Congress Honors the Last Survivors of the USS Indianapolis

July 30, 2020Nolan Peterson
Lt. Hunter Scott, visits with survivor Victor Buckett of the USS Indianapolis CA-35 which on July 30, 1945, was sunk after delivering the first operational atomic bomb to the island of Tinnian. U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Burt Eichen/Released.

Lt. Hunter Scott, visits with survivor Victor Buckett of the USS Indianapolis CA-35 which on July 30, 1945, was sunk after delivering the first operational atomic bomb to the island of Tinnian. U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Burt Eichen/Released.

Seventy-five years ago today a Japanese submarine sunk the USS Indianapolis in the Pacific days after the American cruiser delivered the final components of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb to US Army Air Forces on the island of Tinian.

Some 880 of the ship’s 1,196 sailors and Marines went into the water. Four days later, after enduring one of the most horrific trials imaginable, 316 of the ship’s crew survived. Of that number, eight remain alive today — the youngest among them is 93. In commemoration of their service, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi awarded those last survivors the Congressional Gold Medal in a virtual ceremony on Friday.

“Eight survivors remain today, and we are proud to represent our shipmates who are no longer with us. We are very grateful to Congress for this special recognition,” Harold Bray, 93, the youngest remaining survivor and chair of the USS Indianapolis CA-35 Survivors Organization, said in a statement, USNI News reported.

A video of the ceremony became available for online viewing Thursday at 11 a.m. EDT.

Authorized by a 2018 congressional bill, which President Donald Trump later signed into law, the award honors the Indianapolis crew’s “perseverance, bravery, and service to the United  States.” The legislation was first introduced in 2017 by Indiana Senators Todd Young and Joe Donnelly.

The Indianapolis, a Portland-class heavy cruiser, delivered the components of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb to US Army Air Forces on the island of Tinian on July 26, 1945. The Little Boy bomb was ultimately dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

The Indianapolis was on its way to the Philippines when, shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945, two torpedoes launched from the Japanese submarine I-58 struck the ship. About 300 Americans were killed instantly, and the Indianapolis sank in 12 minutes.

Due to the secretive nature of the mission, the Indianapolis did not provide updates to naval planners about its location. Thus, it took days for the Navy to register the ship as missing and mount a search effort. In that interval, the Indianapolis’ surviving sailors and Marines were adrift on the open ocean, suffering the effects of dehydration, starvation, and prolonged exposure to salt water and sun. They were also being systematically attacked, and in some cases consumed, by sharks.

According to survivors, only a few lifeboats were successfully deployed and most men were in the water with only their lifejackets for flotation, leaving them vulnerable to the sharks.

“Remember their courage and devotion to each other in the face of the most severe adversity. Remember their valor in combat and the role they played in ending the most devastating war in history. Honor their memory and draw strength from their legacy,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said in a statement regarding the crew of the Indianapolis.

“Those brave sailors and Marines endured impossible hardships by banding together. And we must do the same today,” Gilday said.

The sinking of the Indianapolis crew was famously described in the 1975 film Jaws, in which a character named Quint — said to be a survivor of the ship’s crew — described what he’d endured.

The Indianapolis’ captain, Navy Capt. Charles McVay, survived the ordeal and was later court-martialed for failing to steer the ship in a zigzag pattern to avoid enemy submarines. McVay, who shot himself in 1968, was ultimately absolved of culpability for the Indianapolis’ sinking in 2001 due to an act of Congress.

“The survivors of the sinking of the World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis struggled for almost five days in the water just to survive,” said retired Navy Capt. Bill Toti during Friday’s ceremony.

“Then for the next five decades, they continued to fight,” Toti continued. “They did not fight for recognition for themselves, they did not fight for restitution from the Navy for the awful fact that they were forgotten in the water and left to die — they fought to clear their captain’s name.”

Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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