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USS Indianapolis (CA-35) was a of the United States Navy. She holds a place in history due to the circumstances of her sinking, which led to the greatest single loss of life at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy.

After delivering critical parts for the first atomic bomb to the United Statesmarker air base at Tinianmarker on 26 July 1945, she was in the Philippine Seamarker when attacked at 0014 on 30 July 1945 by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58. The ship sank in 12 minutes. Of 1,196 crew aboard, approximately 300 went down with the ship. The remaining crew of about 900 faced exposure, dehydration and shark attacks as they waited for assistance while floating in shark-infested waters with no lifeboats and almost no food or water. The ship was not listed overdue and the survivors were spotted by accident four days later. There were only 317 survivors. Indianapolis was one of the last US Navy ships sunk by enemy action in World War II. (USS Bullhead was attacked by Japanese aircraft with depth charges and probably sunk on 6 August 1945.)

The second ship named for Indianapolis, Indianamarker, she was laid down on 31 March 1930 by New York Shipbuildingmarker, Camden, New Jerseymarker; launched on 7 November 1931; sponsored by Miss Lucy Taggart, daughter of the late Senator Thomas Taggart, a former mayor of Indianapolis; and commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yardmarker on 15 November 1932, Captain John M. Smeallie in command.

Inter-war period

Following shakedown in the Atlanticmarker and Guantánamo Bay until 23 February 1932, Indianapolis trained in the Panama Canal Zonemarker and in the Pacific off the Chileanmarker coast. After overhaul at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the heavy cruiser sailed to Mainemarker to embark President Franklin Roosevelt at Campobello Islandmarker, in the Canadian province of New Brunswickmarker, on 1 July 1933. Getting underway the same day, Indianapolis arrived at Annapolis, Marylandmarker two days later where she entertained six members of the cabinet. After disembarking the President, she departed Annapolis on 4 July, and returned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Indianapolis acted as flagship for the remainder of her peacetime career, and again welcomed President Roosevelt at Charleston, South Carolinamarker, on 18 November 1936 for a "Good-Neighbor" cruise to South America. After carrying President Roosevelt to Rio de Janeiromarker, Buenos Airesmarker, and Montevideomarker for state visits, she returned to Charleston on 15 December where the presidential party left the ship.

World War II

Indianapolis was making a simulated bombardment of Johnston Islandmarker when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbormarker. Afterwards, she joined Task Force 12 (TF 12) and searched for Japanese carriers reportedly still in the vicinity.


Her first action came in the South Pacific, deep in Japanese-dominated waters about south of Rabaulmarker, New Britainmarker. Late in the afternoon of 20 February 1942, the American ships were attacked by 18 twin-engine bombers, flying in two waves. In the battle that followed, 16 of the planes were shot down by anti-aircraft fire of the ships and fighter planes from . All ships escaped damage, and they shot down two trailing Japanese seaplanes. On 10 March, the Task Force, reinforced by , attacked enemy ports at Laemarker and Salamaua, New Guinea where the Japanese were marshaling amphibious forces. Carrier-based planes achieved complete surprise by flying in from the south, crossing the high Owen Stanley mountain rangemarker, and swooping in to strike Japanese shipping. As they inflicted heavy damage on Japanese warships and transports, the American fliers shot down many Japanese planes which rose to protect the ports. American losses were light but crucial.

Indianapolis then returned to the United States for overhaul and alterations in the Mare Island Navy Yard. Following the refit, Indianapolis escorted a convoy to Australia, then headed for the North Pacificmarker where Japanese landings in the Aleutian Islands had created a precarious situation. The weather along this barren chain of islands is noted for continuous coldness, persistent and unpredictable fog, constant rain and sleet, and sudden storms with violent winds and heavy seas.

