held the man as long as he could, doing his best to keep his head above water. "He basically died with me holding onto him," Harrell said.

Then came the sharks. "The men were bobbing in the water, trying to pack together, and fins would appear around them," Harrell recalled. "But inevitably, a man would get separated from the group and float off. And then you hear a blood-curdling scream, and then the body would go under, and then that life vest popped back up."

As hours turned into days, Harrell described what he witnessed:

Tongues swelled, lips split open and salt caked their eyes and faces as the briny ocean water dried in the sun. In desperation, some men drank the salty water, and those who resisted the impulse soon saw what happened to the brains of those who relented. It took only about an hour before the hallucinations began for those men. Terrifying, final hallucinations.

By day three, only 17 of the original 80 men with Harrell remained alive. On day four, a bomber pilot on an anti-submarine patrol spotted the men in the water, and they were soon hauled off to hospitals to recuperate.

Of the 1,196 crew members on board the Indianapolis, only 316 survived. News of the tragedy wasn't released until August 15, V-J Day.

Questions remain about why the rescue took so long. Some argued that no distress signal was sent. Others that it was fear that the messages were originated by the Japanese in an attempt to ambush rescue ships. Others still that communications lagged because of the top-secret status of the ship's mission.

The answer is still unclear. But one thing is certain: The sinking of the Indianapolis was not just the worst naval disaster in American history. It was the worst mass shark attack in history. And that's no fish tale.

In his autobiography, Farrell tells the world his story, and it can be found at IndySurvivor.com. On the website is a piece of Scripture—Psalms 130: 1-2—he thought was worth sharing, and is worth ending this story with, too.

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.

Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Remembering America's Worst Naval Disaster | Opinion | Opinion