USS Indianapolis (CA-35)

USS Indianapolis (CA-35) was a of the United States Navy. She holds a place in history due to the notorious circumstances of her demise, which was the worst single loss of life at-sea in the history of the U.S. Navy. After delivering critical parts for the first atomic bomb to be used in combat to the United States air base at Tinian Island on July 26 1945, she was in the Philippine Sea when attacked at 00:14 on July 30 1945 by a Japanese submarine. Most of the crew was lost to a combination of exposure, dehydration, and shark attacks as they waited for assistance while floating for five days. Indianapolis was one of the last U.S. Navy ships sunk by enemy action in World War II. (The submarine was attacked by Japanese aircraft with depth charges and sunk on August 6 1945.)

Service before World War II

Indianapolis was laid down on March 31 1930 by the New York Shipbuilding Corp., Camden, New Jersey; launched on November 7 1931; sponsored by Miss Lucy Taggart, daughter of the late Senator Thomas Taggart, a former mayor of Indianapolis; and commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on November 15 1932, Captain John M. Smeallie in command. Following shakedown in the Atlantic and Guantánamo Bay until February 23 1932, Indianapolis trained in the Panama Canal Zone and in the Pacific off the Chilean coast. After overhaul at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the heavy cruiser sailed to Maine to embark President Roosevelt at Campobello Island, in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, on July 1 1933. Getting underway the same day, Indianapolis arrived at Annapolis two days later where she entertained six members of the cabinet. After disembarking the President, she departed Annapolis on July 4 1933, 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 Carolina, on November 18 1936 for a "Good-Neighbor" cruise to South America. After carrying President Roosevelt to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo for state visits, she returned to Charleston on December 15 where the presidential party left the ship.

Service during World War II

The Indianapolis was making a simulated bombardment of Johnston Island when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Afterwards she then joined Task Force 12 and searched for Japanese carriers reportedly still in the vicinity.

South Pacific

Her first action came in the South Pacific, deep in Japanese-dominated waters about 350 miles (563 km) south of Rabaul, New Britain. Late in the afternoon of on February 20 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 accurate anti-aircraft fire of the ships and fighter planes from . All ships escaped damage and they also shot down two trailing Japanese seaplanes. On March 10, 1942 the Task Force, reinforced by the carrier Yorktown attacked enemy ports at Lae 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 range, and swooping in to strike Japanese harbor 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 were 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 Pacific 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 fogs; constant rain, and sleet; and sudden storms with violent winds and heavy seas.

Kiska and Attu

By August 7 1942, the task force to which Indianapolis was attached finally found an opening in the thick fog which hid the Japanese stronghold at Kiska Island, and imperiled ships in the treacherous and partially uncharted nearby coasts. Indianapolis's 8 inch (203 mm) guns opened up along with those of the other ships. Although fog hindered observation, scout planes 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 fired 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-charged 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, U.S. forces occupied the island of Adak later in the month, providing a base suitable for surface craft and planes further along the island chain from Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island. In January 1943, Indianapolis supported the occupation of Amchitka, which gave the Allies another base in the Aleutians.

On the night of February 19 1943, while Indianapolis and two destroyers patrolled southwest of Attu, 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; she was presumably laden with ammunition. Throughout the spring and summer of 1943, 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 U.S. 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 August 15.

Flagship of the 5th Fleet

After refitting at Mare Island, Indianapolis moved to Hawaii where she became the flagship of Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance commanding the U.S. 5th Fleet. She sortied from Pearl Harbor on November 10 1943 with the main body of the Southern Attack Force of the Assault Force for Operation Galvanic, the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. On November 19 1943, Indianapolis, in a force of cruisers bombarded Tarawa Atoll and next day pounded Makin (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 Tarawa. She continued this role until the leveled island was declared secure 3 days later. The conquest of the Marshall Islands followed hard on victory in the Gilberts. Indianapolis was again 5th Fleet Flagship. She rendezvoused with other ships of her task force at Tarawa, and on D-Day minus 1, January 31 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 February 4 and remained until all resistance disappeared. (See Battle of Kwajalein.)

