March 29, 2008


I just watched a show on the Discovery Channel called "Ocean of Fear" about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. I had never heard this story before: the cruiser was sunk by the Japanese, and the survivors floated in the Phillipine Sea for four days, suffering dehydration, injuries, and shark attacks. Shark attacks. Can you imagine surviving a torpedo in war only to float among sharks for days? And then imagine having your hand bit off by a shark and being shoved off the raft to fend for yourself because your crewmates think you'll attract more sharks.

The wikipedia entry contains this sentence:

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.

Imagine if this happened today. I have never heard of this WWII disaster at all -- and perhaps that's just my ignorance -- but it would be a major scandal if anything remotely like this happened today. People like to blame Bush and Rumsfeld for everything under the sun, but it's not like mistakes haven't been made in previous wars.

And a commander getting too drunk to answer an SOS and letting 500 men die floating in the water, well, the word "mistake" doesn't even begin to describe it.

(And shows like this, this is why I usually watch reruns of cop dramas. At least they're fiction. This just makes my heart shudder. It's excruciating. I will probably fret about this story for the rest of the day.)

Posted by: Sarah at 09:57 AM | Comments (13) | Add Comment
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1 Dude, nothing on wikipedia is necessarily true. That's why they call it wikipedia. Your Indianapolis story sounds like a military legend.

Posted by: Will at March 29, 2008 10:31 AM (0Yps+)

2 Will, the event was real enough, including the sharks and the days in the water, although I don't have any idea whether the wiki details about SOS reports are accurate. Sarah, I may actually get to visit your state in a few weeks; if temps up here continue to stay below normal, by then I'll be more than ready for some warm air and some green! And if you want something else more hopeful to think about, try finding "The Brain that Changes Itself" (Norman Doidge, 2007) through your library. It's a fascinating and accessible read about the adaptability of the human brain, and it might even bolster your optimism about people and the surprising extent of their capabilities. I've been pushing copies on my relatives... And, thanks for blogging.

Posted by: Piercello at March 29, 2008 12:09 PM (XDfnG)

3 Will, I am just stunned by how stupid you sound. Wow. Are those sites "official" enough for you? Jeeeesus. And here's the link to the original source for the paragraph I quoted that Wikipedia cited: Military legend? You are an ass.

Posted by: Sarah at March 29, 2008 01:02 PM (TWet1)

4 The story is beyond itself. The first time I heard of it was, ohmygosh, 15 years ago? ONLY because some local elementary student had been watching 'Jaws' with his parents.... And the captain of the vessel that Dreyfus and, uhm, what's-his-face, Roy Schneider are on, waiting for the killer shark, all shit-faced.... And the captain starts telling a story about it, relating the horror of shark attacks.... Anyhow, the kid in school asked if the story were correct and did research. Yup. That bad, ifin not worse.... "Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte... just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that when you're in the water, Chief? You tell by looking from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn't know, was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn't even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin', so we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know, it was kinda like old squares in the battle like you see in the calendar named "The Battle of Waterloo" and the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark go away... but sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark... he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living... until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and they... rip you to pieces. You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don't know how many sharks, maybe a thousand. I know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday morning, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boatswain's mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up, down in the water just like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he'd been bitten in half below the waist. Noon, the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us. He swung in low and he saw us... he was a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper. Anyway, he saw us and he come in low and three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and starts to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened... waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water; 316 men come out and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb."

Posted by: Allison at March 29, 2008 08:23 PM (t6J0P)

5 I first heard about it as kid, when I saw "Jaws". Quint was a survivor from the Indianaopolis.

Posted by: Clive at March 30, 2008 02:46 AM (alsPM)

6 Wikipedia is sometimes reliable and sometimes not. In this case it looks like the entry was somewhat distorted, but perhaps not intentionally so. There's no way that Indianapolis was able to send three distress messages in ten minutes. However, several websites state that she sent one message that was received by three different shore stations, but was then ignored. I can't find any independent verification of the reasons for the ignoring, although several pages state that Japanese radio deception was common and so unverified messages were typically ignored. A great deal of material from WW2 was classified under a fifty-year rule. Most of that was declassified starting in 1990, and many new books have been published based on that material. Some of them bear out the older versions of events. Others rewrite the conventional history of WW2 to large or small extents.

Posted by: wolfwalker at March 30, 2008 03:25 AM (eUc4O)

7 Wolf..."There's no way that Indianapolis was able to send three distress messages in ten minutes"...why not? SOS message, including latitude & longitude coordinates, should take no more than a couple of minutes to transmit in Morse code. It would have take longer if the message had to be encrypted, but it's unlikely they would have done this, given that the ship had already been hit.

Posted by: david foster at March 30, 2008 04:57 AM (ke+yX)

8 You know, I hate to sound like a cranky old lady, but that is what is missing in education. People who are grown and should know better haven't heard much about WWII. It drives me up the wall to hear someone say or write something like Will did. He must have a real unquestioning mind to write what he did. I have a hunch he really doesn't want to know about other wars and sacrifices made for this country. Too many people are getting out of high school, college, and I hate to say it, graduate school without a thorough knowledge of history. Too much war is bad, USA bad, not enough war got us a great nation back in the 1700's and we have had to fight to keep it great. I'd better stop now, the computer is fogging up with all the steam coming out of my ears!!

Posted by: Ruth H at March 30, 2008 12:03 PM (BkiKe)

9 Jim and I watched this program one night a couple of weeks ago. It's like a car wreck: horrible, but you can't look away. I know what you mean about watching fiction, but honestly, sometimes (now more than ever) watching those are too close to home and reality, too.

Posted by: Kate at March 30, 2008 12:40 PM (576n8)

10 I read a book about 5 years ago - Ordeal By Sea by Thomas Helm - that is about this story. It was amazing. If you're interested, it has personal accounts by the survivors in it.

Posted by: Kahne at March 31, 2008 04:46 AM (8/Y1L)

11 Well I can see three SOS messages brodcast in 10 minutes, but it doesn't make sense that the first was received one place, then shortly after, the second was received a second place, then shortly after that, the third was received a third place. Anyone listening probably got all the messages that were sent, and that happened to be three places.

Posted by: Locomotive Breath at April 01, 2008 07:36 AM (/V62y)

12 I once dated a Navy guy, whose Dad was also in the Navy in his youth. We were sitting around after dinner one night (his Dad was way older then my Dad, almost a generation older) and we were talking about sharks somehow. The Dad was saying the vessel he was stationed on was captained/ commanded by a guy who had survived a horrible wreck at sea and they were out to sea for weeks and were attacked by sharks. The captain really hated sharks. He said that sometimes the captain would throw all the trash in the water and when the sharks came to eat it he would shoot them with the on deck guns, and would act really crazy :: shrug:: Hearsay, I know, but I always wondered if that was a real situation and that story has always stuck out in my mind.

Posted by: Jenna at April 01, 2008 05:23 PM (+1xmu)

13 It is a sad scary story. My daughter and I read a book about it a couple of years ago. "Left for Dead: A Young Man's Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis" by Pete Nelson. You can find it in the Juvenille section at your library. I highly recommend it. It really is a fascinating book and follows the lives of a few of the survivors.

Posted by: wendy's tiki hut at April 03, 2008 12:41 AM (56tHP)

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