In 1975, Jaws made a Great-White-sized splash in theaters across the country. One of the most infamous scenes took place during the boat outing where Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), Brody (Roy Scheider) and Quint (Robert Shaw) set out to locate and finish off the homicidal shark once and for all. A record-breaking 69 million Americans saw Jaws when it was first released, and not a single person bothered to question the scene where Quint relays the gripping, dark story of the USS Indianapolis. Although Hollywood got a few facts wrong, the macabre spirit of the event was dead-on. His re-telling of the worst shark attack in the history of the US Navy brings chills to every viewer to this day, and yet it is the rare person who realizes Quint is describing a real moment in American history:
“Very first light, chief. The sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups…the idea was, the shark comes to the nearest man, and that man, he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know, the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then, you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and hollerin’, they all come in and rip you to pieces.” (Jaws, 1975, Universal)
On July 30, 1945, shortly after midnight, a Japanese I-58 submarine commanded by Mochitsura Hashimoto, a young officer yearning for glory after years of unsuccessful missions, surfaced for a periscope check in the Pacific Ocean. It was a foggy, humid night, so heavy with clouds the men on deck of the nearby USS Indianapolis couldn’t even see their own hands in front of their faces and were forced to call out their names to identify one another. But as fate would have it, at the exact moment when Hashimoto scanned the area, the clouds parted, and there, glistening in the moonlight, was the USS Indianapolis, a Portland class heavy cruiser returning from a stop to offload sensitive cargo at the island of Tinian on July 26, 1945. With visions of returning home a war hero, Hashimoto claims to have immediately ordered down periscope and taken position to fire torpedoes. When he was later interviewed about the incident, he claimed to have fired 6 torpedoes at the American ship in a fan pattern, 2 of which struck home. But upon the Japanese submarine’s return to port, 2 of their 4 Kaitens were missing, and according to Navy officials close to the incident, those Kaitens have never been accounted for, even all these decades later.
A Kaiten – literally translated as “return to the sky” – was a manned torpedo used by the Imperial Japanese Navy. They were basically Type 93 torpedoes, which weighed 2.8 tons and were heavy warheads with long range and high speed capabilities, but modified to be guided by a human pilot. These suicide pilots were typically men between the ages of 18 and 26, and although there was honor in the Japanese culture to be a kaiten pilot, there was more to it than that. Families of young men acting as Kaiten pilots were given 10,000 yen upon the “successful” deaths of their sons. Although a Kaiten was capable of holding as many as four passengers, they were typically only manned by one man in action. After being launched from the submarine, the Kaiten pilot would steer to a suitable depth and head for their target. If they failed to make impact, the only option left to them was to simply drift away until either the pressure of the ocean crushed them or they suffocated from lack of oxygen.
Many say that on the night the USS Indianapolis – referred to by the crew as the Indy – was hit, Kaitens were used. The fact is, there were two simply gone from Hashimoto’s submarine, but although one could make the obvious assumption, it is impossible to ever know for sure. The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) was a Portland class heavy cruiser; her keel was laid in 1930, and on her final, historically-significant mission, she’d been in the water for fourteen years. She was 610 feet long, 9,800 long tons, and had an aircraft catapult amidships and two OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes. Although she was outfitted with a full complement of guns, including nine Mark 9 eight-inch 55-caliber guns, two QF 3-pounder Hotchkiss guns, and an upgrade of twelve Oerlikon 20mm cannons, she had no torpedo tubes, and she never had a chance to defend herself.
“Buddy, you could hear it – it was just a rumble, you just hear everything blasting. Underneath this deck, it was just like fireworks. You ever hear fireworks when they posh…posh…and, all of a sudden, pa, pa, pa! Everything was exploding. That concussion just ripped that ship from one end to the other. There were armor-piercing shells that were going off in there. Well, how in the world could that ship survive?” Richard Stevens, seaman, second-class, USS Indianapolis
When the second torpedo hit, ensign John Woolston was in the galley preparing what he describes as a masterpiece of a sandwich. He had just sat down to take his first bite when he felt the distinct, jarring rumble of attack and saw flames shoot through the ship’s hull far too close for comfort. Without hesitation, he abandoned his sandwich – an action he would come to regret – climbed atop a table, and shimmied through a porthole. To this day, he wonders how big the porthole was. Portholes vary in size from eight inches to just over two feet in diameter, and even at their largest would have been an incredibly tight squeeze for a grown man. Woolston’s one regret, he says today with longing in his voice, was that he never got that first bite of his sandwich. He thought about it almost endlessly in the coming days, and even now, decades past, you can hear the hungry wistfulness in his tone.
It was rapidly clear the ship could not be saved, and after just 8 minutes, the Indy’s captain, Charles McVay, ordered abandon ship. During those few minutes, sailors in the radio room were able to repeatedly transmit their SOS signal. The distress call was received by at least three stations: two of which flat-out ignored the calls, while the third briefly considered sending out a rescue boat. But when the on-duty officer ordered the tugboats to investigate, his quick and accurate thinking was countermanded by his immediate superior, who was convinced the SOS was a trick from the Japanese, luring American rescue crews to sea to be killed. And so, as the cruiser went down, rescue was never to come.
“I looked back and the ship stood right on end, and there must’ve been 300 sailors standing on her fantail, and it just went under.” Robert Gause, quartermaster first class, USS Indianapolis
Due to the stifling humidity and sweltering heat of the night, the ship had been sailing yoke modified to allow fresh air below deck. Zed was the most secure position, and would have meant all the doors and hatches were dogged, or closed. As a result of being yoke-modified, water rushed to fill the ship’s interior at an astounding and quite literally unstoppable rate. After the first torpedo hit, it took only a matter of seconds for water to breach the normally watertight compartments. Woolston, along with almost 900 of the 1, 196 men aboard, made it off the ship, while 300 of their crewmates were forever entombed within the sinking ship.
If there was one positive aspect of sinking in the Pacific Ocean, it was the water’s 80 degree temperatures, but it was no longer crystalline. When she was hit, the Indy immediately dumped her massive stores of oil and fuel into the ocean around her. Men diving off the ship were suddenly submerged and coated in a thick, viscous layer of oil, causing them to become instantaneously, violently, ill. Many of the men were already seriously burned and bleeding, some had lost limbs, and large quantities of blood began to seep into the oil slick. The inky black and murderous red water blotted out the moon’s reflection, and 12 minutes from the moment the first torpedo struck, the Indy vanished beneath the surface of the Pacific, forever lost to her watery grave.
Part Two: Nearly 900 sailors went into the Pacific, bloody, burned, and believing their SOS transmissions would result in immediate rescue. And when rescue failed to come, it wasn’t the risk of drowning or sunstroke that would pose the greatest threat to the wounded men’s lives. It was the sharks.
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