“Afternoon of Horror”: Remembering the USS Indianapolis
On August 2nd, 1945, Naval pilot Lieutenant Adrian Marks puzzled over the garbled report sent in by the Lockheed Ventura.
The Ventura, on routine sub patrol in the open ocean, had said radioed his position and then something about a “life raft”. One life raft? It seemed to Marks that, at tiny Peleliu Island, about two thousand miles south of Japan, a single life raft floating in the open ocean seemed unlikely. Maybe a fellow pilot ditched out there? Try as he did, Marks couldn’t reach the Ventura for a follow-up.
Marks was no dummy. A Hoosier born in Ladoga, Indiana, he had graduated from Northwestern University and then earned a law degree at Indiana University before volunteering for the Navy. In December of 1941 he had been stationed at Pearl Harbor and saw the infamous destruction first hand. After the US entered World War II, Marks became a Navy pilot, commanding and piloting a PBY Catalina (his affectionately nicknamed Dumbo) over the Pacific.
Marks and his crew quickly flew straight to the reported position of the life raft, not sure what they would find. What they did find was so heart wrenching that he couldn’t recall the sight without a shudder decades later.
Below them, in the choppy Pacific waters, were hundreds of men, most in clumps, some obviously dead. Their heads bobbed low in the 12-foot swells of the ocean, and they were surrounded by the rainbow sheen of a fuel slick. Bodies stretched across open-bottom life rafts and hands waved up at the plane desperately. Their tortured faces, blackened by the sun and fuel, craned up at the low-flying Catalina, begging for rescue. Marks saw they were Americans.
Years later, Marks would recall the day as “a sun-swept afternoon of horror.”
Hundreds of American sailors meant a downed US ship, but neither Marks nor any Navy rescue ship had heard of a missing American ship. There was good reason. The crew of the cruiser USS Indianapolis had delivered the essential components of “Little Boy”, the first atom bomb in history, which would be dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th. Followed by “Fat Man” two days later, the two atomic bombs would end the worst war in human history.
Because of its priceless cargo, which had cost several times more to develop than the USS Indianapolis herself, the mission had no paper trail. It had never left anywhere, it had never arrived anywhere, and no one knew to monitor its distress call as it quickly sank on July 30th, after two Japanese torpedoes tore its belly open. Although the Indianapolis sent out a distress signal, which was received by three separate stations, the radio operators thought the message a mistake or Japanese deception. All three ignored it.
The USS Indianapolis sank in twelve minutes with a crew of 1200 men, of which 800 were able to escape the sinking ship, but the survivors had little time to gather supplies.
For four days, they had bobbed in the saltwater, dying from thirst, from exposure, from drinking seawater and the ship’s fuel, which had settled around them in a corona. Many were blinded by the stinging fuel seeping into their eyes.
Hallucinations from thirst and exposure plagued the men. Some sailors had gone mad and attacked others, imagining hidden stashes of freshwater and food, and the murdered bodies were set adrift. Some stabbed widely at their fellows, claiming the Japanese were attacking. When a warbling voice insisted freshwater was leaking up from the Indianapolis in a beautiful underwater river or that the ship’s cantina was open and serving ice cream, dozens of men dove desperately beneath the water only to drown.
After a few days in the ocean, the buoyant material in their rafts and life belts had become saturated and heavy with water. Only their heads remained above water by this point, the salt of the ocean washing over their blistered skin. A few had managed to find supplies, but these were quickly eaten or stolen.
Most terrifying of all were the hundreds of fin tips that endlessly circled around the men. Sharks. Hundreds of sharks. They mostly went after the dead or dying, but they’d go for live ones too, only leaving if a sailor got lucky enough to bang it on the nose. But these sharks, mostly oceanic whitetip sharks, but also voracious tiger sharks, would move on and find less “combative” prey. Hour after sailors watched one another get eaten alive, sometimes only a few feet away.
It was Hell—men weeping, begging, screams, curses, rage and madness. Tongues swollen like fleshy sponges from dehydration. Water coated with blood and fuel and sharks. And overhead, the knife rays of the sun bore into them with no shadow or shelter for escape and at night, the chilled water leached out any remaining strength.