During March and April 1944, Indianapolis, still flagship of the 5th Fleet, attacked the Western Carolines. Carrier planes struck at the Palau Islands on 30 March and 31 March with shipping as their primary target. They sank 3 destroyers, 17 freighters, 5 oilers and damaged 17 other ships. In addition, airfields were bombed and surrounding waters mined to immobilize enemy ships. Yap and Ulithi were struck on the 31st and Woleai on 1 April. During these 3 days, Japanese planes attacked the U.S. 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 U.S. landings on New Guinea.

During June 1944, the 5th Fleet was busy with the assault on the Mariana Islands. Raids on Saipan began with carrier-based planes on June 11, followed by surface bombardment, in which Indianapolis had a major role, from June 13. (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 Jima and Chichi Jima in the Bonin and Volcano Islands—bases for potential enemy air attacks.

A combined U.S. fleet fought the Japanese on June 19 in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Japanese carrier planes, which hoped to use the airfields of Guam 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 about 400 Japanese planes while losing only 17. Indianapolis, which had operated with the force which struck Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima, 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 U.S. carrier planes pursued and sank a carrier (Hiyō), two destroyers, and one tanker and inflicted severe damage on other ships. Two other carriers, Taihō and Shōkaku, were sunk by submarines.

Indianapolis returned to Saipan on June 23 to resume fire support there and 6 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 Harbor since that American base had fallen early in the war. The ship operated in the Mariana Islands for the next few weeks, then moved to the Western Carolines where further landings were planned. From September 12 to September 29 she bombarded the Island of Peleliu in the Palau Group, both before and after the landings (see Battle of Peleliu). She then sailed to Manus in the Admiralty Islands where she operated for 10 days before returning to the Mare Island Navy Yard.

Iwo Jima

Overhauled, Indianapolis joined Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher's fast carrier task force on February 14 1945, two days before it made an attack on Tokyo—the first since the Doolittle Raid in April 1942. The operation covered American landings on Iwo Jima, scheduled for February 19 1945, 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 2 days. On 16 February and February 17, the American Navy lost 49 carrier planes while shooting down or destroying on the ground 499 enemy planes. Besides this 10-to-l 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 the Bonins to support the landings on Iwo Jima. The ship remained there until March 1, 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 Honshū 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 Okinawa in the Ryūkyūs 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 March 14 1945, and proceeded toward the Japanese coast. On March 18, from a position 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Kyūshū, the flat-tops launched strikes against airfields on the island, ships of the Japanese fleet in the harbors of Kobe and Kure on southern Honshu. After locating the American Task Force March 21, Japan sent 48 planes to attack the ships, but 24 planes from the carriers intercepted the enemy aircraft some 60 miles (97 km) away. By the end of the battle, every plane in the Japanese attack force had been destroyed.

Preinvasion bombardment of Okinawa began on March 24 and for seven days Indianapolis poured 8 inch (203 mm) shells into the beach defenses. Meanwhile, enemy aircraft repeatedly attacked the ships, and Indianapolis shot down six planes, assisting in the destruction of two others. On March 31, the day before the invasion, the ship's sky lookouts spotted a Japanese single-engined fighter plane 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. Tracer shells crashed into the plane, causing it to swerve but the enemy pilot managed to release his bomb from a height of 25 ft (7.6 m) and crash his plane on the port side of the after main deck. The plane toppled into the sea, causing little damage; but the bomb plummeted through the deck armor, the crew's mess hall, the berthing compartment below, and the fuel tanks still lower before crashing through the bottom of the ship and exploding in the water under the ship. The concussion blew two gaping holes in the ship bottom and flooded compartments in the area, 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 the Mare Island Navy Yard under her own power. Indianapolis earned 10 battle stars for World War II service.