On 7 August, the task force to which Indianapolis was attached finally found an opening in the thick fog which hid the Japanese stronghold at Kiska Islandmarker, and imperiled ships in the treacherous and partially uncharted nearby coasts. Indianapolis guns opened up along with those of the other ships. Although fog hindered observation, floatplanes flown from the cruisers reported seeing ships sinking in the harbor and fires burning among shore installations. So complete was the tactical surprise that it was 15 minutes before shore batteries began to answer, and some of them shot into the air, believing they were being bombed. Most of them were silenced by accurate gunnery from the ships. Japanese submarines then appeared but were promptly depth-charge by American destroyers. Japanese seaplanes also made an ineffective bombing attack. The operation was considered a success despite the scanty information on its results. It also demonstrated the necessity of obtaining bases nearer the Japanese-held islands. Consequently, US forces occupied Adak Islandmarker later in the month, providing a base suitable for surface craft and planes further along the island chain from Dutch Harbormarker on Unalaska Islandmarker.


In January 1943, Indianapolis supported the occupation of Amchitkamarker, which gave the Allies another base in the Aleutians. On the night of 19 February, while Indianapolis and two destroyers patrolled southwest of Attu Islandmarker, hoping to intercept enemy ships running reinforcements and supplies into Kiska and Attu, she contacted a Japanese cargo ship, Akagane Maru. The cargo ship tried to make a reply to the challenge but was shelled by Indianapolis. Akagane Maru exploded with great force and left no survivors, presumably because she was laden with ammunition. Throughout the spring and summer, Indianapolis operated in Aleutian waters escorting American convoys and covering amphibious assaults. In May, the Allies captured Attu, the first territory occupied by the Japanese to be reconquered by the United States. After Attu was secure, the US forces focused their attention on Kiska, the last enemy stronghold in the Aleutians. However, the Japanese managed to evacuate their entire garrison under cover of persistent, thick fog before the Allied landings there on 15 August.

After refitting at Mare Island, Indianapolis moved to Hawaiimarker where she became the flagship of Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance commanding the 5th Fleet. She sortied from Pearl Harbor on 10 November with the main body of the Southern Attack Force for Operation Galvanicmarker, the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. On 19 November, Indianapolis bombarded Tarawa Atollmarker and next day pounded Makinmarker (see Battle of Makin). The ship then returned to Tarawa and acted as a fire-support ship for the landings. That day her guns shot down an enemy plane and shelled enemy strong points as landing parties struggled against Japanese defenders in the bloody and costly battle of Tarawamarker. She continued this role until the leveled island was declared secure 3 days later. The conquest of the Marshall Islandsmarker followed hard on victory in the Gilberts. Indianapolis was again 5th Fleet Flagship.


The cruiser met other ships of her task force at Tarawa, and on D-Day minus 1, 31 January 1944, she was a unit of the cruiser group which bombarded the islands of Kwajalein Atoll. The shelling continued on D-Day with Indianapolis silencing two enemy shore batteries. Next day she obliterated a blockhouse and other shore installations and supported advancing troops with a creeping barrage. The ship entered Kwajalein Lagoon on 4 February, and remained until all resistance disappeared. (See Battle of Kwajaleinmarker.)

In March and April, Indianapolis, still flagship of the 5th Fleet, attacked the Western Carolinesmarker. Carrier planes struck at the Palau Islandsmarker on 30-31 March with shipping as their primary target. They sank three destroyers, 17 freighters, five oilers and damaged 17 other ships. In addition, airfields were bombed and surrounding waters mined to immobilize enemy ships. Yapmarker and Ulithimarker were struck on the 31st and Woleai on 1 April. During these three days, Japanese planes attacked the US fleet but were driven off without damaging the American ships. Indianapolis shot down her second plane, a torpedo bomber, and the Japanese lost 160 planes in all, including 46 destroyed on the ground. These attacks successfully prevented Japanese forces from the Carolines from interfering with the US landings on New Guineamarker.

In June, the 5th Fleet was busy with the assault on the Mariana Islandsmarker. Raids on Saipanmarker began with carrier-based planes on 11 June, followed by surface bombardment, in which Indianapolis had a major role, from 13 June. (See Battle of Saipan.) On D-Day, 15 June, Admiral Spruance received reports that a large fleet of battleships, carriers, cruisers, and destroyers was headed south to relieve their threatened garrisons in the Marianas. Since amphibious operations at Saipan had to be protected at all costs, Admiral Spruance could not draw his powerful surface units too far from the scene. Consequently, a fast carrier force was sent to meet this threat while another force attacked Japanese air bases on Iwo Jimamarker and Chichi Jimamarker in the Bonin and Volcano Islandsmarker, bases for potential enemy air attacks.

