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Ship's survivors lived on hope

But no one knew the USS Indianapolis was missing.

By Nancy Nall of The News-Sentinel

Fifty years ago today, in the waning days of World War II, Donald Beaty was a Hoosier boy far from home in the South Pacific, serving on a ship with a Hoosier name - the USS Indianapolis.

Beaty didn't know the war was about to end, although it had moved a comfortable distance away from the Indianapolis' position. So far away, in fact, that Beaty certainly didn't know, or even suspect, that he and his ship were sailing into the worst U.S. naval disaster in history.

The torpedoing and sinking of the USS Indianapolis, and the subsequent ordeal suffered by the 316 men who survived, has been grist for six books, one play, several television documentaries, a made-for-TV movie and an upcoming theatrical release, "Fatal Voyage."

Many Americans might remember the story best from Robert Shaw's dramatic (and, unfortunately, somewhat inaccurate) monologue about the catastrophe in the movie "Jaws."

Next week, the Indianapolis' fate will be remembered again, at the dedication of an official memorial in its namesake city. Fort Wayne's Donald Beaty will attend with his family. So will about 150 of the remaining survivors, as well as families of the 880 men who didn't survive the sinking and its terrible aftermath.

This is what they will remember.

The story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis begins in San Francisco.

The 610-foot heavy cruiser and its crew of 1,196 men had seen plenty of action with the Fifth Fleet in the course of the Pacific war; Beaty had fought in eight engagements in the two years he'd been stationed aboard.

But the ship had never been gravely threatened until a Japanese kamikaze pilot flew a suicide mission into the ship's fantail during the battle of Okinawa. The attack ruined two of the ship's four propellers and sent the Indianapolis into a San Francisco dry dock for repairs. When the crew returned from a brief leave and prepared for a new voyage, "they loaded this box," recalled Beaty. "It was no bigger than that davenport. But it had a Marine guard on it 24 hours a day."

No one knew what was in the box, although ship scuttlebutt had it the Indianapolis was carrying "a secret weapon," Beaty said. "I couldn't imagine what kind of secret weapon might fit in a box that small. If anyone had told me it was an atomic bomb, I wouldn't have had any idea what they were talking about."

It was a secret weapon, and it was an atomic bomb, or at least the parts for one. The uranium and detonators for Little Boy, to be exact, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima a few weeks later. The Indianapolis received orders to sail for Tinian Island, near Guam, on the morning of July 16 - hours after the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated at Los Alamos, N.M. Speed was of the essence; there would be no three- or four-day shakedown cruise typically taken after a major repair. The Indianapolis cast off at 8 a.m.

Beaty recalls a speedy but uneventful voyage to Tinian, with one brief stop at Pearl Harbor for fuel and supplies. The mysterious box was off-loaded and the Indianapolis continued on to Guam. There the crew was given orders to meet the rest of the fleet at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines for gunnery practice; the sailors were anticipating a far different end game for this war. "We thought we were going to be invading Japan," Beaty said.

The Indianapolis set out for Leyte under fairly relaxed security. "The war was hundreds of miles away," Beaty recalled. "These were considered relatively safe waters. We were traveling without an escort."

Heavy cruisers like the Indianapolis didn't carry underwater sounding gear, relying on destroyers for that sort of protection. But even though there had been a few reports of enemy submarine sightings in the vicinity of the ship's route, they were fairly indefinite, and no one took them very seriously. The fleet command decided it would be safe for the cruiser to make the run to Leyte alone.

And so it was that the Indianapolis happened to be steaming across the South Pacific between Guam and the Philippines on the night of July 29 just before midnight. It was a hot night, and most of the ship's main deck hatches and ventilation ducts were open for comfort. This would not be normal procedure for travel in dangerous waters, Beaty said, but again, they had no reason to believe they were in any particular danger.

But they were. More than five miles away, they'd been spotted by the Japanese submarine I-58, commanded by Mochitsura Hashimoto, a man who knew the war was limping to a close, a denouement that would leave him without a single confirmed kill to his credit. The son of a Shinto priest, Hashimoto had been praying for an enemy craft to cross his path; he wanted a sinking to offer the emperor. His prayers were answered.

The submarine dove while Hashimoto waited for the Indianapolis to come closer. Consulting with his officers, he determined he very likely had a battleship in his sights - a prize indeed. As it came within range, he fired six torpedos in a fan pattern at the Indianapolis.

Beaty had just gone on his watch topside, on the boat deck. He and another sailor were manning the radar shack when they heard two explosions, one right after another.