These hundreds of surviving souls of the USS Indianapolis experienced four days of nightmarish torture that cripple the imagination.
Hundreds of feet up and in the safety of Dumbo, Marks could easily see the sharks’ shadows beneath the water. Too many to count. The sharks swam in lazy circles around the clumped men. It wasn’t a frenzy, but more like their third plate at an All-You-Can-Eat buffet.
Like a good soldier, Marks leaned on his training to quash his horror. He knew his job well. His plane could land and takeoff in in water as easily as any landing strip, which made it the most popular amphibious plane of the Pacific Theatre. But he had very clear standing orders—orders that would mean a court-martial if he disobeyed. He could not risk his plane or his crew in the open ocean in water as rough as this.
He quickly radioed his position and situation and was assured help was on the way, but he knew it would be hours or even a full day before ships would pull all these men out of the water.
Marks dropped the supplies they carried, which seemed no better than a Band-Aid to a gunshot victim now. Fresh life rafts and emergency shipwreck kits tumbled from his plane, but the wind and rough seas carried them away from the hopeful and blackened faces. If Marks followed orders, he would remain above the survivors as long as his fuel allowed, and then head back to Peleliu Island.
But Marks could not turn away. Instead, he asked his crew to vote. It wasn’t just his life or career or plane he was risking, it was them as well. To his pride, every member on his crew agreed with him: orders be damned. They quickly brought Dumbo down, taxing carefully to the floating survivors. They hauled men abroad and fed them spoonfuls of freshwater, although the plane only carried four gallons, which they quickly used up.
His crew focused on picking up sailors floating alone or in pairs, not those in rafts or in large groups, which he felt stood a better chance against the sea and sharks. ’’They could look after one another,” Marks later said, “could splash and scare away the sharks and could lend one another moral support and encouragement.”
They pulled out as many survivors as they could and when the Catalina ran out of room in the fuselage, Marks shut off the engines and placed men atop Dumbo’s wings, lashing them for safety with the cording from parachutes. Every inch of the Catalina was covered with delirious, sun-scorched men, but they had only rescued fifty-six. Hundreds more still floated out there, pleading for help.
Night came and the crying voices rose up from the darkness, haunting Marks and his crew, who had long since ran out of room on Dumbo. Every once in awhile the pleading would be broken by a scream as a shark took another sailor.
And then a single, brilliant spotlight appeared on the horizon, streaking into the sky like a spear. Marks worked the radio and found out that was the USS Cecil J. Doyle, a 300-foot destroyer escort, which had immediately hauled out to Marks as soon as it heard his report. It shot the spotlight into the air to announce their arrival to the desperate and dying men of the USS Indianapolis. For the rest of their lives, the survivors remembered that spotlight.
It would take a full day for the Doyle and the seven other rescue ships on the scene to pick up the survivors. The survivors came first, and then the morbid duty of gathering any remains, which were few. The sharks had done their job.
Sadly, once the sailors were removed from Dumbo, Marks saw its wings were horribly misshapen. Their beloved Catalina would never fly again. Marks and his crew, certain they would be facing a severe reprimand if not an all-out court-martial, abandoned the plane and the Doyle opened fire on her so the Japanese could not repurpose it. The rescue plane shattered under the Doyle’s guns and sank into the Pacific, close to the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis, which rested three miles under the surface.
Of the 1200 sailors assigned to the USS Indianapolis, over 800 had escaped the torpedoed cruiser. Of those, only 316 were pulled out of the water on August 2 and 3. The Japanese surrendered to Allied forces August 15th.
Lieutenant Adrian Marks, a proud son of Indiana and even prouder Naval officer, waited for the hammer to fall. It didn’t. Instead, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief of all Allied naval forces in the Pacific, pinned the prestigious Air Medal on Marks, awarded for the pilot’s bravery, quick-thinking, and knowing when to disobey orders.
After the war, Adrian Marks returned to Frankfort, Indiana, and continued practicing law. He frequently attended gatherings of the USS Indianapolis, and spoke openly about the rescue. For him, it wasn’t his actions that should be remembered, but the lives and memories of the sailors lost in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. As painful as it was, he told the story because it was their story.