More than a monologue
The sinking of the USS Indianapolis (CA 35) has solidified itself in popular culture in the form of a four and a half minute monologue performed by Robert Shaw in the movie Jaws.
Captain Quint told the story of the ship delivering the components for the atomic bomb during WWII, being hit by two Japanese torpedoes and then constantly losing shipmates to the hundreds of sharks in the water was they waited five days to be rescued.
For the 317 Sailors who were pulled from the ocean and the 14 who attended the 70th Anniversary reunion in Indianapolis, Indiana, their heroic story of survival is more than a monologue.
After dropping off the components for Little Boy and Fat Man, the two atomic bombs that were later dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the USS Indianapolis transited from the small island of Tinian to Guam where it received orders to travel to Leyte Gulf and prepare for the invasion of Japan.
About halfway between Guam and Leyte Gulf, on July 30, 1945, at 12:14 a.m., the Japanese submarine I-58 fired six torpedoes. Two torpedoes found their mark and the Indy began taking on water.
“I was in my scivies and I jumped up and just put my pants and shirt on and was carrying my shoes and the second torpedo hit,” said Seaman 1st Class Lyle Umenhoffer. “I stood there for a just a few more minutes and then the ship started going over on the starboard side so I slid from the port side over to the starboard side and hit a hatch and tumbled off into the water and that’s where I wound up was in the oil.”
It took about 12 minutes for the ship to sink and of the 1,196 Sailors and Marines on board, about 900 made it into the water.
Attack from a different enemy:
Few life rafts we deployed as the ship went down. Most of the men wore the standard kapok life jacket, which was rated to be used as a flotation device for up to three days.
As the crew formed into groups and clung to whatever floating debris they could find, the rising sun revealed in the crystal clear water that they were not alone.
Below the surface, sharks began to circle.
“You’d watch them,” said Umenhoffer. “You could see the fins coming and watch them and they would get up to close to you like that and you would reach out to them and try to kick them real quick.”
The searing sun and no food or water was too much for many of the men to endure over the next four days. Many began drinking seawater to try and quench their thirst. Hallucinations began within minutes.
Some Sailors began having visions of rescue or land in the distance. They would swim away from the group and either succumb to exhaustion or be taken by sharks.
Others became combative and fought their shipmates, dragging both down.
“Keep together. Don’t drink the water,” said Umenhoffer.
“A lot of them would swim away from the group because they were drinking the water and they were going crazy and they said,’I see a ship out there. There’s land out there,’ and they would take their life jackets off and start swimming out away from the group and as soon as they get about 10 or 15 feet, well bang, a shark would take them.”
In the early afternoon of the fourth day, Lt. j.g. Wilbur C. Gwinn, flying a PV-1 Ventura Bomber, noticed a flicker of light on the water. Circling closer, Gwinn discovered people floating in the middle of the sea. Not knowing if they were friend or foe and not being able to render assistance from the air, Gwinn radioed his base at Peleiu and alerted them to “many men in the water.”
“He went over us and come back waving his wings and when he did that, I said that was the prettiest airplane I ever saw,” said Fire Controlman 3rd Class Cleatus Lebow.
A PBY seaplane, piloted by Lt. R. Adrian Marks, was sent to report on the situation and render aid by dropping life rafts and supplies. As marks arrived, he observed Sailors in the water being attacked by sharks. Disobeying a standing order to not land in the open sea, Marks put his plane down slamming the pontoons into a wave, which rendered unable to take off again but still afloat.
Marks began taxiing over the rolling waves and snatching up as many survivors as he could. When the PBY crew filled the fuselage, they began placing some of the Sailors on the wings and tied them down with parachute cord.
Hours later, the USS Cecil Doyle (DD 368) arrived and began taking survivors from the PBY. Disregarding the safety of his own ship and crew, he aimed his largest searchlight into the sky as a beacon for the six other ships that were coming to assist.
“The guy asked how many of us could stand up and climb that rope ladder up to the deck,” said Lebow. “I said I can, and the next thing I know I’m in a litter up on the deck where they’d hauled me up.
After nearly five days in the water, 317 of the original 1,196 crew were finally rescued. Many didn’t speak about their ordeal for a long time, but now, 70 years later, survivors gather for a reunion in downtown Indianapolis to reconnect and remember.
At the ages of 88 to 93, the survivors have vowed to continue coming back to honor their shipmates until the last one is left.