The USS Indianapolis- When the sinking wasn’t the worst that could happen.

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It was shortly after midnight—on the 30th of July, 1945—when disaster struck.

After delivering Hiroshima-bomb components to Tinian Island, the USS Indianapolis and her crew of 1,196 sailors were sailing west, toward Leyte (in the Philippines).

 

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At 00:14 on 30 July, she was struck on her starboard side by two Type 95 torpedoes, one in the bow and one amidships, from the Japanese submarine I-58, under the command of Mochitsura Hashimoto.

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The explosions caused massive damage. Indianapolis took on a heavy list, and settled by the bow. Twelve minutes later, she rolled completely over, then her stern rose into the air, and she plunged down. Some 300 of the 1,196 crewmen went down with the ship. With few lifeboats and many without life jackets, the remainder of the crew were set adrift.

As the sun rose on July 30, the survivors bobbed in the water. Life rafts were scarce. The living searched for the dead floating in the water and appropriated their lifejackets for survivors who had none. Hoping to keep some semblance of order, survivors began forming groups—some small, some over 300—in the open water. Soon enough they would be staving off exposure, thirst—and sharks.

The animals were drawn by the sound of the explosions, the sinking of the ship and the thrashing and blood in the water. Though many species of shark live in the open water, none is considered as aggressive as the oceanic whitetip. Reports from the Indianapolis survivors indicate that the sharks tended to attack live victims close to the surface, leading historians to believe that most of the shark-related causalities came from oceanic whitetips.

The first night, the sharks focused on the floating dead. But the survivors’ struggles in the water only attracted more and more sharks, which could feel their motions through a biological feature known as a lateral line: receptors along their bodies that pick up changes in pressure and movement from hundreds of yards away. As the sharks turned their attentions toward the living, especially the injured and the bleeding, sailors tried to quarantine themselves away from anyone with an open wound, and when someone died, they would push the body away, hoping to sacrifice the corpse in return for a reprieve from a shark’s jaw. Many survivors were paralyzed with fear, unable even to eat or drink from the meager rations they had salvaged from their ship. One group of survivors made the mistake of opening a can of Spam—but before they could taste it, the scent of the meat drew a swarm of sharks around them. They got rid of their meat rations rather than risk a second swarming.

The sharks fed for days, with no sign of rescue for the men. Navy intelligence had intercepted a message from the Japanese submarine that had torpedoed the Indianapolis describing how it had sunk an American battleship along the Indianapolis’ route, but the message was disregarded as a trick to lure American rescue boats into an ambush. In the meantime, the Indianapolis survivors learned that they had the best odds in a group, and ideally in the center of the group. The men on the margins or, worse, alone, were the most susceptible to the sharks.

As the days passed, many survivors succumbed to heat and thirst, or suffered hallucinations that compelled them to drink the seawater around them—a sentence of death by salt poisoning. Those who so slaked their thirst would slip into madness, foaming at the mouth as their tongues and lips swelled. They often became as great a threat to the survivors as the sharks circling below—many dragged their comrades underwater with them as they died.

 

After 11:00 a.m. on their fourth day in the water, a Navy plane flying overhead spotted the Indianapolis survivors and radioed for help. Within hours, another seaplane, manned by Lieutenant Adrian Marks, returned to the scene and dropped rafts and survival supplies.

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When Marks saw men being attacked by sharks, he disobeyed orders and landed in the infested waters, and then began taxiing his plane to help the wounded and stragglers, who were at the greatest risk. A little after midnight, the USS Doyle arrived on the scene and helped to pull the last survivors from the water. Of the Indianapolis’ original 1,196-man crew, only 317 remained.

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Estimates of the number who died from shark attacks range from a few dozen to almost 150. It’s impossible to be sure. But either way, the ordeal of the Indianapolis survivors remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. naval history.

The USS Indianapolis, led by Captain Charles McVay, was ordered to head toward Guam by going through the Leyte Gulf. What the U.S. Navy didn’t tell him was the Leyte Gulf at the time was a haven for Japanese submarines, and that ships passing through should do so with extreme caution.

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Lacking the intel that he was in unfriendly waters and exercising his order to perform evasive maneuvers “at his discretion,” McVay told the crew to just head straight forward, and bid them a good night. Unfortunately the Japanese submarine I-58, captained by Mochitsura Hashimoto, noticed the Indianapolis heading straight toward it and immediately sank it.

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McVay survived and World War II ended, but soon thereafter he found himself in a court martial for negligence in the sinking of his ship (probably as a scapegoat to cover for the other Navy guys who completely botched the Indianapolis’ travel instructions and subsequent rescue.

In the trial, the U.S. Navy made the fairly unprecedented step of bringing in Hashimoto as a witness . He was brought in as a witness for the prosecution, expected to talk about the gross incompetence of the American captain, hoping he would seal McVay’s fate. Rather unexpectedly, when Hashimoto took the stand he outright defended McVay, stating that no matter what he had done, the Indianapolis still would have been hit by his torpedoes.

The U.S. Navy still found McVay guilty regardless of what Hashimoto said, demoting him and basically ruining his naval career. Though Admiral Nimitz would wind up promoting McVay back to his old rank soon thereafter, the trial decision still stood — that is, until Hashimoto decided to help McVay out again. Hashimoto sent a letter to Senator John Warner, an action that helped lead to McVay being exonerated.

