Surviving the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis

Hundreds of the ship's crew floated on the Pacific for days. Their location and fate were unknown to the US Navy. 

uss indianapolis

A native of Massachusetts, Harlan Twible was a fresh graduate of the US Naval Academy when he was assigned to the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) in late June 1945. He had wanted to be assigned to a newer, more glamorous ship, desiring to be either a naval aviator or a submariner. Like any young, confident Academy graduate, Twible wanted to carve a place for himself in history, and he assumed that a cruiser like the Indianapolis, affectionately known as the “Indy” to her crew, would not be that ship. Fate would prove him wrong on that assumption.

On July 26, 1945, Twible and “Indy” were sitting dockside on the island of Tinian. Twible, serving as officer of the deck that day, looked out across the pier and noticed an abnormally large contingent of “brass”—high ranking military officers—clustered in large groups on the pier. What Twible did not know at the time was that his ship had transported vital parts for the world’s first nuclear weapon to be used in warfare to scientists on Tinian. The ship’s mission was top secret, so the officers and men alike had no idea of their cargo’s importance or why there were so many high-ranking officers watching the crew unload its vital cargo. “There were admirals . . . everything that was of importance on the island of Tinian was there to greet what we later found out was the bomb,” he said.  

Following the delivery of her cargo, the “Indy” was sent to Guam and ordered to join with other surface forces in the area of Leyte Gulf, Philippines, for further training before the invasion of Japan. On the night of July 30, 1945, “Indy” was sailing toward her rendezvous with the fleet at a speed of 17 knots, unescorted and alone. Shortly after midnight, the heavy cruiser was struck by two Japanese torpedoes fired from the submarine I-58. The first torpedo blew the bow off of the ship while the second struck nearly amidships near the powder magazine. The resulting explosion literally split the ship to the keel, knocking out all power and causing her to sink by the bow rapidly.  

Aboard the stricken vessel, young Ensign Twible looked around to find no officers taking charge of the chaotic situation. “We knew we were in trouble,” he said. “So I took command and I told them to hang on to anything they could hang on to. . . . Then when the tilt became too great . . . I gave the order to abandon ship. Nobody abandoned, then I yelled, 'Follow me!' And the bodies came in so fast it was unbelievable.” Twible jumped into the sea and immediately swam away from the ship. Indianapolis went down in a mere 12 minutes, bringing nearly 300 of her crew down with her. As she disappeared beneath the waves, 900 of the ship’s crew floated in the Pacific Ocean, their location and fate unknown to the US Navy.    

Following the ship’s sinking, the next task at hand for Twible and his shipmates was survival on the open sea. Many of the crew, including Twible, had been wounded during the torpedo explosions, some grievously. “Everybody was scared to death,” he said. “These were all 18- and 19-year-old kids.”  Despite their young age, the men were somewhat calm after they were put into the water. “There wasn’t any fighting, any turmoil.” he said. “But everybody was scared.” Many of the crew formed into groups for mutual protection as the night wore on. As the sun rose, Twible conducted a head count and realized that he was the only officer in charge of 325 survivors.  

As day one wore on to day four, many of the men began to lose faith that they would ever be rescued. “We tried to keep the men thinking that they would be saved, but there was no way  in God’s green earth that I knew we were gonna be saved,” he said. “My fear was really for the men, not for myself. My biggest concern was that the people we could save, we saved them.”  

Desperation and fear grew among the men floating in the shark-infested waters. The common image of the story of the Indianapolis is that of hundreds of men being ravaged by sharks for days on end.  While there were many shark attacks, the exact figure for death by shark attack among the survivors is unknown; there were many survivors who never even saw a shark. Twible and his group, however, were not among those fortunate men. The sharks grabbed some of the survivors who had floated away from the larger groups, so Twible organized “shark watches” to keep the men together and fend off the sharks when they came in. The sharks usually stayed away from the larger groups, which would beat and kick the sharks, normally forcing them away. Still, the predators took their toll on the survivors on Twible’s group. Twible insisted on cutting the dead men off of floating wreckage they had tied themselves to, then pushing the dead out to sea so that those who remained would not have a constant visual example of their potential fate.

After four days and five nights, the survivors were finally sighted by a US Navy aircraft on routine patrol. The pilot radioed the report of “many men in the water,” which alerted a PBY flying boat that in turn alerted a nearby destroyer, the USS Cecil Doyle (DD-368). Rescuing sailors through the night, the PBY and the destroyer were the answer to the survivor’s prayers. Of the 900 men who went into the water, only 316 survived to be rescued. The Indianapolis disaster remains one of the worst—and most controversial—tragedies in US Navy history.  

Harlan Twible stayed in the Navy following World War II, serving through the Korean War, eventually retiring in 1958 due to health issues sustained during his time floating in the Pacific Ocean. He entered the business world and became successful, retiring at age 54 and moving to Florida with his wife. Like many combat veterans, Harlan Twible never talked about the disaster in the years immediately following the war. He tried his best to forget what had happened, and didn’t discuss the sinking and his time adrift at sea, not even with his wife. Initially, the horrible experience was too much for Twible to share, but his thoughts eventually changed. He feels that talking about the disaster helps people remember it and honors those who never made it out of the sea. Reflecting on his decision to order the crew to abandon ship, he said, “What decision could I ever make that was anywhere near as important (as) the decision to tell those men to throw their lives into the water? That was one of the biggest decisions I ever made. I was gambling everybody’s life that we were gonna win.” 

Contributor

Seth Paridon

Seth Paridon has been a staff historian at The National WWII Museum since 2005. He began his career conducting oral histories and research for HBO’s miniseries The Pacific and holds the distinction of being the first historian hired by the Museum’s Research Department. In the 12 years he was Manager of Research Services, Seth and his team increased the oral history collection from 25 to nearly 5,000 oral histories. 

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