SOS Indianapolis: Behind the sinking of the heavy cruiser, part 1
June 25, 2022
It took a sailor, a schoolboy and survivors more than half a century to disperse the cloud hanging over the sinking of the heavy cruiser.
July 30, 1955, marked the 10th anniversary of the worst disaster in American naval history – the sinking of USS Indianapolis. That Saturday retired salesman and World War II Navy veteran Clair Young was at home in Southern California reading a day-old Los Angeles Times article that related how men in the heavy cruiser's Radio Room 2 knew an SOS message had gone out following the vessel's torpedoing by a Japanese submarine, but they believed no one had received it. A week later, on Aug. 6, 1955, a piece in the Saturday Evening Post stated unequivocally no SOS had been received.
Young knew better. On that fateful night a decade earlier he'd been a young radioman assigned to the sprawling U.S. Navy facilities at Tacloban, on the Philippine island of Leyte. He had personally delivered a copy of the cruiser's SOS message to his commanding officer. What happened in the hours, days and years that followed is a story of unimaginable fear, tragedy and betrayal – yet it is also one of redemption.
Launched in 1931, Indianapolis saw extensive combat in several World War II campaigns, including providing naval gunfire support for the landings on Tarawa, the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Damaged by a Japanese bomb during the latter operation, the cruiser underwent repairs in California. On completion of the work Indianapolis was tasked with a secret mission of paramount importance. On July 26, 1945, the warship delivered key components of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima, to Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands. The nature of the materials was unknown to the cruiser's crew and even to its commander, Capt. Charles B. McVay III. Its delivery mission completed, Indianapolis sailed to Guam and then got underway for the Philippines.
Shortly after midnight on July 30 two out of six Type 95 torpedoes fired by the Japanese submarine I-58 slammed into the cruiser's starboard side. Fatally damaged, Indianapolis went down within 12 minutes. During that brief window McVay ordered Radio Room 1 to dispatch an SOS. His command could not be executed, however, because Radio 1 was damaged and none of its equipment worked. In Radio 2 Chief Warrant Officer Leonard Woods was busy pounding out a distress signal. He stayed as long as he could, urging the younger radiomen to grab life jackets and abandon ship. Woods went down with the ship.
Of the 1,195 men aboard Indianapolis fewer than 900 made it into the water. Many of those who did were suffering from third-degree burns, in excruciating pain and would not survive the night. Stories abound of sailors trying to help injured shipmates whose pain was magnified by the exposure of their broken bones and seared skin to salt water.
By the end of the first day the unimaginable occurred – the arrival of packs of sharks. At first survivors tried gathering in protective groups. The predators picked off any lone swimmers flailing in the water. Men in the vicinity of a victim would hear a bloodcurdling scream, then he was gone. The sharks – believed to be mainly oceanic whitetips – killed an estimated 50 crewmen a day.
After a few days in the water survivors started hallucinating. Some were convinced they could see islands in the distance and swam toward them, never to return. Others thought the ship was beneath them, full of food and water. They unbuckled their life jackets and sank to their deaths. Others couldn't resist the temptation to drink seawater, believing they could filter out the salt through their fingers. They, too, soon succumbed.
Those Indianapolis crewmen who managed to survive the sharks, sunstroke, dehydration and delusions were saved by a simple twist of fate.
Flying over the vicinity of the wreck in a PV-1 Ventura patrol bomber on the morning of August 2, Navy Lt. j.g. Wilbur Gwinn happened to be in the underbelly of the plane, trying to tie down a loose antenna, when he spotted a miles-long oil slick in the ocean below. The crew had received no reports of any distressed American vessels in the area, so Gwinn and crew assumed the oil was from a stricken Japanese submarine and prepared to release a string of depth charges on the slick. As the Ventura began its run, however, crewmen noticed irregular bumps on the otherwise smooth surface of the ocean. Wanting a closer look, Gwinn took the aircraft down to 300 feet. Startled by the sight of groups of men clinging together down the length of the slick, he radioed an urgent request for rescue ships and planes.
At Peleliu Airfield in the Palau Islands Lt. Adrian Marks and his crew received orders to take their PBY-5A Catalina flying boat – call sign Playmate 2 – to the coordinates provided by Gwinn. En route Marks flew over the destroyer escort USS Cecil J. Doyle and radioed its captain, Lt. Cmdr. W. Graham Claytor Jr., that his ship would probably be rerouted to the rescue scene. Claytor concurred and on his own initiative set a course for the area.
The PBY flew on. When it reached the scene – some 280 miles north of Peleliu – its crew was stunned to find hundreds of men in the water. Marks took Playmate 2 down, and as the flying boat passed over the survivors, the crew tossed out every bit of rescue gear the plane carried. Knowing the few rafts would not accommodate all the survivors, Marks disobeyed standing orders not to land in the open ocean. Carefully maneuvering through the oil-covered swells, the PBY picked up more than 50 men. With no room left in the seaplane's interior, Marks ordered additional survivors bound to the PBY's wings mummy-style in parachutes. Obviously unable to take off, the aircraft and the men aboard it could only wait for rescue ships.
It was just before midnight when the first vessel, the destroyer escort Doyle, arrived. Despite the very real risk of submarine attack, Claytor ordered the ship's searchlights turned on to let the men in the water know help was at hand and make them easier to locate. As his crew brought aboard survivors, Claytor asked them their ship's name and was shocked by the response. His cousin Louise was married to Indianapolis' captain, McVay.
Doyle and six other ships ultimately pulled from the water 316 Indianapolis survivors out of the original crew of 1,195. Two rescued sailors later died.
See part 2 in an future issue of The Loop newspaper. This article was previously posted on http://www.historynet.com/sos-indianapolis-behind-the-sinking-of-the-heavy-cruiser/ and is being published with permission from the author, Marty Pay. California-based Marty Pay is an insurance broker and military history buff. In addition to the books mentioned in the story, for further reading he recommends "In Harm's Way" by Doug Stanton; "Left for Dead" by Pete Nelson; and "Indianapolis" by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. All three mention Clair Young's story in the absence of corroborating witnesses or Navy records.