Survival Stories #3: USS Indianapolis

August 27, 2009

I'm Cade Courtley, Navy SEAL and host of Spike TV’s Surviving Disaster. I've heard a lot of great survival accounts over the years.  However, these 10 individual narratives represent true self-preservation through instinct, and a never-say-die attitude. This list is a chronicle--a testament--of what I find most impressive in defining true individual strength and human perseverance.  These few did not just lead to legend, but more importantly and most basic, survival.

The worst loss of life in U.S. Navy history was the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II. With the war coming to a close, the ship had unknowingly delivered the components to the atomic bomb that would eventually be dropped on Hiroshima to an airbase on Tinian Island on July 26, 1945. After making the delivery the ship stopped in Guam to refresh with new sailors to replace those who had completed their tours of duty. Upon leaving Guam, there were no destroyers available for escorting the 1196 sailors on-board, and with no ability to detect enemy ships, the Indianapolis was vulnerable.

In the Philippines Sea at a quarter past midnight on July 30, she was struck by two torpedoes. The captain of the Japanese submarine that fired on her would later state that he pulled out all the stops to get a kill because the submarine was new, and he knew the war would soon be over. Loel Dene Cox, a sailor that survived the attack, stated, “I was blown up into the air about five feet and landed on my stomach.”

Two large explosions on the starboard side sank the 600-foot ship in an astounding 12 minutes. Around 300 sailors never got off the ship before it sank. Those that did would spend an agonizing four days and five nights bobbing up and down in the frigid water, with many of them suffering from burns over much of their body. Paul R. Murphy, another survivor, stated, “There was nothing I could do but wait for the sunlight to see what situation we were in. We struggled with no food or water and after sunset, that water became chilly. Our teeth chattered."

Three SOS messages were sent by the Indianapolis, but they were not reported due to negligence, and assumptive arrival reporting delayed any rescue efforts. Almost 900 men were in the water. Most of the survivors stated that most men died of either exhaustion, exposure, or salt water poisoning, but there was another threat that proved almost as deadly.

In what has been described as the most shark attacks on humans in history, the crew was picked off one-by-one by swarms of the carnivorous fish. “A shark got one of my buddies who was just a couple of feet from me. The shark's tail and the water just covered me up, I was that close. If a shark took a leg, or just bit them, then sometimes they would float back up - some did and some didn't. Of course they were all dead. We'd take their life-jackets and their dog tags," Cox said. Murphy concurred stating, “They would attack the small groups of men.”

On the fourth day a pilot spotted a couple sailors floating in the sea and the rescue was on, but it was too late for all but 316. Even once rescued, the survivors had much to overcome. Cox remembers falling asleep on a bed face down, only to wake up hours later and realize that his skin had stuck to the bed. “When I rolled over, it nearly pulled my hide off, “ he remembered. “They took tweezers and took strips of skin off my shoulders from where my life jacket had been. I lost all my body hair and I lost my fingernails and toenails. I had basically been pickled in salt water.”

The captain of the ship, Charles Butler McVay III, was initially court-martialed for not zigzagging to avoid enemy fire. He was later exonerated, but families of the deceased hounded him for years, and he eventually committed suicide.

The story of the heroic men of the USS Indianapolis was told by actor Robert Shaw in the movie Jaws, and has inspired countless books and movies. The intestinal fortitude it took to watch almost 500 men succumb to the elements and predators, yet still have the will to try and survive seems almost implausible. Yet, that’s exactly what the 300-plus U.S. Navy sailors did, making it one of the most incredible stories of survival in history.

Stay tuned to as I’ll be unveiling the top 10 most inspiring survival stories one-by-one over the following weeks.



Want more? Check out Survival Story #4: Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 Andes Rugby Team Disaster

Make sure to check out the Wounded Warrior Project to honor and empower wounded warriors.


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