"I thought it had to be something in the boiler room," Beaty said, so convinced was he that the ship was far from its enemy. Then he ventured to the rail and looked over the side, and saw, "a hole big enough to drive a truck through." The Indianapolis started listing "almost immediately," and Beaty and his crewmate went directly to a life jacket station, where other crew members were already passing out jackets.

He then headed for the ship's high side, but found the list was so pronounced that he couldn't make it: "I saw men hanging on the lifelines, but it was so steep I couldn't get to them."

The ship had been mortally wounded by two of Hashimoto's torpedoes, one striking the bow and the other near a powder magazine and fuel oil bunker. This triggered an explosion that knocked out the ship's electrical power and set off secondary explosions and fires. The ship's forward speed continued, though, sending tons of seawater in through the holes in the hull. With so many hatches and ducts open, the ship filled with water in minutes.

Without electricity, without communications, burning and in chaos, the Indianapolis began to founder. No "abandon ship" order was given ship-wide, but officers began ordering men near them to do so. Beaty didn't hear one; the decision for him was exquisitely simple. As he struggled to reach the ship's high side, "I turned around, and there was the ocean. I just slipped into the water."

He began to swim frantically through the debris around the ship. A ship the length of two football fields doesn't slip gently beneath the waves; the smokestacks create a whirlpool to suck in the lone swimmer, and Beaty wanted to be as far as possible from the cruiser when she finally went down.

"I looked back, and she rolled on her side," he remembered. "I could still see men clutching the rail, silhouetted against the sky. And then she rolled over. The bow went down first, and I could see the screws. The last thing I saw of it was the fantail."

It was right around midnight. The Indianapolis had sunk in less than half an hour. Between 350 and 400 men went down with the ship, an estimated 800 spilled into the water, some horribly burned or wounded. Beaty was unscathed.

"We ended up in groups," he said. "I was in a group of about 300, I'd estimate. The first thing we did was order everyone to be quiet, because sometimes the sub would surface next to you and you'd be machine-gunned."

Indeed, Hashimoto's crew looked for survivors, but found none and left the area.

The next order of business was to put the worst of the wounded - the bleeders - onto the handful of lifeboats that they were able to free from the Indianapolis in the chaos. "We didn't want anyone bleeding into the water, because of the sharks," he said. "But there were only three or four boats in our group." The rest of the men floated free or clung to "floater nets" - 20-foot square nets rimmed with cork.

When the sun came up Monday morning, the group organized. They had no water, and only a few tins of biscuits. Their group had a doctor and a dentist, and a few radio operators who said they thought they might have gotten a distress signal off, although they weren't sure. They didn't even know how many of them there were; the survivors were spread over several miles of ocean and from the vantage point of the waterline, in the rising and falling ocean, they could only see the area immediately around them. There was nothing to do but wait.

Rescue would surely come soon, the men thought, but they were wrong. No distress signal had been received. An encoded message sent by Hashimoto to his command, claiming credit for the sinking, was intercepted, analyzed and dismissed as an attempt to find out the position of a ship by goading the Americans into "proving" it was unharmed.

In fact, no one knew the Indianapolis had been sunk. And down in the water, where Beaty and his crewmates bobbed in their life jackets, the casualty count rose.

"The important thing was, to never let sea water in your mouth," Beaty said. It was hard to do, with a tropical sun beating down on the survivors and no drinking water. Many men hallucinated - "One guy who was next to me said, 'Hey, you're not going to believe this, but I found a rock to stand on,' " Beaty recalled. "Of course he hadn't."

Another became convinced he could see a drug store in the distance and swam off toward it. "You had to let those people go," he said. "They were going to die anyway, and you couldn't save them. The people who tried to keep them with the group, they died too. You had to save all your strength just to stay alive."

Sharks showed up almost immediately, and feasted on the survivors, particularly stragglers, or those on the perimeter of the groups. Beaty saw plenty of them, but never saw an attack. "You can scare them away by yelling at them," he said. "And we yelled at a lot of them."

The days passed. As men died, they were unbuckled from their life jackets and allowed to sink. "We didn't have anything to weight them with," Beaty said. "We just hoped they'd sink far enough that they wouldn't attract more sharks." Men went delirious from heat and thirst and gulped sea water, hastening their own deaths. Men hallucinated that they were surrounded by the enemy, not their shipmates. Fights broke out in the water.

The toll continued to rise, and still no one even knew the Indianapolis was missing. Somehow, through what Beaty called "some bureaucratic screw- up," the ship had been logged as arriving at Leyte as planned on Tuesday, and no one even noticed its absence.

"By the third or fourth day, I knew I was going to die," he said. "It was Thursday, and I knew that by Saturday, I'd be dead. . . . You get in touch with your religion out there. I prayed a lot. It's just you and God."

