The Tragedy of the USS Indianapolis: The Worst Shark Attack in History

Last updated on March 25th, 2023 at 06:45 pm

In 1945, World War II was still raging in the Pacific. Though Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 8 and the Italians on April 29, Japan still fought in the Pacific Theater. It was a brutal effort that tested the mettle of ordinary soldiers. 

The Americans wanted a quick end to the war, and they finally created a bomb that they believed would do it. This weapon was so top secret that it had to be assembled on Tinian Island in the Marianas.

Some of the uranium was transported by plane, but some were transported aboard ships like the USS Indianapolis. 

The mission of the USS Indianapolis on July 26 was to deliver a vital component of the bomb to Tinian, which it accomplished. By July 28, they had a new mission: to join the USS Idaho in the Philippines to prepare for an invasion of Japan. 

The ship traveled unescorted on July 30 in the Philippine Sea at 17 knots per hour. Then, just after midnight, two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine hit the ship and effectively ripped the Indianapolis in two. In 12 minutes, the ship sank to the bottom of the sea, taking 300 men down with her. 

For the remaining 879 men still alive in the water, it was only the beginning of a brutal fight for survival in the open sea. The event would be known as the worst shark attack in history. 

USS Indianapolis

Water, Water Everywhere

When daylight came, the survivors assessed their situation. Oil and blood colored the water, and there were too few lifeboats for 879 men. 

Some didn’t even have life vests. They were forced to take the vests of the dead, which had begun floating around them. 

They were in open water, surrounded by the scent of blood and the dead, in an area where dangerous sharks were known to thrive. The men knew they had to organize themselves to survive. Many scrambled to gather those who were floating in the waters.

The Philippines has one of the highest shark diversities in the world, with more than 200 species living in its waters. Of the species found in these waters, white-tipped sharks are the most aggressive, along with tiger sharks and bull sharks. 

White-tipped sharks often attack prey near the water’s surface and are easily excited by the smell of blood. Tiger sharks and bull sharks are apex predators and will eat anything. Once the scent of blood is upon them, they attack.

It was only a matter of time before the men realized that the explosions, their thrashing on the surface, and the scent of blood had attracted sharks.

They Came for the Dead First

The sharks first came for the dead. For a time, many survivors were thankful that the animals focused on the floating corpses instead of them. However, since there were few lifeboats, many had to stay afloat and bob on the surface, holding on to the edge of their life rafts. 

The survivors knew that their only chance was to stay in large groups. Many of them had wounds and were covered in oil, with sharks circling just below their feet. They were waiting for anyone to show signs of weakness, and then they would attack. 

But the sharks were only one of their problems. They had no food, water, or way to treat their wounded. Soon, many succumbed to exposure and thirst, and many began to experience hallucinations.

These hallucinations made the men let go of the life rafts. Once a man was separated from the group, the sharks would attack and go on a feeding frenzy. 

The men watched helplessly as their friends were dragged down into the deep, and in a few minutes, only the life vest would float on the bloody waters.

Waiting for Rescue

As the men slowly saw their numbers dwindle due to dehydration, exhaustion, exposure, and constant shark attacks, they were still hopefully waiting for the Navy to rescue them. 

The men who had gone down with the Indianapolis radioed several SOS messages until the very end. But, unfortunately, the Navy did not take these messages seriously. 

The Navy also intercepted a Japanese radio message that reported the sinking of the Indianapolis. But they thought it was a trap. 

Some commanders also assumed that the Indianapolis arrived on July 31 in Leyte Gulf even though they had not received reports of the ship’s arrival. Consequently, they did not even send search parties or even attempt to contact the ship. 

This meant that the survivors had to watch many of their friends slowly lose their lives. Once they realized one of them had died, they would push the body away because the scent of decay often attracted the sharks. 

For a while, the sharks were focused on the corpses. This gave the men some reprieve, but it did not last long. Because once the sharks tasted blood, a feeding frenzy would ensue, and many of them started to attack anyone floating on the water.  

At first, some of the men thought the sharks were only testing to see if they were still alive. A shark would swim up to them and slightly touch a part of their body in the water. It wouldn’t attack but only nudge them and swim away. 

But then it would swim back at full speed and start to attack. Then, the cycle would start once again: the man would be pulled down, followed by thrashing, the water would turn red with blood, and more sharks would come near for a feeding frenzy.  

As their numbers diminished, it seemed like a nightmare that would not end. 

Salvation, Finally

On August 2, 1945, a Navy plane on a routine patrol flight saw men floating in the area. Lt. Wilbur Gwinn quickly radioed for an immediate emergency rescue. He also dropped a life raft and radio transmitter. 

The first to arrive was a seaplane under Lt. Commander Adrian Marks. He dropped two more life rafts and supplies. 

But when he saw the state of the men and the threat of the sharks, he landed his seaplane and decided to take as many of the men as he could. That day, he would save 56 men from shark attacks.

However, with more than 50 men hanging on the wings and sides, his plane became too heavy to fly. As night fell, the destroyer USS Cecil J. Doyle rescued 93 survivors and lit up its searchlights to give hope to those who were still floating in the area. 

Six other ships arrived and picked up the remaining survivors, but Lt. Comm. Marks’s plane had sunk because it was too damaged from staying too long in the water. 

Of the 879 men who originally survived the sinking of the Indianapolis, only 316 were left after their four-day ordeal in shark-infested waters. 

Many suffered from wounds, hypothermia, dehydration, and delirium. Of those who were saved, two later died due to exposure and other complications.

The Blame Game 

Many in the Navy were outraged by what happened to the men of the USS Indianapolis. But given the nature of their mission, those connected with the Indianapolis could only partially explain what had happened.

The US government kept the incident under wraps for two weeks, at least until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Then, they only released the report to the public on August 11. 

But the public demanded answers, and the Navy wanted someone to blame for their incompetence. 

So, they court-marshaled the Captain of the Indianapolis, Charles McVay. He was cited for his failure to run the ship in a zigzagging manner to avoid the detection of Japanese submarines.

However, many of the navy men’s families did not blame McVay for the incident. And even the Japanese captain of the submarine said it would have been impossible for McVay to avoid the torpedoes even if he moved the ship in a zigzagging motion.

But others blamed him for the loss of his men. And in 1968, unable to bear the guilt the Navy placed on his shoulders, McVay committed suicide in his home. He was 70 years old. 

The Memory Remains 

Many survivors of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis have shared their stories over the years. They continue to do so to remember the lives of the men who were lost with the Indianapolis.

In 2017, the remains of the USS Indianapolis were found at a depth of 18,000 feet in the Philippine Sea. When the news was released, many of the remaining survivors recalled their experience, and many of the remaining relatives of those who were lost gave voice to their loved ones. 

Though people acknowledge that it was one of the worst shark attacks in history, they knew that war was the bigger tragedy that caused the unnecessary loss of lives on July 30, 1945.


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