A combined US fleet fought the Japanese on 19 June in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Japanese carrier planes, which hoped to use the airfields of Guammarker and Tinian to refuel and rearm and attack American off-shore shipping, were met by carrier planes and the guns of the Allied escorting ships. That day, the US Navy destroyed a reported 426 Japanese planes while losing only 29. Indianapolis herself shot down one torpedo plane. This day of aerial combat became known throughout the fleet as the "Marianas Turkey Shoot". With Japanese air opposition wiped out, the US carrier planes pursued and sank , two destroyers, and one tanker and inflicted severe damage on other ships. Two other carriers, and , were sunk by submarines.

Indianapolis returned to Saipan on 23 June to resume fire support there and six days later moved to Tinian to smash shore installations (see Battle of Tinian). Meanwhile, Guam had been taken; and Indianapolis was the first ship to enter Apra Harbormarker since that American base had fallen early in the war. The ship operated in the Marianas for the next few weeks, then moved to the Western Carolines where further landings were planned. From 12-29 September, she bombarded the Island of Peleliumarker in the Palau Group, both before and after the landings (see Battle of Peleliu). She then sailed to Manus Islandmarker in the Admiralty Islandsmarker where she operated for 10 days before returning to the Mare Island Navy Yard.


Overhauled, Indianapolis joined Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher's fast carrier task force on 14 February 1945, two days before it made an attack on Tokyomarker, the first since the Doolittle Raid. The operation covered American landings on Iwo Jima, scheduled for 19 February, by destroying Japanese air facilities and other installations in the "Home Islands". Complete tactical surprise was achieved by approaching the Japanese coast under cover of bad weather, and attacks were pressed home for two days. On 16-17 February, the American Navy lost 49 carrier planes while shooting down or destroying on the ground 499 enemy planes. Besides this 10:1 edge in aircraft victories, Mitscher's Force sank a carrier, nine coastal ships, a destroyer, two destroyer escorts, and a cargo ship. Moreover, they wrecked hangars, shops, aircraft installations, factories, and other industrial targets. Throughout the action, Indianapolis played her vital role of support ship.

Immediately after the strikes, the Task Force raced to Bonin to support the landings on Iwo Jimamarker. The ship remained there until 1 March, protecting the invasion ships and training her guns on any targets spotted on the beach. The ship returned to Admiral Mitscher's Task Force in time to strike Tokyo again on 25 February and Hachijo off the southern coast of Honshūmarker the following day. Although weather was extremely bad, the American force destroyed 158 planes and sank five small ships while pounding ground installations and demolishing trains.

A large base close to the home islands was needed to press the attack, and Okinawamarker in the Ryukyu Islandsmarker seemed ideal for the part. To capture it with minimum losses, airfields in southern Japan had to be pounded until they were incapable of launching effective airborne opposition to the impending invasion. Indianapolis, with the fast carrier force, departed Ulithi on 14 March, and proceeded toward the Japanese coast. On 18 March, from a position southeast of Kyūshūmarker, the flat-tops launched strikes against airfields on the island, ships of the Japanese fleet in the harbors of Kobe and Kure on southern Honshū. After locating the American Task Force 21 March, Japan sent 48 planes to attack the ships, but 24 planes from the carriers intercepted the enemy aircraft some away. By the end of the battle, every plane in the Japanese attack force had been destroyed.

