« 'Arab Spring' hasn't quite caught the feminist bug yet... | Main | I can't believe Bibi caved... »

Sunday, July 31, 2011

How long can you tread water?

If you ask most people what they know about the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), a WWII era US Navy Cruiser, they will perhaps venture a guess that it was among the ships sunk at Pearl Harbor (incorrect). 

Others, of a certain age, may recall a monologue from the movie 'Jaws', during which Sam Quint (played by actor Robert Shaw) alludes to the reason he has made a career out of hunting sharks. 

But since few people have detailed knowledge of WWII history... and the above-mentioned movie monologue contained only a passing verbal reference to the Indianapolis in an otherwise action-packed film, very few people actually bothered to look into the back-story (hey, Jaws was released long before Wikipedia).

The USS Indianapolis was a Portland-Class Cruiser which saw active duty before and throughout WWII, and which holds a couple of distinctions in the annals of the US Navy:

1.  She was the last major US Naval vessel to be sunk during WWII.

2.  Her sinking represents the greatest single loss of life at sea in the history of the US Navy.

In July of 1945, the US was making hurried preparations for the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan; an act which they hoped (correctly, as it turned out) would bring the war in the Pacific to an end.

The USS Indianapolis was ordered to transport several of the critical components of the first atomic bomb ('Little Boy'; slated to be dropped on Hiroshima), including the bomb's enriched Uranium core, to the US Pacific base at Trinian.   Once the bomb components had been successfully delivered, the Indianapolis was ordered to sail to Guam... and from there, to Leyte in the Philippines.

Just after midnight on July 30th, about halfway between Guam and Leyte, a Japanese submarine (I-58) fired six torpedoes at the Indianapolis; two of which found their mark on the cruiser's port bow:

"The explosions caused massive damage. The Indianapolis took on a heavy list, and settled by the head. Twelve minutes later, she rolled completely over, then her stern rose into the air, and down she plunged. About 300 of the 1,196 men on board died in the sinking. The rest of the crew, 880 men, with few lifeboats and many without lifejackets, floated in the water awaiting rescue."  [source]

Here's where things got far uglier than a simple sinking.

When the Indianapolis failed to arrive in Leyte the day after the sinking, nobody seemed to notice.  More than 800 men had been treading water for more than 24 hours with no drinking water or rations, few life vests or lifeboats… and nobody had reported them overdue (a prerequisite for launching search & rescue efforts).

There are differing accounts of why the failure of the Indianapolis to arrive in Leyte didn't raise any alarms. 

One theory holds that, due to having been on a super-secret assignment carrying A-bomb components, the Cruiser's transit from the US mainland to Trinian had not been documented.  And subsequently, her appearance on the tracking boards for ship movement in the western Pacific was seen by some as an error; borne out by her non-arrival in Leyte.

But that story seems to have been either apocryphal, or a deliberate fabrication by the US Navy to deflect blame.

The currently accepted explanation is that the ship was being tracked by not one, but two different US stations.  And despite having sent out a distress signal, which was received by three different US naval officers, some thought it was a Japanese prank, and others simply didn't respond; assuming someone else would.  At least one of the tracking stations simply removed the Indianapolis from the transit board on the date she was supposed to have arrived at Leyte, without bothering to check if she actually showed up!

The result was that 67 years ago today, the approximately 880 survivors of sinking of the Indianapolis had been treading water for almost two days.  Many were already succumbing to exhaustion, dehydration, starvation and exposure to the sun.  But those who were not lucky enough to have found a place in one of the few lifeboats were also being attacked and eaten by White-Tip and Mako sharks.

By the time a routine US patrol aircraft spotted survivors in the water on the morning of August 2nd, three and a half days after the sinking!!!, only 321 men remained alive… and of those only 316 ultimately survived the ordeal!

The navy initially tried to deflect blame by court martialing the ship's Captain, Captain Charles Butler McVay III, for hazarding his vessel by failing to 'zig-zag' during the transit.  He was convicted by the Court Martial despite a revelation that the standing order was to "zig-zag at the Captain's discretion, weather permitting".  Later testimony offered by the Captain of the Japanese submarine that sank the Indianapolis clearly stated that zig-zagging would not have prevented the sinking.

Despite Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz setting aside the conviction and restoring Captain McVay to active duty, McVay never fully recovered from the burden of the accusations that had been heaped upon him or the responsibility he felt for his men… ultimately committing suicide on his front lawn in 1968 with his Navy Revolver… while holding a toy sailor in his other hand.

"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.   The resolution noted that although several hundred ships of the U.S. Navy were lost in combat in World War II, McVay was the only captain to be court-martialed for the sinking of his ship."

