On this day in 1945, the USS Indianapolis is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sinks within minutes in shark-infested waters. Only 316 of the 1,196 men on board survived. However, the Indianapolis had already completed its major mission: the delivery of key components of the atomic bomb that would be dropped a week later at Hiroshima to Tinian Island in the South Pacific.
The Indianapolis made its delivery to Tinian Island on July 26, 1945. The mission was top secret and the ship’s crew was unaware of its cargo. After leaving Tinian, the Indianapolis sailed to the U.S. military’s Pacific headquarters at Guam and was given orders to meet the battleship USS Idaho at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan.
Shortly after midnight on July 30, halfway between Guam and Leyte Gulf, a Japanese sub blasted the Indianapolis, sparking an explosion that split the ship and caused it to sink in approximately 12 minutes, with about 300 men trapped inside. Another 900 went into the water, where many died from drowning, shark attacks, dehydration or injuries from the explosion. Help did not arrive until four days later, on August 2, when an anti-submarine plane on routine patrol happened upon the men and radioed for assistance.
On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, inflicting nearly 130,000 casualties and destroying more than 60 percent of the city. On August 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, where casualties were estimated at over 66,000. Meanwhile, the U.S. government kept quiet about the Indianapolis tragedy until August 15 in order to guarantee that the news would be overshadowed by President Harry Truman’s announcement that Japan had surrendered.
In the aftermath of the events involving the Indianapolis, the ship’s commander, Captain Charles McVay, was court-martialed in November 1945 for failing to sail a zigzag course that would have helped the ship to evade enemy submarines in the area. McVay, the only Navy captain court-martialed for losing a ship during the war, committed suicide in 1968. Many of his surviving crewmen believed the military had made him a scapegoat. In 2000, 55 years after the Indianapolis went down, Congress cleared McVay’s name.