Pre-invasion bombardment of Okinawa began on 24 March, and for seven days Indianapolis poured shells into the beach defenses. Meanwhile, enemy aircraft repeatedly attacked the ships, and Indianapolis shot down six planes and damaged two others. On 31 March, the ship's lookouts spotted a Japanese fighter as it emerged from the morning twilight and roared at the bridge in a vertical dive. The ship's 20 mm guns opened fire, but less than 15 seconds after it was spotted, the plane was over the ship. Tracers converged on it, causing it to swerve, but the enemy pilot managed to release his bomb from a height of and crash his plane near the port stern. The plane toppled harmlessly into the sea, but the bomb plummeted through the deck, into the crew's mess hall, down through the berthing compartment, and through the fuel tanks before crashing through the keel and exploding in the water underneath. The concussion blew two gaping holes in the keel and flooded nearby compartments, killing nine crewmen. Although Indianapolis settled slightly by the stern and listed to port, there was no progressive flooding, and the cruiser steamed to a salvage ship for emergency repairs. Here, inspection revealed that her propeller shafts were damaged, her fuel tanks ruptured, her water-distilling equipment ruined. Nevertheless, the cruiser made the long trip across the Pacific to Mare Island under her own power.


After major repairs and an overhaul, Indianapolis received orders to proceed to Tinian island, carrying parts and the uranium projectile for the atomic bomb Little Boymarker which would later be dropped on Hiroshima. Indianapolis departed San Francisco on 16 July. Arriving at Pearl Harbor on 19 July, she raced on unaccompanied and arrived in Tinian on 26 July. After delivering her top secret cargo to Tinian, Indianapolis was sent to Guam where a number of the crew who had completed their tours of duty were replaced by other sailors. Leaving Guam on 28 July, she began sailing toward Leytemarker where her crew was to receive training before continuing on to Okinawa to join Vice Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf's TF 95. However, at 0014 on 30 July, two large explosions on the vessel's starboard side caused massive damage to Indianapolis. 12 minutes later, as a result of the unexpected attack by the Japanese submarine under the command of Mochitsura Hashimoto, Indianapolis sank. The Japanese vessel had gone undetected prior to the attack due to the lack of effective submarine detection equipment on the American ship.

At the Headquarters of Commander Marianas on Guam and of the Commander Philippine Sea Frontier on Leyte, operations plotting boards were kept. On these boards was kept a graphic plot of the positions at sea of all vessels in which the headquarters concerned was interested. In the case of Indianapolis, the departure of the vessel from Guam on 28 July was recorded on the plotting boards in each of these headquarters. Her estimated position was plotted on each board daily. On 31 July, the date on which the vessel was scheduled to have arrived at Leyte, Indianapolis was removed from the board in the headquarters of Commander Marianas and was recorded on the board at the headquarters of Commander Philippine Sea Frontier as having arrived at Leyte. This was the routine method of handling the plot of combatant vessels. Since, in accordance with orders standard throughout the Southwest Pacific Area, the Pacific Ocean Areas, and the Atlantic, the arrival of combatant vessels was not reported, vessels of this class were assumed to have arrived at their destinations on the date and at approximately the time scheduled in the absence of information to the contrary. Lieutenant Stuart B. Gibson, the Operations Officer under the Port Director, Tacloban, was the officer who was immediately concerned with the movements of Indianapolis. The non-arrival of that vessel on schedule was known at once to Lieutenant Gibson who not only failed to investigate the matter but made no immediate report of the fact to his superiors.

While Indianapolis sent distress calls before sinking, the Navy long claimed that they were never received because the ship was operating under a policy of radio silence. Declassified records show that three SOS messages were received separately, but none was acted upon because one commander was drunk, another had ordered his men not to disturb him and a third thought it was a Japanese prank.

The subsequent delay of the rescue mission led to the loss of hundreds of sailors. About 300 of the 1,196 men on board died in the attack. The rest of the crew, 880 men, floated in the water without lifeboats until the rescue was completed four days later. Many did not have lifejackets. 321 crew came out of the water alive, with 316 ultimately surviving. They suffered from lack of food and water, exposure to the elements, severe desquamation and shark attacks. The Discovery Channel has stated that the Indianapolis sinking resulted in the most shark attacks on humans in history, and attributes the attacks to the oceanic whitetip shark species. The same show attributed most of the deaths on Indianapolis to exposure, salt poisoning and thirst, with the dead being dragged off by sharks.