Looking at the calendar I couldn't help thinking about those forgotten sailors treading water for almost four days and waiting for a rescue that had never been organized… and being eaten alive by schools of hungry sharks… I thought you should know.

[Afterthought:  One of the physical tests we had to pass during basic training in the US Navy was en extended period of floating/treading water while using our pants as an improvised flotation device.]

Posted by David Bogner on July 31, 2011 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference How long can you tread water?:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Wow. Thank you for posting this, and this remembering their sacrifice. What an awful way to go; knowing you survived the sinking, only to suffer so terribly while waiting for a rescue that's not coming.

Interesting about the Japanese Captain offering testimony. What were the circumstances there? He heard about the court-martial and felt bad that one of the men he tried to kill was being court-martialled? We contacted him to get clarification of what happened? Curious.

Posted by: Alissa | Jul 31, 2011 4:54:34 PM

I just wanted to say that I love the title of this post.

That's such a sad story... was someone being protected from blame that it was shifted to McVay? Ugh.

Posted by: Ezzie | Jul 31, 2011 6:42:33 PM

Alissa... Keep in mind, this was weeks before the end of the war. Once Japan surrendered and we occupied their country, we had access to all of the officers from whom testimony was required to clear up the particulars of any battle/encounter.

Posted by: Treppenwitz | Jul 31, 2011 7:19:46 PM

A few years ago,I saw a 1hr doc film about the incident on cable in the US. It had interviews with survivors,Japanese sailors,and reports on the CM. This year I saw an interesting film about the sinking of a German liner in 1945. It was sunk by a Russian sub in the Baltic, and an estimated 7500 passengers and crew died.

Posted by: ED | Jul 31, 2011 7:50:26 PM

What an awful story.

OTOH, imagine how much worse it would have been if the A-bomb parts were still aboard...

Posted by: psachya | Aug 1, 2011 5:09:48 AM

May their souls rest in peace.

Posted by: Sarah B. | Aug 1, 2011 12:24:10 PM

As a student of WW II history, I was aware of the USS Indianapolis story before "Jaws" made it more widely known.

As a fan of Bill Cosby, the "tread water" line was a key to his "Noah" skit. That's where I thought you were going before I read the post.

There are many sad stories from WW II. This one is almost epic in the trials of the survivors.


Posted by: mostly cajun | Aug 1, 2011 3:19:03 PM

did you know that its 'Shark Week' on the Discovery channel

Posted by: weese | Aug 1, 2011 3:59:05 PM

Thanks for remembering the sailors of the USS Indianapolis, David.

My next door neighbor (when I was a baby) had a brother who survived the Indianapolis sinking and my great uncle was on board the Indy en route to Tinian (no "R") in the Northern Marianas Islands. He was a minor player in the Manhatten Project (a technician), but thankfully he disembarked with the bomb components and was not on board when it was torpedoed by the Japanese.

Posted by: ProphetJoe | Aug 1, 2011 5:15:49 PM

Hi David,

the German liner was the Wilhelm Gustloff. My dads family, mother and sisters, died in that event.

Anyway, my question is, in that context, rather odd: How do you use your pants as a floating device? Knowing this might come handy sometime.

Cheers, Kurt.

Posted by: Kurt | Aug 1, 2011 11:01:28 PM

Kurt... I am so sorry for your father's loss. I'd read about it, but having a connection with someone who lost family in that tragic event makes it so much more than just history. As to the pants, you take them off... tie the ends of the legs off onto knots, and then while holding the waistband, flip the pants in an arch through the air and down into the water... Trapping air in the legs. They will stay inflated for as long as 5 to 10 minutes at a time, giving you a chance to rest. You can see it demonstrated here:


Posted by: Treppenwitz | Aug 1, 2011 11:16:49 PM

Very remarkable post your have provided and shared. A unique source of information and ideas. Thank you!

Posted by: Patrick Ecclesine | Aug 2, 2011 6:28:33 PM

I played water polo and was a swimmer in high school. During practice our coach used to bring this up and talk about how you never knew when treading water might save our lives. Can't imagine what it was like for those men.

Posted by: Jack@TheJackB | Aug 2, 2011 8:59:29 PM

Something else I didn't learn in school... thanks for this post, David.

I did, however, learn the pants thing in Red Cross lifesaving class!

Posted by: bratschegirl | Aug 4, 2011 9:42:59 AM

As long as I can tread,I will keep trying even the last breath I can if that's the only thing I can do to survive because I really want to keep alive to enjoy the stay here in earth and experience more the purpose that God given.

Posted by: plumbing | Aug 4, 2011 12:38:10 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.