Loss of the Indianapolis

A secret mission, and destruction

After major repairs and an overhaul, the Indianapolis received orders to proceed to Tinian island, carrying parts and the uranium projectile for the atomic bomb "Little Boy" which would later be dropped on Hiroshima. The Indianapolis departed San Francisco on July 16. Arriving at Pearl Harbor July 19, she raced on unaccompanied and arrived in Tinian on July 26. After delivering her top secret cargo to Tinian, the 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 July 28, she began sailing toward Leyte where her crew was to receive training before continuing on to Okinawa to join Vice Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf's Task Force 95. However, at 00:14 on July 30 1945, two large explosions on the vessel's starboard side caused massive damage to Indianapolis. Twelve minutes later—as a result of the unexpected, two-torpedo attack by the under the command of Mochitsura Hashimoto—the USS Indianapolis sank. The Japanese vessel had gone undetected prior to the attack due to the lack of effective submarine imaging equipment on the American ship.

Delayed rescue: Four days in the water

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 the Indianapolis, the departure of the vessel from Guam on July 28 was recorded on the plotting boards in each of these headquarters. Her estimated position was plotted on each board daily. On July 31, the date on which the vessel was scheduled to have arrived at Leyte, the 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, U.S.N.R., the Operations Officer under the Port Director, Tacloban, was the officer who was immediately concerned with the movements of the 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 the 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 were 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. Three hundred and twenty-one crew came out of the water alive, with 317 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 the 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; Indianapolis had been steaming at 17 knots (31 km/h). 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. Thus it was not until 10:25 on August 2 that the survivors were accidentally sighted by pilot Lieutenant Wilber (Chuck) 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 seaplane under the command of LT. R. Adrian Marks was dispatched to lend assistance and report. En route to the scene, Marks overflew the destroyer escort and alerted her captain, future U.S. 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 the 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 the Indianapolis, he radioed the news, requesting immediate assistance. The Doyle responded she was enroute. 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.

The Cecil Doyle was the first vessel on the scene. Homing on Marks' PBY in total darkness, the 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.

Destroyers , and were ordered to the rescue scene from Ulithi, along with the destroyer escort plus attack transports and from the Philippine Frontier. They searched thoroughly for any survivors until August 8. Of the 900 sailors who made it into the water, only 317 were pulled out alive. After almost five days of constant shark attacks, starvation, terrible thirst, suffering from exposure and their wounds, the men of the Indianapolis were at last rescued from the sea.

Captain Charles Butler McVay III

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 the 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, by using his Navy issue revolver. McVay was discovered with a toy sailor in one of his hands 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 the USS Indianapolis." President Bill Clinton signed the resolution.

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

The wreck

The exact location of the Indianapolis is unknown. In July and 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 Geographic 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 the 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).

Many have claimed that the Indianapolis cannot be found. She was carrying quite a few explosives on board and was reported to have gone down burning. Many believe that she perhaps exploded after sinking beneath the waves. On top of this, the area in which she sank has some of the deepest spots in the world. The expedition led in 2005 found no actual bulk of the wreck, no deckhouses, turrets, or hull. This has not discouraged some shipwreck hunters who are bent on finding one of World War II's most famous ships.


The USS Indianapolis National Memorial was dedicated on August 2, 1995. It is located on the Canal Walk in Indianapolis. Her bell and a commissioning pennant are located at the Heslar Naval Armory.

Some material relating to the USS Indianapolis is held by the Indiana State Museum.

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


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


  • Dramatizations of the Indianapolis sinking and aftermath have been adapted to film, stage, and television. The most famous fictional reference to the 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 the 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 the USS Indianapolis. Called the USS 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 the at Savo Island. It also features real people such as Admirals Spruance, King, and Turner mixed in with the fictional main characters.
  • Jack Chalker described the sinking of the Indianapolis in his 1988 novel The Devil's Voyage.
  • The sinking of the Indianapolis, 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 of the Indy, 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 July 29, 2007, the Discovery Channel aired Ocean of Fear, a re-enactment documentary of the sinking of the USS 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 July 18, 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.

See also



  • Fahey, James C. (1941). The Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, Two-Ocean Fleet Edition. Ships and Aircraft.
  • 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
  • Marks, R. Adrian "America was Well Represented".
  • 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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