Remembering the USS Indianapolis - VA History Office
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Remembering the USS Indianapolis

USS Indianapolis crew on deck during WWII.
Members of the ship's crew pose in the well deck, during World War II. Photograph was taken prior to her final overhaul (completed in July 1945). Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

In the first minutes of July 30, 1945, two torpedoes fired from Japanese submarine I-58 struck the starboard side of USS Indianapolis (CA 35). The first torpedo ripped off the ship’s bow and the second hit crew berthing areas, also knocking out communications. Within fifteen-minutes, the decorated warship began its descent to the bottom of the Philippine Sea. Around 300 crew died in the initial blasts or were trapped and went down with their ship. Between 800-900 went into the water. 

USS Indianapolis sailing from Tinian Island after delivering parts for an atomic weapon.
Indianapolis preparing to leave Tinian after delivering atomic bomb components, circa 26 July 1945.  Photograph by Major Harley G. Toomey, Jr., USAF(Retired), donated 1971. Photo courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Indianapolis had just completed her top-secret delivery of atomic bomb components to Tinian, an island in the Northern Marianas, days earlier and was now returning to the Philippines unescorted to prepare for the invasion of mainland Japan. Damage prevented transmission of a distress signal and misunderstood directives led to the Navy not reporting the ship’s failure to arrive. The Sailors and Marines who went into the water had only their shipmates for support. The pilot of a U.S. Navy Lockheed PV-1 twin-engine patrol bomber located the survivors in the water by pure chance after spotting an oil slick while adjusting an antenna the afternoon of August 2. The men had been adrift for four days. A massive air and surface rescue operation ensued over the course of that night and through the following day. Out of 1,195 men, only 316 survived the ordeal, four additional Sailors were rescued but died shortly after.

Funeral held for a Sailor that died post-rescue.
Funeral of one of the four crew who died after rescue, at U.S. Army Forces (USAF) cemetery, Peleliu. C.D. Denham, ChC USNR officiating. 6 August 1945.  The remains of all four crew who died after rescue were repatriated to the United States.  S2c Ralph Peterson is the only one buried in a national cemetery—Fort Snelling National Cemetery, MN, SECTION C-24, SITE 13541. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The survivors faced incomprehensible misery. They were scattered miles apart in seven distinct groups. Some were fortunate to have gone in the water near rafts and floating rations. Others, including the largest group of around 400, had nothing but their life vests and floater nets. Men suffered from exposure, severe dehydration, attacks by hallucinating shipmates, exhaustion, hypothermia, and shark attacks. Many drank sea water, initiating a horrible death.

Three members of the rescued crew recovering.
S1c John Olijar, USNR (center) stands with shipmates (L to R) Huie H. Phillips S2c, USNR and Glenn L. Milbrodt S2c, USNR at Naval Base Hospital No. 20, Peleliu, Auust 5, 1945.  Olijar was interred at Riverside National Cemetery, CA, on December 15, 1985, SECTION 20, SITE 3977. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Those of the crew that went down with the ship or died in the water are memorialized on the Walls of the Missing in the American Battle Monuments Commission’s Manila American Cemetery. Forty-eight survivors rest in the NCA’s national cemeteries. Riverside National Cemetery, California and Fort Snelling National Cemetery, Minnesota represent the largest groupings of these Veterans. On May 9, 2021, survivor James Wesley Smith, S2c was interred in Mountain Home National Cemetery, TN. Only five survivors from the disaster were still living as of June 2021.

Statement taken from a survivor during the investigation into the sinking.
“Account of Survivor John Olijar, S1c, USNR,” Correspondence Relating to the Sinking of USS Indianapolis, RG 24, Box 1, NARA II, College Park, Md. These are handwritten letters of survivors shortly after rescue prepared for the Navy’s initial investigation into the loss.

Transcription:  “John Olijar S1/c 959-00-85, I was sleeping in a hammock on the Boat deck. About 1200 or 1230 AM Monday morning of 30th July. An explosion threw me out of my hammock on the deck. I got a life jacket. Then there was another explosion by the forward stack. I went to the Port Side and cut the Jacke up ladders so they would hang over the side. But before I had a chance to cut the other I was push over into the water. So I swam away from the ship on the port side.”

On the 75th anniversary of the sinking, surviving crewmembers were virtually presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. The presentation coincided with their annual reunion. It is important to reflect on the service and experience of Indianapolis’s final crew, give thanks to those still with us, and remember those who passed. Their seamanship brought the delivery of components for the atomic bomb Little Boy to Tinian which hastened the end of World War II. Additionally, their ordeal compelled the Navy to make improvements that undoubtedly saved the lives of countless Sailors and Marines.

By Richard Hulver, Ph.D., Historian, National Cemetery Administration

Note: This story was first posted on the VA VAntage Point blog in 2020

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