The USS Indianapolis and 10 days that changed history

The dates of July 30, August 2, August 6, and August 9th are places stamped together in time. It was a 10 day period that saw success in secrecy, horrible bloodshed, and ultimately the end of a war.  The year was 1945 and World War II was in the Allies favor, but not enough for either Germany or Japan to surrender. While the Third Reich was wearing thin, the absolute determination of Japan kept the Axis in the war.

The US was considering how to invade Japan to end the war. The military brass knew invading Japan would be costly in lives on both sides and were searching for an outside solution.  It would be the research yielded from Dr Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project that would ultimately produce a solution to an invasion of Japan and catapult the US, and the rest of the world, into the Atomic Age.

The USS Indianapolis was commissioned to deliver the first operational atomic bomb to the island of Tinian in the Pacific. She did so on July 26, 1945 and then reported to the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet in Guam for new orders. She was then ordered to join the USS Idaho in the Philippines and await the invasion of Japan.  According to Naval records, Captain Charles B McVay, III did not follow prescribed zigzagging that was to be done when visibility and information regarding enemy submarines required him to do so. A Court Martial performed in December 1945 believed that this decision left the Indianapolis exposed and led to the sinking of the ship by the Japanese submarine I-58.

When the Indianapolis sank, she had a crew of 1196 on board. Only 900 survived the blast to enter into the water. The ship sank around midnight on July 30, 1945 and according to survivor accounts, shark attacks began on the sailors the next morning. The accounts of the sailors that survived is well documented and more detailed than will be found in this writing. The Indianapolis sank in twelve minutes and without a distress call, thus no one knew she was gone. On August 2, 1945 Lt Wilber Gwinn was piloting his Lockheed PV-1 Ventura bomber on a routine mission when he discovered many men in the water. He communicated this to the commander of the USS Cecil Doyle come to aid of the ship and the navy dispatched a seaplane under the command of Lt. Adrian Marks.

Marks overflew the Doyle en route to the Indianapolis and arrived hours before the Doyle. Marks saw the carnage occurring with the sharks and, disobeying orders, landed the aircraft where he could to save the men until help could arrive. Marks had men packed in the cabin and even strapped to the wings to get men out of the water. In all, Marks rescued 56 men. Marks was a true Patriot and hero. He passed on March 15, 1998 at the age of 81.

Of the 900 men that went into the water midnight July 30, 1945, only 317 would come out of the water. The disaster is still the worst in naval history.

The Indianapolis’ payload delivered the bombs that would be dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Those bombs killed well over 100,000 Japanese and caused their surrender and ended World War II. While the US became the first country to use the atomic bomb and usher in a new era of weapons and war, there is little question that lives were saved in the use of the bomb. The dates of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have high visibility and publicity surrounding them and rightfully so. It was a terrible thing to have happened and should always be the reference point for any future considerations for the use of nuclear weapons. However, the story of the USS Indianapolis is every bit as terrible and tragic. She was in harm’s way to fulfill her mission that ended the war and Japan sank her with terrible repercussions.

It was 10 days that changed history.

 

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One response to “The USS Indianapolis and 10 days that changed history

  1. Many people do not know that the skipper of Indianapolis was unable to shake off the survivor guilt he felt over surviving while he lost so many of his men.

    Unable to deal with his feelings, he took his own life. The truth is, he was a good skipper because he strove to see that as many men as possible survived the disaster. He suffered much calumny from other ship drivers and became very morose.

    He was a good shipmate and a fine naval officer who delivered the goods and got the job done. I salute him.

    James W. Parks, Seaman, U.S. Navy

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