As landlocked as it is, some 650 miles from the Atlantic and 1830 miles from the Pacific, Indianapolis isn’t the first place I think of when I think of battleships. Then again, there are few battleships more storied in American imagination than the WWII ship that bore the city’s name.
Like millions of other moviegoers, I first heard the story of the USS Indianapolis from Robert Shaw in Jaws. If you haven’t seen it, it’s one of the best-delivered bits of storytelling an actor has ever offered on screen.
At 12:15 a.m., July 30, 1945—sixty-seven years ago today—a pair of Japanese torpedoes slammed into the Indianapolis’s bow. She sank in 12 minutes. Nine hundred of the ship’s 1,196 men made it into the water. For four days, they were lost at sea. Only 321 of them survived. As Shaw explained: “Sharks took the rest.”
As a kid, I was shark crazy, so the story of the Indianapolis made an indelible bite mark in my brain that rivaled the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks and, of course, Jaws itself. On a visit to Indy a few days ago, I made it a point to seek out what I could about the ship’s story. In a city that apparently loves to honor its war dead, the Indianapolis‘s story gets a lot of play.
The Indianapolis had been one of the most decorated ships in the fleet. During the war, it earned ten battle stars, but even before that busy career, it had gained fame as FDR’s flagship beginning in 1933 that included a 1936 good-will tour to South America.
Because of damage inflicted on it by a Japanese bomber in late March 1945, the Indianapolis found herself in port undergoing repairs. That’s how she found herself drafted for the mission that would make her famous. On July 16, she rocketed across the Pacific, from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, then to Tinian, carrying components that would be assembled into Little Boy, the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima on August 6.
From Tinian, the Indianapolis went to Guam on its way toward a training mission in the Philippines. Because of the top-secret nature of her mission, though, no one knew she went down on July 30; no one listed her as overdue at her destination; no one heeded the ship’s distress call (a fact suppressed by U.S. Navy for decades).
Survivors, covered in oil from the shipwreck, parched by thirst, plagued by hunger, and weakened by exposure, were under constant siege by sharks. One report estimated that sharks took a man on average of once every six minutes. Thirst, exposure, and injury took their toll, too—but it’s the sharks, the horror of those damn sharks, that capture everyone’s imagination.
It was the oil slick that saved them. A passing plane happened to notice the slick and followed it backwards until it spotted the men. Three and a half days had passed since the ship had gone down.
The Indianapolis’s captain, Charles B. McVay, was scapegoated for the disaster, although his surviving men fought for decades to have their commander’s name cleared. It wouldn’t be until 2001, by Congressional resolution signed by President Clinton, that the Navy was ordered to clear McVay’s record. By then, McVay had been dead thirty-three years: he had committed suicide in the front yard of his home in 1968, dead of a gunshot wound from his Navy revolver.
McVay’s exoneration came about thanks, in large part, to an 11-year-old name Hunter Scott, who profiled the story of the Indianapolis for a history fair project. Scott’s project grew in scope and attracted national attention, including a segment by Tom Brokaw and a special showcase by his congressman. Scott’s story, and the story of the Indianapolis, is chronicled in Pete Nelson’s book Left for Dead: A Young Man’s Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis. Another great book on the disaster is Doug Stanton’s In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors.
Artifacts from the Indianapolis are on display in Indianapolis’s War Memorial Museum, a square, pointy-topped temple that stabs out of a large plaza like a stumpy phallus. The museum devotes a large gallery to the ship’s story and features a recreation of the ship’s radio room. A few blocks away along the city’s canal walk, an outdoor memorial lists the names of all the men aboard the ship’s final voyage.
It’s sunny and pleasant, and along the canal, a pair of tween-age girls are trying to lure paddleboaters to pull over to their hotdog stand, set up in a shady patch next to a pedestrian bridge. The canal widens at this spot into a round pool with a fountain that rises from the middle and sprays arcing chords of water that slap back down like feet on wet pavement. Paddleboaters who steer close the fountain enjoy the cool mist that the slapping water kicks up; those who steer wide come within range of the hot dog girls.
The Indianapolis Memorial sits on the opposite bank—the near bank for me, as it happens, in relation to the curbside spot where I’ve parked my car and walked from. I’m pleasantly surprised by how idyllic the park looks. The memorial occupies a friendly space with plenty of lawn and a fountain of its own. Indianapolis has been suffering from drought, though, so the trickle of water, which runs down a wall topped by three flags, seems too bedraggled by the heat to look friendly or refreshing, although it still retains its dignity.
The memorial itself, vaguely shiplike, features a laser engraving of the ship on one side and the list of the crew on the other, with survivors and victims differentiated by asterisks. The story of the ship and its sinking is engraved along the monument’s base.
The figures on the ship appear as small silhouettes, like little Rorschach blotches that rise up from the ship itself, men and ship indistinguishable from each other. That’s how they remain in history, I suppose, the ship and its crew—and the sharks, too—all one sad, dark story.
There’s one face on the smooth-polished black granite surface of the memorial: mine. But it could be Robert Shaw’s face or Scott Hunter’s or Pete Nelson’s or Doug Stanton’s or the the museum’s curators. As storytellers, we all become part of our stories. For a few brief moments, I appear among those men who rise from the deck of the ship, reflected onto their story by the hot, high Indiana sun, so far away from the Pacific.