God had other plans for Beaty. On that Thursday morning, a Navy pilot, Lt. Chuck Gwinn, was flying over the site and went to the rear of his plane to check on a troublesome antenna. While doing so, he looked down at the surface of the ocean and saw an oil slick. Thinking it might be the recent surfacing site of an enemy sub, he dropped in for a closer look and saw heads. When he radioed in that he had spotted survivors of an apparent sinking, his superiors were puzzled. For hours, the rescue was delayed while these officers tried to determine who these men might be.

Finally, a sea plane was dispatched to investigate, and began to drop small boats and supplies. The plane's crew members could see shark attacks occurring as they circled, prompting the pilot to defy his orders and land in heavy seas, knowing he'd never take off again because of the turbulent water. But he was able to take 56 men aboard, and the plane was used as a floating shelter until other rescuers arrived.

Beaty's group got one of the boats. Sitting in his house near the corner of Beaver and Lexington avenues, he estimated the raft was dropped "by Pettit Avenue," several city blocks. Beaty was one of the few sailors with the strength to swim to the boat, only to discover it had no ladder. They managed to lift one man in, who was able to help the rest board.

"I took the tiller," Beaty recalled, "and discovered we had no fuel." They tried to row back toward the group, and could barely do that. But they were able to pick up a few.

"It was night before we were picked up" by a rescue ship, he said. "They wanted us to climb a rope ladder, but we couldn't."

Beaty remembers being given water and orange juice to replenish his strength. The survivors, covered with oil, were offered a shower, but were so tired they could only sit on the floor of the shower while other sailors washed them. Beaty's most serious injuries were saltwater ulcers up and down his legs, the fading scars of which he still carries. In four and a half days, he'd lost 29 pounds.

The last group of the 316 who survived was rescued Aug. 3, a group that included the ship's commanding officer, Capt. Charles McVay III, who was later court-martialed for failing to steer a harder-to-torpedo zig-zag course on the voyage to Leyte. On Aug. 6, the Enola Gay dropped the bomb McVay's crew had delivered, on Hiroshima. Among the dead was the family of Commander Hashimoto.

Beaty saw the war end in a military hospital. He returned to Fort Wayne after his discharge and, like thousands of young men in this city, "went to work at the Harvester." He never talked about the sinking of Indianapolis much back then; only in the last few years has he opened up, asking the questions such an experience forces a person to ask.

"You think, why did one person make it and another doesn't? That's the way life is, I guess," he said.

Beaty will be in Indianapolis next week for the dedication of the memorial. He expects he'll tell stories with his surviving shipmates, but they won't all be about the horrors they experienced. "We'll talk about the good times, too," he said. "It's not all about fighting. War is a series of scrimmages."

He paused.

"War," he said, "is nuts."

Research material for this article came from Dan Kurzman's "Fatal Voyage," (copyright 1990, Atheneum) and from information provided by the USS Indianapolis Survivors Memorial Organization Inc.


* July 29, 1945

11 p.m.: A Japanese submarine I-58 breaks the surface in the Pacific Ocean looking for an enemy ship, one was spotted 5 1/2 miles away. The captain orders the submarine to dive.

The USS Indianapolis was on the horizon with main deck hatches and ventilation ducts open, carrying 1,196 people.

11:32 p.m.: The Japanese submarine fires six torpedoes at the American cruiser, two hit their target.

Calls to abandon ship were never sent out. SOS signals were sent but never received. There was only time to release a dozen life rafts and six floater nets.

Around midnight: Less than half an hour after it was torpedoed, the dying cruiser plunges bow-first, taking with it 350 to 400 officers and men. The remaining 800 or so crew members were left, almost all covered in black oil, many horribly burned in shark-infested sea.

The first night, 50 men burned, injured or without life jackets drown. * July 31, 1945

After 40 hours in the sea, many men began to drink salt water, bringing death closer.

* Aug. 1, 1945

The third day, the men become a mass of delirious and screaming men, living a horrifying existence.

* Aug. 2, 1945

A Navy airman spots an oil slick. The pilot dives to an altitude of 900 feet, drops life rafts and transmits that there are 150 survivors in lifeboats and jackets.

A Navy lieutenant arrives over the scene with a Catalina flying boat, he calls for help and takes 56 aboard and waits for help to arrive. The Navy sends seven ships to the disaster site.

* Aug. 3, 1945

The last group of men was rescued at noon, after more than four days in the water. 316 survivors were counted alive, 880 officers and men are declared dead, including 480 lost in the water.

SOURCE: Cox News Service