Immediately prior to the attack, the seas had been moderate, the visibility fluctuating but poor in general, and Indianapolis had been steaming at . When the ship did not reach Leyte on the 31st, as scheduled, no report was made that she was overdue. This omission was due to a misunderstanding of the Movement Report System. It was not until 1025 on 2 August that the survivors were accidentally sighted by pilot Lieutenant Wilber Gwinn and copilot Lieutenant Warren Colwell on a routine patrol flight. The survivors were mostly held afloat by life jackets, although there were a few rafts which had been cut loose before the ship went down. Gwinn immediately dropped a life raft and a radio transmitter. All air and surface units capable of rescue operations were dispatched to the scene at once.

A PBY Catalina seaplane under the command of Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks was dispatched to lend assistance and report. En route to the scene, Marks overflew and alerted her captain, future US Secretary of the Navy W. Graham Claytor, Jr., of the emergency. On his own authority, Claytor decided to divert to the scene.

Arriving hours ahead of Doyle, Marks' crew began dropping rubber rafts and supplies. While so engaged, they observed men being attacked by sharks. Disregarding standing orders not to land at sea, Marks landed and began taxiing to pick up the stragglers and lone swimmers who were at greatest risk of shark attack. Learning the men were the crew of Indianapolis, he radioed the news, requesting immediate assistance. Doyle responded she was en route. When the plane's fuselage was full, survivors were tied to the wings with parachute cord, damaging the wings so that the plane would never fly again and had to be sunk. Marks and his crew rescued 56 men that day.
Survivors of Indianapolis on Guam, in August 1945.

Cecil Doyle was the first vessel on the scene. Homing on Marks' Catalina in total darkness, Doyle halted to avoid killing or further injuring survivors, and began taking Marks' survivors aboard. Disregarding the safety of his own vessel, Captain Claytor pointed his largest searchlight into the night sky to serve as a beacon for other rescue vessels. This beacon was the first indication to most survivors that rescuers had arrived.

,   and   were ordered to the rescue scene from Ulithi, along with  ,   and   from the Philippine Frontier. They searched thoroughly for any survivors until 8 August. After almost five days of constant shark attacks, starvation, terrible thirst, suffering from exposure and their wounds, the men of Indianapolis were at last rescued from the sea.

Captain Charles Butler McVay III, who had commanded Indianapolis since November 1944, survived the sinking, and was with those rescued days later. In November 1945, he was court-martialed and convicted of "hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag." Several things about the court-martial were controversial. There was evidence that the Navy itself had placed the ship in harm's way, in that McVay's orders were to "zigzag at his discretion, weather permitting." Further, Mochitsura Hashimoto, commander of I-58, testified that zigzagging would have made no difference.

Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz remitted McVay's sentence and restored him to active duty. McVay retired in 1949. While many of Indianapolis survivors said McVay was not to blame for the sinking, the families of some of the men who died did. The guilt that was placed on his shoulders mounted until he committed suicide in 1968, using his Navy issue revolver. McVay was discovered with a toy sailor in one hand on his front lawn.

In October 2000, the United States Congress passed a resolution that Captain McVay's record should state that "he is exonerated for the loss of Indianapolis." President Bill Clinton signed the resolution.

Of the 700 ships of the US Navy that were lost in combat in World War II, McVay was the only captain to be court-martialed.


Indianapolis earned 10 battle stars for World War II service.

The wreck

The exact location of Indianapolis is unknown. In July-August 2001, an expedition sought to find the wreckage through the use of side-scan sonar and underwater cameras mounted on a remotely operated vehicle. Four Indianapolis survivors accompanied the expedition, which was not successful. In June 2005, a second expedition was led to find the wreck. National Geographicmarker covered the story and released it in July. Submersibles were launched to find any sign of wreckage. The only things ever found, which have not been confirmed to have belonged to Indianapolis, were many chunks of metal found in the area of the reported sinking position (this was included in the National Geographic program Finding of the USS Indianapolis).


Navy firing detail as part of a burial-at-sea in 2008 for one of the 316 survivors of the USS Indianapolis (CA 35) sinking on July 30, 1945.
The USS Indianapolis National Memorial was dedicated on 2 August 1995. It is located on the Canal Walk in Indianapolismarker. The heavy cruiser is recreated in limestone and granite and sits adjacent to the downtown canal. The crewmembers' names are listed on the monument, with special notations for those who lost their lives.

