When the USS Indianapolis vanished beneath into the inky depths of the Pacific, she left nearly 900 members of the US Navy bobbing in the water. Burned, maimed, and even dismembered, the men were left scrambling for survival. However, the Indy had a woefully small number of lifeboats, so even if there was time to deploy them, there weren’t remotely enough for the sailors. There were also life rings, which were net-bottomed with solid floating exterior rings; men could cling to the edges while others sat inside. Ensign John Woolston found himself clinging to the edge of a life ring and the sailors worked together moving wounded and burned men into the center of the rings. Men were floating alone on whatever they could cling to, including crates of potatoes and chunks of the ship. Immediately following the ship’s sinking, many were confident of rescue, especially as word of the successful SOS signals spread. What they didn’t know was being coated in oil and left bloodied and battered in the ocean was the least of their worries.
It wasn’t long before the tantalizing scent of blood and the reverberating underwater shivers of the ship being crushed against the ocean floor began to draw the first sharks. The part of the Pacific where the Indy went down is infested with Oceanic White Tip sharks, predators with a dog-like habit of following passing ships for great distances. Most likely there were some immediately present after the attack, but the sounds and scents drew the group, called a shiver. White Tips have been noted up to 13 feet in length and weighing up to 370 pounds, making them medium-size in the shark world. They’re opportunistic predators with a propensity for furious feeding frenzies, partly because food tends to be rare in their deep parts of the ocean and partly due to their tendency towards aggressive outbursts. Noted explorer Jacques Cousteau once called them “the most dangerous of all sharks.” However, they are somewhat cautious, making it possible to fend them off, but they’re also high strung and stubborn and will wait for a chance to rush back in and devour their prey. The sailors of the Indy were floating dead center in the White Tip’s preferred hunting grounds.
“Finally, they attacked – they pulled guys right out of the water. We thrashed, tryin’ to keep ‘em away from us, but they came right into the group. Took the net and everything right up into the air. Tore guys’ limbs off. The water was bloody.” Gus Kay, seaman first-class, USS Indianapolis
Nearly 70 years later, John Woolston’s gaze becomes distant and unfocused, his mind’s eye taking him back to the horrors of the sea in a painful heartbeat. His voice trembles, then roughens, as he continues the tale of the most haunting days of his life. There is no sound, he tells me, like the sound of a man being torn apart by a shark, and the memory of the terrified screams of his fellow sailors as they experienced the unspeakable agony of being devoured by White Tip sharks echoes in his nightmares and his waking hours. He jumped into the Pacific wearing his gray uniform, which he feels served as a sort of camouflage against the sharks. But most of the sailors were in their skivvies, and their exposed skin and white shorts made them alluring beacons in the water. Survivors recall what appeared to be thousands of sharks constantly circling in the clear water directly below their dangling feet. And as the first day dawned, the sharks seemed mercifully satisfied tearing into the bodies of the dead. But it wasn’t long before they turned their voracious appetites to the living. An estimated 880 men made it off the Indy when she sank, only to be picked off by sharks at a rate of approximately 6 an hour.
First the sharks turned their flat, lifeless eyes to the sailors floating alone, letting the men know survival hinged on staying in groups. Men wearing life jackets attempted to huddle or tie themselves together, offering support to those without, while others gathered around life rings and rafts. The nightmare expanded as sharks grew bold enough to attack groups and in one case grabbed an ensign by the arm, dragging him underwater to drown him. As the sailor was twisted in circles and shaken viciously, he managed to reach up and dig his fingers into its flat, lifeless eye. The shark released him, and he floundered back to the life ring, immediately flinging himself up over the edge and onto the netting. But with his ruined arm pumping fresh, tantalizing blood into the ocean below, one of his fellow sailors pulled a knife and began stabbing at him, screaming for him to get off. Having no choice, he rolled off the netting, and it was only the quick thinking of a buddy who used his own shirt as a tourniquet that he survived the ordeal.
By day three, madness began to set in. Some sailors were sipping saltwater, either not caring about the risks or fooling themselves into believing it was safe. Their initial physical response to consuming ocean water was rapidly rising blood pressure and increased heart rate, causing excessive strain on their already strained-to-the-limit bodies. Headaches, nausea and vomiting caused what precious moisture they had left to be drained away until nothing was left. Prior to death, brain damage would set in.
