On the night of July 30, 1945, at the end of World War II, the USS Indianapolis was hit by two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine. Just 12 minutes later, the entire Portland-class cruiser sank below the surface and into the depths of the Pacific Ocean. The USS Indianapolis had a crew of nearly 1,200 men — sailors and Marines. Five days later, after relentless shark attacks, drowning, exposure, salt water induced hallucinations and dehydration, when the last of men were pulled out of the water, there were only 317 survivors. It was the deadliest incident in the history of the United States Navy.
“To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling,” said Paul Allen, the philanthropist and entrepreneur who led the civilian expedition that discovered the WWII ship. “As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence, and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances. While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming.”
The USS Indianapolis‘ fateful story is famous due to its complexity and tragedy. Days before it was sunk, the ship sailed to the island of Tinian on a secret mission carrying components including enriched uranium for “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb which would be dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The Indianapolis was on its way from Guam to Leyte when it was struck just after midnight by two Japanese torpedoes. Approximately 300 men went down with the ship, leaving 900 without water or supplies to battle the elements, daily shark attacks, and fatigue. Since the ship went down so quickly, they were unable to communicate their distress with anyone in time.
It was only by accident that they were discovered four days later by a pilot doing a routine patrol. Planes and ships immediately went to their aid, but it took rescuers into the fifth day to pull the last of the survivors out of the water.
With the ship sunk and almost 900 brave men lost at sea, there have been multiple efforts in the past to locate the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis, but none of those were successful. Thanks to new research, however, Allen’s 13-person expedition crew was able to locate the Indianapolis with the Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel. According to a statement by the Navy, the “USS Indianapolis remains the property of the U.S. Navy and its location will remain confidential and restricted by the Navy.”
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The expedition crew is still working on a full survey of the wreckage and is “respecting the sunken ship as a war grave and not disturbing the site,” according to the Navy. “The crew of the R/V Petrel has collaborated with Navy authorities throughout its search operations and will continue to work on plans to honor the 22 crew members still alive today, as well as the families of all those who served on the highly decorated cruiser.”
The Navy also said that the Petrel crew will conduct a live tour of the site in the coming weeks.
For the families of all those brave men who died in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, as well as the few remaining survivors, the discovery should hopefully give some closure. Family and friends can finally know for certain where their loved ones are resting at sea.
Thanks to the efforts of civilians like Paul Allen, the expedition crew of the Petrel, and historian Richard Hulver at the Naval History and Heritage Command — who used historical accounts to map out a new search area, leading to the discovery — the USS Indianapolis and its tragic history can be laid rest with honor, respect, and resolution.
In the video below, listen to survivors of the USS Indianapolis talk about their harrowing experience and what they endured to stay alive.
Then click to the next page to read about other historic shipwrecks.
Jacob H. is an award-winning journalist and photojournalist who currently resides is West Michigan with his wife. In his spare time, Jacob enjoys writing, photography, mountain climbing, and camping.