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The Titanic

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There have been far greater sea disasters then the Titanic but for more then 100 years it still captures the imagination of people like no other nautical disaster.

Below are just some pictures of that famous unsinkable ship.

Unfinished, at Belfast, on May 31, 1911.

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Under construction.

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The Titanic, ready to be launched

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The iceberg suspected of having sunk the RMS Titanic. This iceberg was photographed by the chief steward of the liner Prinz Adalbert on the morning of April 15, 1912, just a few miles south of where the Titanic went down.

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The last lifeboat off the Titanic.

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Survivors of the Titanic safely aboard the Carpathia.

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These French boys, brothers Michel (age four) and Edmond Navratil (age two) boarded the ship with their father, who assumed the name Louis Hoffman. Hoffman did not survive. This photo was taken before the orphans were properly identified

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Mrs. J.J. Brown (“The Unsinkable Molly Brown”) presenting a trophy cup award to Carpathia Captain Arthur Henry Roston for his service in the rescue of the Titanic.

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The SS John Harvey disaster

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SS John Harvey was a U.S. World War II Liberty ship. This ship is most well known for carrying a secret cargo of mustard gas and whose sinking by German aircraft in December 1943 at the port of Bari in south Italy caused an unintentional release of chemical weapons.

The John Harvey was built by the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company in Wilmington, North Carolina, and launched on 9 January 1943.

In August 1943, Roosevelt approved the shipment of chemical munitions containing mustard agent to the Mediterranean theater. On 18 November 1943 the John Harvey, commanded by Captain Elwin F. Knowles, sailed from Oran, Algeria, to Italy, carrying 2,000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each of which held 60–70 lb of sulfur mustard.

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After stopping for an inspection by an officer of the 7th Chemical Ordnance Company at Augusta, Sicily on 26 November, the John Harvey sailed through the Strait of Otranto to arrive at Bari.

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Bari was packed with ships waiting to be unloaded, and the John Harvey had to wait for several days. Captain Knowles wanted to tell the British port commander about his deadly cargo and request it be unloaded as soon as possible, but secrecy prevented him doing so.

On 2 December 1943 German aircraft attacked Bari, killing over 1,000 people, and sinking 17 ships,including the John Harvey, which was destroyed in a huge explosion, causing liquid sulfur mustard to spill into the water and a cloud of sulfur mustard vapor to blow over the city.

A total of 628 military victims were hospitalized with mustard gas symptoms, and by the end of the month, 83 of them had died. The number of civilian casualties, thought to have been even greater, could not be accurately gauged since most had left the city to seek shelter with relatives.

 

The USS Mounthood disaster

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USS Mount Hood (AE-11) was the lead ship of her class of ammunition ships for the United States Navy in World War II. She was the first ship named after Mount Hood, a volcano in the Cascade Range in Oregon.

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On 10 November 1944, shortly after 18 men had departed for shore leave, the rest of the crew were killed when the ship exploded in Seeadler Harbor at Manus Island. The ship was obliterated while also sinking or severely damaging 22 smaller craft nearby.

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At 08:30, 10 November 1944, a party consisting of communications officer, Lt. Lester H. Wallace, and 13 men left the ship and headed for shore. At 08:55, while walking on the beach, they saw a flash from the harbor, followed by two quick explosions. Scrambling into their boat, they headed back to the ship, only to turn around again shortly thereafter as there was nothing but debris all around.

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Mount Hood, anchored in about 35 feet (11 m) of water,had exploded with an estimated 3,800 tons of ordnance material on board. The initial explosion caused flame and smoke to shoot up from amidships to more than masthead height. Within seconds, the bulk of her cargo detonated with a more intense explosion. Mushrooming smoke rose to 7,000 feet (2,100 m), obscuring the ship and the surrounding area for a radius of approximately 500 yards (500 m). Mount Hood’s former position was revealed by a trench in the ocean floor 1,000 feet (300 m) long, 200 feet (60 m) wide, and 30 to 40 feet (9 to 12 m) deep.

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The largest remaining piece of the hull was found in the trench and measured no bigger than 16 by 10 feet (5 by 3 m). No other remains of Mount Hood were found except fragments of metal which had struck other ships in the harbor and a few tattered pages of a signal notebook found floating in the water several hundred yards away. No human remains were recovered of the 350 men aboard Mount Hood or small boats loading alongside at the time of the explosion.The only other survivors from the Mount Hood crew were a junior officer and five enlisted men who had left the ship a short time before the explosion. Two of the crew were being transferred to the base brig for trial by court martial; and the remainder of the party were picking up mail at the base post office. Charges against the prisoners were dropped following the explosion.

The concussion and metal fragments hurled from the ship also caused casualties and damage to ships and small craft within 2,000 yards (1,800 m). The repair ship Mindanao, which was broadside-on to the blast, was the most seriously damaged.

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All personnel topside on Mindanao were killed outright, and dozens of men were killed or wounded below decks as numerous heavy fragments from Mount Hood penetrated the side plating. Eighty-two of Mindanao’s crew died. The damage to other vessels required more than 100,000 man-hours to repair, while 22 small boats and landing craft were sunk, destroyed, or damaged beyond repair; 371 sailors were injured from all ships in the harbor.

A board convened to examine evidence relating to the disaster was unable to ascertain the exact cause. After only a little over four months’ service, Mount Hood was struck from the Naval Register on 11 December 1944.

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