The men who partook of the salty water around them eventually hallucinated. Some believed they could see the Indy – which had dropped down to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean at 36,201 feet, nearly 7 miles – and dove down to drink fresh water from its galleys. Some returned, claiming to be refreshed, encouraging more men to dive. But eventually, every man gulping salt water sank into madness. Some saw beautiful islands within swimming distance and swam, instead, into the maw of waiting sharks, while others began seeing “Japs” all around them and attacked one another. Fighting broke out as the delusional, dehydrated men surpassed their breaking points. And all the men, even those avoiding drinking the deadly water, were affected by the steady heat of the daytime sun and the sharp, glaring reflections cast off the water, which combined to create blinding photosensitivity, burning the sailor’s retinas. Dehydration came to every man along with its crippling side effects, but only the saltwater-drinkers sank into true insanity. Perhaps the second worst event, first being the shark attacks, was the way the saltwater-drinking sailors died. Grand mal seizures and foaming at the mouth occurred, often at great length, before the men finally succumbed to the results of their unquenchable thirsts.
Throughout it all, the ship’s doctor attempted to continue his work. The crew was so covered in oil they were unrecognizable, and he could’ve stayed hidden, but Dr. Lewis Haynes made his presence known immediately and began administering aid. On the ship, Dr. Haynes was known for his compassion and desire to help, but in the water and without supplies, he quickly became nothing but a coroner. He recounts swimming from group to group as the living called his name, tapping men’s eyes with his fingers. If their eyes stayed open and did not dilate or twitch, he pronounced them dead. He and nearby sailors would laboriously remove the kapok life jackets from the dead and pass them to the living and he would recite the Lord’s Prayer, every time, before pushing the bodies away, where they were devoured by waiting sharks. Hoping to bring some fragment of peace to the fallen men’s families, Dr. Haynes looped the dog tags of the dead over his left arm. And he swam, and swam, constantly moving, adding to his burden as he went. It was the second day the sheer volume of dog tags created such an incredible downward pull on his arm he could no long move through the water to reach the men calling him. His voice breaks as he recalls this, his lowest point of the ordeal, when he was forced to release the dog tags of the lost into the ocean to join the Indy. And to this day, he can neither recite nor hear the Lord’s Prayer without breaking down and crying.
Another problem the crew faced was their kapok life jackets. At first, they were life savers, allowing men to remain afloat despite horrific burns and injuries. But they were only rated for 48 to 72 hours in water. They were made of a vegetable matter called kapok, and the artificially inflated cells were not inherently buoyant like today’s foam life vests. On day two, the life jackets began to swell with saltwater, causing a strangling sensation and making knots in the ties often impossible to remove. By day three, every jacket was heavy with water, dragging the sailors down, and many couldn’t get them off. When rescuers arrived, many sailors could barely keep their chins tipped above the waves. The incident let the Navy know kapok had many problems, but it wasn’t until well after the war kapok was entirely done away with. One positive aspect of the jackets was the pocket at the center of the back. It allowed sailors to either pull men up into or onto objects, helped keep the injured afloat, and also allowed men without jackets to hold onto men with jackets. According to Dr. Haynes, the men were “very good” about helping one another immediately following the loss of the ship. They worked together to save one another and it was only the madness brought on by drinking saltwater that split them apart. And even then, the men retaining their sanity tried to help the sick. In the made-for-television movie “Mission of the Shark,” the men are depicted infighting from the start, but according to the accounts of multiple survivors, that was not the case.
When three days bled into four, those still in control of their mental faculties no doubt wondered where their rescuers were. The ship failed to arrive at her scheduled destination at 11am the very first day, and now it was day four and no one appeared to even be looking for them. In fact, on Leyte, the island they were scheduled to make port at, Lieutenant Stuart Gibson, who was the operations director, knew by sundown that first day the Indy hadn’t arrived. But because there was, unbelievably, no process for a non-combatant ship‘s non-arrival, he didn’t report the ship’s lack of arrival to his superiors. Nine hours after the ship’s non-arrival, the next day’s Expected Arrivals and Departures list was prepared, and because the Indianapolis had failed to appear as scheduled, she was simply added to the new list of expected arrivals. As a result, it wasn’t until the crew’s fourth day in the water that fate finally deigned to intervene.
Part Three: Fate or luck? The Angel of the Sky and The Angel in the Water begin the rescue of the sailors still afloat in the Pacific. Dehydrated and hallucinating, the men fight their own rescue.
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