17. Jun, 2017

The USS Indianapolis, the sinking, sharks and survivors,

The sinking of the heavy cruiser  USS Indianapolis, at the tail end of World War II, was the worst at-sea disaster in U.S. naval history, surpassed only by Pearl Harbour.  The ship went on a secret solo mission from San Francisco to Tinian, a small island in the Pacific. The objective was to deliver two key components for the atomic bomb that would ultimately fall on Hiroshima.  Its secret mission over, the cruiser departed Guam and steamed for Leyte, an island in the Philippines, for training. Shorthly after midnight on  28 July 1945 the Indianapolis was hit by two torpedo’s  from the Japanese submarine I-52, and sank in just 12 minutes.   

The sinking. Of the 1200 saylors 800 went into the water but only 316 survived the nearly five-day ordeal. The survivors were not spotted until August 2  1945.   The US Navy had received alarm signals, but assumed that  they came from  the Japanese to lure their enemy.  The ship had no escort and no sonar for detecting the submarines. Part of the tragedy is that the Navy did not know of the sinking for a few days, when finally an anti-sub patrol airplane spotted an oil spill and survivors bobbing in the water. Every year end July the now remaining 31 survivors  used to get together for a reunion in Indianapolis to commemorate the event, remember the dead, and celebrate the lives they were lucky not to loose.

The Indianapolis is, albeit indirectly, connected with a significant event in my personal life. The ship delivered two key components for the atomic bomb that would ultimately fall on Hiroshima and  destroy almost  the entire populations of two Japanse cities. The bomb  put an end to the war in South East Asia, and  lead to the liberation of thousands of Dutch civilians emprisoned in Japanese camps in the Dutch Indies since 1942. This also included me, a little boy of 6 years, and my  mother,  staying in the women camp Banjubiru in middle Java. I can still remember that night end August 1945. The Red Cross packages were finally distributed, and in the darkness I spotted the red glowing cigarette ends of the women happily chatting and  celebrating the end of the war. That was only  one month after the sinking of the ship that contributed to our liberation.

The sharks  Another reason why the sinking of the Indianapolis continues to fascinate people, is the sharks story. It was re-ignited and spread over the World  by the blockbuster Jaws, when shark hunter Quint recounts of bobbing in Pacific waters for days while sharks circled him and his fellow sailors, waiting to see who would be the next victim. Quint described the sharks 'black, lifeless eyes, the blood-curdling screams, the ocean turning red’. His account probably chilled more people than the demonized great white shark itself. His, or rather Spielbergs description  of the eye could have been inspired by Cousteau, who also spoke of the Oceanics eyes as 'hard and cruel looking'. The story seems to be globally  correct since it follows  the vivid witnesses from survivors of the Indianapolis, but  it likely also exaggerated the number of victims that were  actually killed by sharks.

The sharks that were held responsible for the ‘massacre’ were probably Oceanic white tip sharks. Oceanics scavenge  and search the great empty oceans where it may often taken a month for them to find a decent prey. Along the Hawaii coast they often accompany groups of pilot whales for a still unknown reason. They are also known to follow ships and will get into action when they hear or sense a shipwreck. For that reason they were also called 'sea dogs' by sailors. Unfortunately for survivors of shipwrecks, hungry whitetips looking for food will take a bite out of sailors and passengers who land in the water. The initial target of sharks were probably  not the living victims of the Indianapolis,  but the hundreds of dead bodies floating in the ocean around the groups of survivors that wisely huddled together. It is also unlikely that the sharks consumed  their victims,  but rather bit parts of the body and  legs leading to the death of those that still lived by  blood loss.

The number of men that were actually killed by the sharks has been difficult to estimate,  but it probably amounted only a small  fraction of the 800 men, of which the greater part succumbed to burns, dehydration, exhaustion, and drowning. Some say  that around 150, others that  50 men were killed by the sharks. Most of the crew were able to get life jackets, but many of the vests became waterlogged or would tend to slide down the body, increasing fatigue. Some sailors grabbed on to floating nets, or the extremely fortunate got into a life raft.

Man as bait or bait provider Sharks generally don’t eat human flesh but may bump and occasionally bite a human by accident, or to check out its smell or taste. Scuba divers and UW photographers can dive safely with the Oceanics during supervised baited shark trips in the Bahamas or supervised unbaited trips in the Red Sea. Despite their bold and dominant behavior, there have sofar been no reports of sharks attacking or biting  scuba divers  on these occasions. But as said, drifting helpless in the open ocean without diving gear could be a life treathening situation when the Oceanics are around you. In the Oceanics instinctive brain there must be a line that separates a helpless human castaway from a scubadiver during a baited dive: the first is  potential bait the second  bait provider.

It is also dubious that sharks are attracted by the smell of human blood.  Its rather the blood spread by  a struggling fish, like a harpooned whale in the open ocean, that will trigger a frenzy of sharks. The shark attacks of the Indianapolis are also reminiscent of those of December 2010 when several tourists were seriously bitten by sharks (probably  also Oceanics) along  the beaches  of Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt. Although it still remains a mystery what triggered this rare event, a plausible  theory that emerged  is that the the dumping of sheep carcasses in the Red Sea by a livestock transport during the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha had attracted the sharks to the shore.








 Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch. Shark. A photographer's story.Headline Book  Publishing 1987.