Warship Wednesday, July 29, 2015: The saddest story of World War II– 70 years ago today
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 29, 2015, The saddest story of World War II
Here we see the Portland-class heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) as she appeared before the war in New York. Tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of her tragic passing, often cited as the worst disaster in U.S. Naval history. As she was torpedoed on the other side of the International Date Line, at the site of her wreck it is already that time.
We have covered this tragic vessel several times including the Svedi photo collection and a set of papers that we submitted to Navsource and the NHC on her 1936 Friendship cruise, so we’ll keep it short.
The two-ship class of “10,000-ton” heavy cruisers was sandwiched between the half-dozen 9,000-ton Northamptons built in the late 1920s and the seven more advanced New Orleans-class cruisers built in the late 1930s. As such, the twin Portlands were advanced for their time, carrying nearly a thousand tons more armor and 9x 8″/55 (20.3 cm) Mark 12 guns. They had weight and space available to accommodate a fleet admiral and staff if needed.
Indianapolis was laid down by New York Shipbuilding Corporation on 31 March 1930 and was the first warship to carry the name, commissioning 15 November 1932.
Her prewar career was peaceful and she carried FDR on a trip to South America in 1936 and others.
Narrowly escaping Pearl Harbor by being at sea far to the southeast of Hawaii, she soon was earning battle stars the hard way in New Guinea, the Aleutians (where she pummeled the Japanese troopship Akagane Maru, sending her and her soldiers to the bottom of the cold North Pacific), Tarawa, Makin, Kwajalein, the Marianas, Palau, the Philippine Sea and onto the Home Islands.
For a good bit of that time, she served as the 5th Fleet flagship of Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance.
At Okinawa, she spent a week solid smacking around Japanese shore positions with her big 8 inchers while dodging kamikazes. On 31 March 1945, she was unlucky enough to be severely damaged by one of these flying meatballs and, losing 9 men, set course for Mare Island Naval Yard in California for repairs.
Once patched back together, it turned out the War Department had a mission for her.
In San Francisco, she took aboard parts and 141-pounds of enriched uranium (about half of the world’s supply at the time) for the inefficient Little Boy atomic bomb, which would later be dropped on Hiroshima, producing about 15 kilotons of sunlight when she vaporized in August.
Racing the 6,000 miles from San Fran to Tinian island in just ten days (with a short stop in Hawaii), she arrived unescorted and delivered her payload on 26 July, which would go on to a history of its own only 11 days later.
However, Indy would no longer be afloat by the time Hiroshima’s mushroom cloud peaked.
At 12:14 a.m. on July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by I-58, a Japanese B3 type cruiser submarine in the Philippine Sea and sank in 12 minutes after sending off a distress call. The sub’s commander took her to be an Idaho-class battlewagon and unloaded six torpedoes in her direction, of which 2-3 hit.
Indianapolis was not equipped with sonar or hydrophones, or provided with a destroyer escort despite her captain’s request– the only case in which a capital ship was left unescorted so late in the war.
Of 1,196 men on board the stricken cruiser, approximately 300 went down with the ship. The remainder, about 900 men, were left floating in shark-infested waters sans lifeboats and supplies for the most part. By the time the dwindling survivors were spotted (by accident) four days later only 317 men were still alive.
After the war her skipper, Captain Charles B. McVay III, was sent to the mast in a travesty of justice– the only U.S. captain of more than 350 to face trial for having his ship sunk by the enemy in the war. At the trial, the skipper of I-58, which had been captured and scuttled by the Navy in 1946, even testified that McVay was not at fault.
Although cleared by history, McVay later committed suicide. The Navy later adjusted his record, posthumously.
Indianapolis‘s sister ship, USS Portland (CA–33), was decommissioned in 1946 and languished on red lead row until she was scrapped in 1962 although she earned 16 battle stars, making her one of the most decorated ships in the U.S. fleet.
There are several monuments to the Indianapolis and her wreck was located in 2001.
Her bell, removed from the ship at Mare Island in 1945 to save weight, is preserved at the Heslar Naval Armory in Indianapolis.
There is also a good bit of maritime art to commemorate her.
She is remembered by a vibrant USS Indianapolis organization, many books, a completed made for TV movie (which was horrible), and a new film with Nick Cage that is currently shooting.
Thirty-two men are still alive from the crew of the USS Indianapolis, including Richard Stephens, 89, who eagerly awaits the Cage film.
“I think it’s going to be a good movie,” said Stephens, who was 18 when he and the others received the command to abandon ship.
He visited the set in Mobile, Ala., earlier this month where the film is being shot on location using Mobile Bay and the USS Alabama museum as a backdrop. “I told (Cage) I didn’t like fictional movies, and they should be trying to show more respect, they should be using the facts. He said it’s going to be pretty true to facts.”
Displacement: 9,800 long tons (10,000 t)
Length: 610 ft. (190 m)
Beam: 66 ft. (20 m)
Draft: 17 ft. 4 in (5.28 m)
Propulsion: 8 × White-Foster boilers, single reduction geared turbines, 107,000 shp (80,000 kW)
Speed: 32.7 kn (37.6 mph; 60.6 km/h)
Complement: 629 officers and enlisted (peace), 1,269 officers and men (wartime as flag)
Armament: 9 × 8 in (200 mm)/55 cal guns (3×3)
8 × 5 in (130 mm)/25 cal AA guns
8 × .50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns
Aircraft carried: 2-5 OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO)
They are possibly one of the best sources of naval lore http://www.warship.org/naval.htm
The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.
Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.
I’m a member, so should you be!