How the USS Indianapolis, WWII Navy ship with a dramatic history, was finally rediscovered

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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to our NEWSHOUR Shares, something that caught our eye that may be of interest to you, too. After more than seven decades, the remains of one of the worst disasters U.S. naval history have been found, thanks to a wealthy philanthropist, a Navy historian and a state-of-the-art research vessel.

The NewsHour’s Julia Griffin explains.


MALE: That’s it, Paul. We’ve got it. The Indy.

JULIA GRIFFIN: With those words, a 72-year old mystery was solved, and a historical treasure rediscovered on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean: the wreckage of the World War II naval cruiser, the USS Indianapolis.

On July 30th, 1945, the Indianapolis was at sea, having just completed a top-secret mission delivering key components of the atomic bomb Little Boy to a naval base in the Northern Mariana Islands, when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Just 15 minutes later, the ship that survived the Pearl Harbor attack was underwater.

Eight hundred of her 1,196 sailors are thought to have initially survived the sinking, but with the U.S. Navy unaware of the loss, the men were forced to float. For four days in shark-infested waters before being spotted by a patrolling bomber plane.

Ultimately, only 317 survived the ordeal. For decades, the final resting place of the Indianapolis was lost to the ocean.

RICHARD HULVER, Naval Historian: All the paperwork is lost. There was no signal that went out. So, basically, we had nothing but the recollections of the crew, the survivors. So, it was really imprecise location at the beginning.

JULIA GRIFFIN: But last year, naval historian Richard Hulver discovered naval landing craft LST 779 had passed the Indianapolis just hours before the attack.

RICHARD HULVER: So, about 11 hours before Indianapolis was sunk. If you can figure out where LST 779 was, that gives you another point on that, another data point on that route that can give you a better idea.

JULIA GRIFFIN: With the new data point in hand, a civilian research team led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen took up the search again.

PAUL ALLEN, Co-Founder, Microsoft: We try to do these both as really exciting examples of underwater archaeology and as tributes to the brave men that went down on these ships.

JULIA GRIFFIN: This time, the research vessel turned it’s attention west of the original location estimate and hunted through a new, 600-square-mile patch of the Pacific Ocean. Ultimately, one of the team’s remotely-operated underwater vehicles spotted the ship, its anchor and other paraphernalia, more than 18,000 feet below the surface.

Naval History and Heritage Command Director Sam Cox hopes the discovery will underscore more than just the ship’s demise.

SAM COX, Director, Naval History and Command: Even in a great tragedy like this one, there is valor, there is bravery. And in the case of this crew that made the ultimate sacrifice, you know, what they did needs to be remembered and not just for getting torpedoed and sunk. They were heroes.

JULIA GRIFFIN: Only 22 crew members of the Indianapolis are still alive today.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Julia Griffin.

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