Today marks the 70th anniversary of the greatest loss of life in American Naval history, the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis on July 30, 1945. On July 16, the Indianapolis left San Francisco with the enriched uranium which would be used in the Hiroshima atomic bomb. She reached Pearl Harbor on July 19 and raced on to Tinian with the cargo, where she arrived on July 26. After delivering this top secret cargo, the ship continued to Guam and then Leyte, where the crew was to receive training.
Shortly after midnight on July 30, she was struck by two Japanese torpedoes, sinking in minutes. About 300 of the 1196 crewmen went down with the ship. The remainder were set adrift with few lifeboats and many without lifejackets.
Due to radio silence and general miscommunication, the ship was not missed when its scheduled arrival time passed. The 880 men drifted forgotten. Most perished from exposure and dehydration, although the attack is most famous for the sharks the men had to contend with. Undoubtedly, some of the men were killed by sharks, but it is more likely that most of the victims succomed to exposure and dehydation, with the dead being driven off by sharks.
The men were discovered by accident three and a half days later when Lt. Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn and Lt. Warren Colwell spotted the men adrift during a routine patrol fight.
Only 317 men ultimately survived. Over 800 men lost their lives.
Ironically, the disaster was not reported by the newspapers until August 15. The greatest naval disaster in American history was decidedly a less important news story that day, since the papers also reported Japan’s surrender and the end of the war.