Some material relating to Indianapolis is held by the Indiana State Museummarker. Her bell and a commissioning pennant are located at the Heslar Naval Armorymarker.

The swim training center at United States Navy Recruit Training Command is named USS Indianapolis.


The USS Indianapolis Museum had its grand opening 7 July 2007 with its gallery at the Indiana World War Memorial Plazamarker.

In popular culture

  • Dramatizations of the Indianapolis sinking and aftermath have been adapted to film, stage, and television. The most famous fictional reference to Indianapolis occurs in the movie Jaws in a monologue by actor Robert Shaw.

  • In 1978, the events surrounding McVay's court-martial were dramatized in The Failure to Zigzag by playwright John B. Ferzacca.

  • Actor Stacy Keach portrayed McVay in the 1991 made-for-television movie Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis based on the play, which depicted the ordeal of the men of Indianapolis during her last fateful voyage.

  • Thomas Fleming's 1987 book Time and Tide is a World War II novel heavily based on the story of Indianapolis. Called Jefferson City in the book, it follows such real-life events as the action in the Aleutian Islands, carrying the atomic bomb, and the tragic loss of the ship near the end of the war. The central plot point of the book, however, is based on the actions of at the Battle of Savo Islandmarker. It also features real people such as Admirals Spruance, King, and Turner mixed in with the fictional main characters.

  • The sinking of Indianapolis and ordeal of the survivors and subsequent rescue at sea is chronicled in the book In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors by Doug Stanton, originally published in 2001. Survivor Edgar Harrell recounted his experience in the 2005 work Out of the Depths, co-authored with his son, David Harrell. Earlier accounts of the Indianapolis tragedy are Raymond Lech's All the Drowned Sailors, published in 1982, and Richard F. Newcomb's Abandon Ship! The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster, originally published in 1958 and re-published with a new introduction and afterword in 2001.

  • The sinking, the events leading up to it, the court-martial of McVay and the stories of several of the survivors is documented in the book Left for Dead that was written by Pete Nelson and was published in 2002. The book contains excerpts of interviews by then 11-year-old Hunter Scott for his nationally award-winning science project. A major motion picture entitled Indianapolis is scheduled for release in 2009.

  • On 29 July 2007, the Discovery Channel aired Ocean of Fear, a re-enactment documentary of the sinking of Indianapolis as the first special of its 20th anniversary Shark Week, hosted by Richard Dreyfuss. Surviving members of the crew attended a special screening in New York City on 18 July 2007. According to the accounts of the surviving crew, most of the men died of either exhaustion, exposure to the elements, or drinking the ocean water, not from shark attacks. However, this incident is still one of the worst cases of sharks feeding on humans.

  • In August 2007, PBS aired an episode of History Detectives that researched memorabilia saved by a crew member who was lost when the ship sank. The show's website contains a ten-minute interview with survivor L.D. Cox.

  • The wreck of the Indianapolis plays a prominent role in one segment of the book

Meg: Hell's Aquarium by author Steve Alten which was released on May 19, 2009. In the book, the wreck is discovered beneath the crust of the Philippine Seamarker in an ancient subterranean waterway known as the Panthalassa Sea. It is said that the ship was so heavy due to its cargo and payload that it actually punctured the crust of the sea floor, likely traveling up to 45 knots as it descended. Alten based this on a theory proposed in the mid 1990's by oceanic experts who believe the ship may have actually been heavy enough, and traveling fast enough, to puncture through the Philippine sea bed, as it is a highly volcanic region and subject to massive earthquakes, suggesting an unstable sea crust.

See also


  • David Harrell (as told by Edgar Harrell), Out of the Depths. 2005. ISBN 1-59781-166-1
  • Raymond B. Lech, All the Drowned Sailors, Jove Books, New York, ASIN: B000UE9796
  • Richard F. Newcomb, "Abandon Ship!: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster" ISBN 0-06-018471-X
  • Doug Stanton, In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors ISBN 0-8050-7366-3


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