The Story of USS Indianapolis
"There is no question that the loss of USS Indianapolis is one of the blackest episodes in the history of the US Navy. But I also believe that even in loss and tragedy, there are examples of extraordinary valor and sacrifice that deserve to be remembered, that serve as an inspiration to Sailors today and in the future, and there are lessons learned that must be preserved and passed on, and are relevant even now."
- Sam Cox, Rear Admiral, USN (ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
USS Indianapolis served President Roosevelt as ship of state, and Admiral Spruance as the 5th Fleet flagship in WWII. She fought gallantly through many campaigns, earning ten battle stars. Her final top-secret mission was to carry parts of the first atomic bomb used in combat to a U.S. airbase on Tinian.
Just a few nights later, on July 30th, she fell prey to a Japanese submarine. In the next twelve minutes of fire and chaos, about 330 of her crew would be lost with the ship, and the rest--some 860 men--would be left alone in the Pacific in the middle of the night. For the next 5 days, without food or water, the crew battled the elements, dodged shark attacks, and clung to life as best they could.
Her sinking led to the greatest single loss of life at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy. Of the 1,195 sailors and marines on board, only 316 survived.
There is 1 remaining survivor alive today.
To learn more about the USS Indianapolis and her crew, make sure to check out one of the movies or books endorsed by the USS Indianapolis Survivors. Click here for a list of endorsed media. To learn more about recent research and debunking of many myths that have evolved over the years, click here to view our research short video series.
My point in all of this is that all 1,195 men aboard the USS Indianapolis on 30 July 1945 were heroes long before the I-58 fired her six torpedoes, and all 1,195 deserve to be remembered that way."
During the 2015 USS INDIANAPOLIS Survivors' Reunion, Rear Admiral Sam Cox, USN (ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command delivered a wonderful speech to survivors, Lost at Sea Families, and guests. The Admiral shared great detail about the rich history of the heavy cruiser, during her time in WWII. The following is an excerpt of his speech. The full speech can be found here.
"When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the USS Indianapolis was off at Johnston Island conducting gunnery drills (with several minesweepers). As she participated in the search for the Japanese attack force, she steamed through waters thick with Japanese submarines…the Japanese had deployed over 25 submarines to the waters around Pearl Harbor. It is likely only through pure chance that the USS Indianapolis did not suffer the same fate in the first days of the war as she did in the last days.
USS Indianapolis then provided critical protection to US aircraft carriers that launched among the very first retaliatory offensive strikes against the Japanese, on New Guinea, in March 1942. These carriers then participated in the crucial Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942), which resulted in two Japanese carriers put out of action, so that at the decisive Battle of Midway a month later (June 1942) the odds were four Japanese carriers against three US carriers, instead of six to three, which probably changed the outcome of that most important battle of the war.
Meanwhile, the USS Indianapolis was sent to operate in the Aleutian Islands in brutally cold, foggy and dangerous Alaskan waters, not even counting Japanese submarines. The USS Indianapolis sank a Japanese munitions ship (Akagane Maru) attempting to resupply the Japanese garrison on Attu, one of the islands they had captured, which exploded with the loss of all hands. Japan’s inability to reliably resupply their troops on Attu and Kiska contributed significantly to their loss of Attu and decision to abandon Kiska, which no doubt resulted in saving many US troops.
In numerous actions through the rest of the war, the USS Indianapolis not only served as the flagship but also conducted frequent close-in bombardments of Japanese-held islands to include Tarawa, Kwajalein, Guam, Iwo Jima and others, in range of Japanese return fire. Although there is no way to know for certain how many US Marines survived these bloody battles thanks to USS Indianapolis’ fire support, the number is probably significant. During the battles for Tarawa and Makin Island, the USS Indianapolis operated in waters near the Escort Carrier USS Liscome Bay, which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine with the loss of most of her crew, over 650 (Including Doris Miller, the first African-American to be awarded a Navy Cross, for his courage in action at Pearl Harbor.) Once again, fate spared the USS Indianapolis, but she shared the danger.
And then, the epic battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, with USS Indianapolis once again serving as Admiral Spruance’s flagship right in the thick of it. Far more American Sailors were killed or injured, 9,000 casualties including almost 5,000 killed, than at Pearl Harbor. The number of US ships sunk or seriously damaged by Japanese kamikaze suicide attacks numbered over 100. It is one thing to be willing to die for one’s country. It is quite another to face an enemy that intends to die for his, demonstrating an extraordinary and terrible resolve.
Over my desk, I have a painting of a kamikaze about to hit the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, and I have carried a copy for many years. It serves to remind me, and my staff, that whenever we start feeling sorry for ourselves about what a bad day we might be having…well, we can’t really even comprehend what a real bad day is. And frankly I intend to hang a copy of the USS Indianapolis being hit by two torpedoes in my conference room to serve the same purpose. But another thing about the painting, even though the kamikaze is about to hit, you can see that every gun on that ship is still blazing away. None of the gunners are running, even those who are going to die when that plane hits. They are showing a resolve every bit as great as that pilot. And it is exactly that same kind of courage that was exhibited repeatedly by the crew of the USS Indianapolis in that horrific battle.
USS Indianapolis shot down six planes off Okinawa. In todays’ environment of high-body count movies and video games that might not seem like such a big deal. But one plane took the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise out of the war. Two planes took the carrier USS Bunker Hill out of the war. One plane with two bombs grievously damaged the carrier USS Franklin, and put her out of the war. So, every one of those planes shot down by the USS Indianapolis mattered.
And when USS Indianapolis’ time came on 31 March 1945, her gunners had less than 25 seconds to react to the kamikaze as it came out of the sun, and still they hit it, and the plane itself struck a glancing blow with minimum damage. But in his last instant of life, the pilot released a bomb which penetrated clean through the ship and out the bottom, exploding just underneath the ship. This by-the-way is how modern torpedoes are designed to work, exploding just underneath the ship, which maximizes the damage to the ship. Yet, through hours of heroic damage control efforts, the crew managed to save their ship.
This attack also demonstrates that there is no safe place on a warship in battle; the entire crew shares the danger. Many of the nine Sailors who died were deep in the ship, some drowned by fuel oil from a ruptured tank. The fact is that whether a Sailor lives or dies in a battle at sea is about as random event as can be imagined. In order for a ship to be successful in battle, every Sailor must do his (and now, her) duty with the utmost efficiency and effectiveness, irrespective of the chance that at any instant a bomb, shell, mine, or torpedo could blow them to eternity.
The kamikaze attack set in motion a chain of destiny. Had it not been for the severe damage, the USS Indianapolis would not have been at Mare Island in July 1945. Had it not been for USS Pensacola’s engineering casualty, which prevented her from carrying the atomic bomb components to Tinian as planned, the USS Indianapolis would have still been at Mare Island when the war ended, and everyone would have survived, except those lost in the kamikaze attack. Instead, the USS Indianapolis came out of the repair yard early, and still made the fastest transit to Pearl Harbor ever recorded and then to Tinian Island, playing a pivotal role in the execution of perhaps the most momentous decision ever made by a US President. And as horrible as that bomb was, it would have been dwarfed by the carnage to Japanese and Americans that would have resulted from an invasion. Millions of descendants are alive today because the USS Indianapolis executed her mission to perfection.