USS Indianapolis – History’s Greatest Shark Attack
In tribute to The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, which is currently in full swing, we bring to you the sinking of the USS Indianapolis CA-35, resulting in what is considered by many the worst shark attack of all time.
In the early morning hours of July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis, just 4 days after it delivered the first combat-ready atomic bomb to the US air base at Tinian Island in the Pacific, was fatally struck by torpedoes from Japanese subs. Within minutes, some 900 of the 1,196 men on board were in the shark infested waters, equipped only with life jackets. Few life rafts were deployed.
The shark attacks began with the rising sun that morning and continued until the remaining men were rescued just over 4 days later. Of the initial 900 or so men that went into the water, only 317 survived, making it the worst maritime disaster in U.S. Navy history.
We all remember the scene in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller ‘Jaws’ where Quint, the shark fisherman, is describing the horrible scenes that took place during the 4 days in the water. Here it is again just for the heck of it.
Now it’s come about since Jaws came out that Quint’s rendition of what happened is not quite accurate (although it makes for a great story!), here is an actual first hand account from survivor Woody Eugene James:
The next morning we kind of counted heads the best we could. There was about 150 people in the group. We were scattered around quite a bit. Well this isn’t too bad, we thought, we’ll be picked up today. They knew we were out here after all we were due in the Philippines this morning at 11:00 so when we don’t show they’ll know. If they didn’t get a message off, but we’re sure they got a message off, they’ll still know where we are so no sweat, we’ll be picked up before the days over.
So the day passed, night came and it was cold. IT WAS COLD. The next mornin the sun come up and warmed things up and then it got unbearably hot so you start praying for the sun to go down so you can cool off again.
When the sharks showed up, in fact they showed up the afternoon before but I don’t know of anybody being bit. Maybe one on the second day but we just know we’ll be picked up today. They’ve got it all organized by now, they’ll be out here pretty soon and get us, we all thought. The day wore on and the sharks were around. Come night time and nobody showed up. We had another night of cold, prayin for the sun to come up. What a long night.
The sun finally did rise and it got warmed up again. Some of the guys been drinkin salt water by now, and they were goin bezerk. They’d tell you big stories about the Indianapolis is not sunk, its’ just right there under the surface. I was just down there and had a drink of water out of the drinkin fountain and the Geedunk is still open. The geedunk bein the commissary where you buy ice cream, cigarettes, candy, what have you, “it’s still open” they’d tell ya. “Come on we’ll go get a drink of water”, and then 3 or 4 guys would believe this story and go with them.
The day wore on and the sharks were around, hundreds of them. You’d hear guys scream, especially late in the afternoon. Seemed like the sharks were the worst late in the afternoon than they were during the day. Then they fed at night too. Everything would be quiet and then you’d hear somebody scream and you knew a shark had got him.
It didn’t ever get any cooler in the daytime. In fact, Newhall asked me, he said, “James, do you think it’s’ any hotter in hell than it is here?” I said, “I don’t know, Jim, but if it is, I ain’t goin.”
We were hungry, thirsty, no water, no food, no sleep, getting dehydrated, water logged and more of the guys were goin bezerk. There was fights goin on so Jim and I decided to heck with this, we’ll get away from this bunch before we get hurt. So he and I kind of drifted off by ourselves. We tied our life jackets together so we’d stay together. Jim was in pretty good shape to begin with, but he was burned like crazy. His hand was burned, he couldn’t hold on to anything, couldn’t touch anything.
Then the next day arrived. By this time I would have give my front seat in heaven and walked the rotten log all the way through hell for just one cool drink of water. My mouth was so dry it was like cotton. How I got up enough nerve to take a mouth full of salt water and rinse my mouth out and spit it out I don’t know but I did. Did it a couple of times before the mornin was over. That’s probably why I ended up with salt-water ulcers in my throat. When we got picked up my throat was bigger than my head.
Anyway, we’re out there in the sun prayin for it to go down again, then low and behold there’s a plane. Course there had been planes everyday since day one. They were real high and some of the floaters had mirrors that tried to attract them, but nothing. Anyway, this one showed up and flew by and we thought, “Oh hell, he didn’t see us either. He’s gone.” Then we seen him turn and come back and we knew we had been spotted. What a relief that was.
So he did, he came back and flew over us. It was a little PV1 Ventura. It was out on submarine patrol and he spotted us. He radioed back to his base and instead of sending some help out, the Navy sent one plane out. One PBY that came out and circled and radioed back to the base that there was a bunch of people in the water and he needed more assistance and more survival gear. The pilot ended up landin in the water and picked up a lot of guys, the single guys, one or two guys that were together so the afternoon went on. Late in the afternoon before dark there was another PBY on the scene. He dropped his survival gear and he dropped a little three-man rubber raft. Jim and I tried to swim to it. He made it but I didn’t. I was just so wore out from holding him up and hangin on to him all day and the night before, I just couldn’t make it but he did. About the time he got on it there was two other guys so there is three of them total in it and that’s all it was made for, three.
Anyway, the other direction there was two guys in the water and the two guys in the raft told Jim, “we’ll go over there and pick those two up”. Jim said, “No, we’re goin go pick Woody up then we’ll go get those two guys.” They said “Nope, we’re goin to do it the other way.” The raft contained those little aluminum oars that come in two pieces and Jim put one of them together and threw the other one over board. “Okay you guys, I don’t want to be mean but we’re goin over to get Woody and you guys are goin to do the paddling by hand. If you don’t things, are goin to happen with this oar that you ain’t agoin to like.” So they came over and picked me up and that’s how I owe Jim Newhall my life. If it had not been for that I wouldn’t be here tellin this story.
So they picked me up, then we went and got the other two guys. Now there’s six of us on this raft. It’s getting pretty crowded but we run onto three other guys and we picked them up. Now there’s nine of us on this little raft. It’s just about dark and figure we’ll make it through the night one way or another. About midnight, a little bit before there was a light shining off of the bottom of the cloud and we knew then we were saved. That was the spotlight of the Cecil Doyle. The Navy is on the scene. There’s a ship comin. You can’t believe how happy we were, guys screamin and yellin, “We’re saved, We’re saved.”
Morning of the 5th Day
The Doyle arrived on the scene and started pickin survivors out of the water a little after midnight. It was daylight the next morning that he came along side us in our little raft. Boy, what a happy day that was to get my feet on the deck again.
For the rest of this story and other interesting facts about the USS Indianapolis CA-35, check out the official website HERE.
Also check out information on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week HERE
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