Military Life

USS Indianapolis, Part 3: The Angels of the Sky and Water

As day four dawned for the sailors of the Indy, hope was quickly fading. Watching their friends being devoured alive by the frenzied sharks and even witnessing fights as hallucinating sailors turned on one another, it was no wonder despair was sinking in. And so, perhaps it was divine intervention, maybe it was luck, but late morning that fourth day, American pilot Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn was flying his PV-1 Ventura Bomber when he had trouble with an aerial antenna. Handing control over to his copilot, Gwinn moved to the back of the plane to attempt to fix the equipment. According to Dr. Haynes, Gwinn said his neck got sore hunching over the antenna, so he stretched out in the blister, looked down, and happened to focus his eyes on the water below at just the right moment.

A Horrific Sight

Seeing what he later described as a big black smudge in the water, Gwinn assumed a Japanese submarine was disabled in the ocean below. Excited to finish it off, he took the controls and circled around to drop his bombs on the imagined sub. But as they drew nearer, he realized there were a large number of men bobbing lifelessly in the water. Waggling his plane’s wings to let the men below know he saw them, Gwinn radioed ahead to alert his base on the island of Peleliu. In a stroke of asinine bureaucratic idiocy, the Navy wasted three hours denying there could possibly be a ship’s crew floating in the ocean. Three hours before they ordered rescue be sent. Gwinn dropped what life jackets and canisters of water he had to the survivors, but according to Dr. Haynes the canisters ruptured on impact.

Rather than immediately sending a rescue crew, the Navy ordered a single airplane to do recon. A PBY5A (Patrol Bomber, Y is a manufacturer code) Catalina Seaplane piloted by Lieutenant Adrian Marks took off from the island of Peleliu in search of the disaster site. Marks was under strict orders to look and report only, but when he arrived at the scene, what he saw made him decide to ignore those orders. As he flew overhead, he witnessed a shark attack. According to his daughter, Joan, with whom he shared his story at great length and down to minute details, Marks was gripped with horror as he watched a White Tip shark savagely attack and devour a screaming sailor alive. So he went against standing orders not to land or become actively involved, and turned to land his PBY on the water.

It was a tricky landing due to the chop of the water, but he managed it by landing in a power-on stall with the tail down and the nose up. Marks remembers rivets popping out of the PBY’s hull from the sheer force of the landing, but he did it. At first he headed for the groups of men, but then he realized there were individuals floating alone all over. Understanding sailors on their own were at far greater risk of being mauled and eaten, Marks taxied the seaplane along while his flight crew pulled sailors aboard. Marks’ heroic actions are all the more astounding when you realize that until one of the oil-covered survivors uttered the word “Indianapolis,” he didn’t know who he was putting himself at risk to help. It could have been, quite literally, anyone, and we were a nation at war.

NEW Garmont AR670-1 & AFI 36-2903 Compliant Boot NEW Garmont AR670-1 & AFI 36-2903 Compliant Boot

Saving Men Straight From the Ocean

John Woolston speaks of how the flight crewmember lifting men out of the water was a “short fire-plug of a man” and Italian by descent. In fact, as fate would have it, the man who lifted the sailors out of the water had been a wrestler in high school and continued his body-building to that day. He was the best possible choice for a man to pull dozens of other men out of the water, and he just happened to be aboard Adrian Marks’ PBY. At one point, as the plane taxied towards a man floating alone, the rescuers realized they did not have enough time to make another pass. If they missed him on their first attempt and were forced to circle around, it was clear he would either succumb to the inky depths or be ripped apart by the circling sharks. The Italian reached down into the water as the plane moved by with surprising speed, grabbed the sailor under his arms, and flung him up into the air, over his own head, and into the belly of the plane.

Adrian Marks later described it as if you were standing on a chair and had to reach down to the floor to pick someone up who was absolute dead weight – while the chair moved away and the man fought his own rescue. Many of the sailors in the water were past the point of delirium and thought their rescuers were Japanese or could not comprehend what was happening at all, and as a result they fought wildly. Kicking, screaming, and clawing, trying to swim away and doing everything possible to avoid rescue, many men had to be forcibly wrestled into the plane. John Woolston was one of the men rescued by pilot Adrian Marks, and he remembers the moment the plane taxied by and he was jerked up out of the water with what he recounts as herculean strength.
To the crew of the Indy, Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn was their Angel of the Sky and Adrian Marks was their Angel in the Water. Knowing full well he could be spotted by the enemy, Marks turned his lights on to enable distant approaching ships to locate them more quickly as he stacked the men, he described, “like cordwood”. When he ran out of room inside the plane, he couldn’t bring himself to stop. He began wrapping men in the silk parachutes on board and tying them to the fabric-covered wings of the plane to stop them from sliding off. He used every available surface, and when he finally had no choice but to stop, he had rescued 56 men.

One of the most amazing moments of the rescue, according to Marks, was the dehydrated sailors’ reactions while being given sips of water. There was nowhere near enough water on the PBY to give the men more than a tiny portion each, and Marks and his crew crawled from man to man, doling out tiny sips of their precious clean water stores. Not only did none of the men ever ask for extra water, but they spoke up if a crew member lost track and tried to give them a sip meant for another sailor. Marks had never before seen such loyalty and honor. Despite what had to be body-wracking pain and hellish misery from four days in the saltwater, the survivors of the Indy displayed loyalty to their fellow sailors above all else.

Help From the USS Cecil Doyle

The nearest ship was the USS Cecil Doyle (DD-368), a John C. Butler-class destroyer escort, far smaller than the lost Indianapolis at just 306 feet in length and 1,305 tons. She was a fairly new ship, her keel laid in May of 1944, and her commanding officer, Captain W. Graham Claytor, Junior, ordered her run at full speed to the coordinates relayed to him by pilot Adrian Marks: 11°30’N., 133°30’E. Captain Claytor made this decision of his own accord in response to Marks’ call for help, saving countless lives: The US Navy’s three-hour delay in ordering rescue was still dragging on when Claytor altered his ship’s course. The Doyle arrived hours after Marks’ PBY. Had Marks failed to land and take men on board, ensign John Woolston may not have survived to tell his story.

Upon her arrival, the Doyle began to approach Marks’ PBY in the darkness, but was forced to halt some distance away to avoid injuring or killing sailors in the water. World War 2 was underway, although nearing its end – thanks to the Indianapolis – and enemy ships and planes could have appeared from any direction. Despite that reality, and at significant danger to himself, Captain Claytor turned on the Doyle’s massive spotlight, in part to guide coming rescuers, but also, he said, to offer hope to the men floating in the water. For many, the appearance of the ship’s spotlight was their first hope and knowledge of rescue. The Doyle pulled 93 survivors out of the water and gave final rites to 21 dead sailors. She was the first ship to arrive on August 2, 1945, and the last to leave the scene on August 8, 1945, after days spent searching the Pacific for sailors. If not for Gwinn, the Angel of the Sky; Marks, the Angel in the Water; Claytor, the Doyle, and their crews, who knows if any men would’ve had the strength or will to survive another day. Because even though rescue first arrived August 2, 1945, it took days of searching miles of water to locate the Indy’s men. And for one man, the nightmare not only wasn’t over, but wouldn’t end for years.

Part Four: The secret cargo carried by the USS Indianapolis and its vital role in ending World War 2. And as the survivors try to return to some semblance of normalcy, the US Navy looks for someone to blame.


NEW Garmont AR670-1 & AFI 36-2903 Compliant Boot NEW Garmont AR670-1 & AFI 36-2903 Compliant Boot

Related Articles

Back to top button