Sharks, injuries and exposure killed many of the 883 sailors lost aboard the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea shortly before the of World Wr II.
Grover Linsley and Bob Watts, two former Port Charlotte, Fla. sailors, were serving aboard the USS Register, the auxiliary personnel destroyer (APD-92), that picked up 13 of the 316 survivors. The two old salts remember the disaster like it was yesterday.
About a month before the end of World War II, at 12:14 a.m. on July 30, 1945 Capt. Machitusura Hashimoto, skipper of the Japanese sub I-58, put a torpedo into the Indianapolis. The cruiser went to the bottom 12 minutes later with approximately 300 of its crew. Almost 900 surviving crewmen spent the next four days in the sea battling sharks, suffering from injuries and dying from exposure and lack of drinking water.
It was one of the worst tragedies of WW II for the U.S. Navy. It was a disaster that might have been avoided or at last substantially reduced if fate and Naval ineptness hadn’t intervened.
As a result of the sinking Capt. Charles McVay, the skipper of the doomed ship, was the only commander of the 350 U.S. Navy ships lost during the war who was court-martialed. He was convicted of failing to zigzag and as a consequence putting his crew in jeopardy.
McVay eventually became so depressed over his conviction he committed suicide. Fifty-six years after his conviction by a Navy court, the captain was exonerated for the loss of his ship and much of the crew, thanks primarily to the efforts of those who survived the sinking of the Indianapolis.
The cruiser was returning from Tennian Island in the Pacific where it had delivered the atomic bomb Col. Paul Tibbet‘s drop from a B-29 bomber called the “Enola Gay” on Hiroshima which helped end WW II.
According to reports produced years later, the Navy knew there were Japanese submarines in the area but failed to tell Capt. McVay. The Navy also failed to send destroyers to escort the Indianapolis and protect her from enemy subs.
To compound problems even more, no one in the Navy’s chain of command realized the ship had been torpedoed. It wasn’t until a plane flew over the survivors and spotted them bobbing in the sea four days later anyone discovered the Indianapolis had gone to the bottom. By then 583 of the sailors had died.
It was at this point that Linsley and Watts, aboard the USS Register, arrived on the scene. They were the last rescue vessel to show up and the last one to leave the area after what was left of the crew had been taken aboard.
“We were on convoy duty and were called to search for survivors from some kind of ship disaster,” Linsley said. “At that time they didn’t know what ship these survivors were from. We took off at flank speed and headed for Leyte Gulf 600 miles from Guam and 550 lies from Leyte.”
“By the time we arrived aboard the APD-92 several other ships had already joined the search and picked up many of the survivors. When we first got in the search area everybody not needed to run the ship was tops looking for survivors,” Watts recalled.
“It was late in the afternoon. A short time later we spotted our first survivor floating in a raft,” he said. “The survivor in the raft was covered in diesel oil from the sunk cruiser and in bad condition.”
The Register put one of its four landing crafts over the side to rescue the lone sailor. The auxiliary boat dropped its bow rap and brought the oil-soaked sailor aboard. He was whisked to sick bay aboard ship.
“We hardly got a look at them when they came aboard before they were taken below deck for treatment,” Watts said. “What we could see of them these sailors appeared in bad shape.
“They had raw flesh hanging off them. Others were badly burned an still others had lost hands and legs when the Indianapolis blew up,” he said. “We found some sailors sill floating in their life jackets who were dead.”
By day’s end they had taken 13 survivors aboard. The Register also took aboard another 25 survivors from another ship that wasn’t capable of caring for them.
APD-92 had been converted from a destroyer escort to a transport vessel capable of transporting Marines and their equipment up close to the beach. It had enough extra bunks for 100 “leathernecks.” That’s where they put the 38 injured and dying sailors they plucked from the sea. The Register rendezvoused with a hospital ship anchor at Peleliu Island not too far away.
Their ship had just survived the Battle of Okinawa. The Register missed most of the last big Pacific island battle that resulted in the largest attack on the U.S. fleet by kamikaze suicide planes during WW II.
Not only had the Indianapolis been hit by a kamikaze early on during the 82-day battle, but the Register had taken a hit, too, from one of the Japanese suicide planes. The Register was on picket duty off Okinawa when it got hit.
“We picked up the Japanese fighters on our radar coming our way,” Watts said. “We radioed the Marine base on Ishima Island (off Okinawa) and they sent out six Corsair fighters to intercept them.
“They shot down two of the six enemy planes and ran two more off. We shot down the other two planes, but not before one of them crashed into us,” Watts said. “I was a lookout on the bridge and spotted the suicide plane. The Japanese planes flew right out of the sun at us.
“We took a hard starboard rudder to escape a direct hit on the pilot house.
The plane went right over my head. Our gunners had hit the pilot with 20 or 40 mm.
There was blood splattered all over the plane’s canopy. He was deed when his fighter hit us amidships.
“We had 13 sailors injured on the 40 mm gun mount when the kamikaze hit. It was Sunday evening and we had just finished church services on the fantail. I really believe the good Lord was with us that evening. Nobody died,” Watts said.
Linsley, who served in the engine room of the APD, said, “We didn’t know what was going on topside. We thought there was going to be a torpedo attack. We were running at flank speed, 25 knots, when we got the command to go hard starboard.”
The skipper’s command saved those on the bridge of the Register, but it didn’t stop the ship from being hit. It was April 1945 and they had only been on picket duty off Okinawa three days when the kamikazes attacked.
The ship’s propeller shaft was slightly bent during the fight with the Japanese suicide plane. As a consequence the Register was taken off the picket line and used in convoy duty during the remainder of the war.
Linsley and Watts vividly remember two typhoons they rode out aboard the Register during the final months of the war.
“We were off Luzon in the Philippines when the first storm hit. The winds were well in excess of 120 knots and the seas were 25 to 30 feet. Our orders were to stay at sea,” Watts said.
“We were in a bay sweeping mines in Japan after the war when the second typhoon hit,” he said. “We put our anchors fore and aft and rode it out at anchor. I think the winds must have been 150 knots,” he added.
“You knew there had been a storm when you looked out the next morning and there’s a 300-foot LST sitting way up o the beach,” Linsley said.
The two old sailors recall that the Japanese were very humble when they went ashore in Japan immediately after the war. Cigarettes would buy most anything the sailors wanted.
“We were just about to sail for home when we learned a truck was due to arrive at docks filled with highly prized Japanese samurai swords we could take home as war souvenirs. The captain got on the intercom and asked if we wanted to wait for the swords or go home. We told him, ‘Let’s go home.'”
It would take the crew of the Register 30 days to reach the USA.
“Going home was like taking a cruise. We ran on one engine the whole way,” Linsley explained.
“We went from San Diego, Calif. through the Panama Canal on up the coast to Philadelphia where most of the remaining crew was discharged. Then we took the ship down to Green Cove Springs on the St. Johns River, south of Jacksonville, where she was put in mothballs,” Watts said. “I was discharged after serving two years and 15 days in the Navy.”
“The only casualty the ship suffered druing World War II was in Panama City. A young sailor got drunk, came back aboard ship, fell over the side and drowned,” Linsley recalled.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on July 29, 2005 and is republished with permission.
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