Hitler was dead. Nazi Germany was done. The guns of an almost six-year-long war in Europe were at last silent.
Operation Overcast, the forerunner of Operation Paperclip, the secret operation to bring hundreds of German scientists and engineers and their families to America to put their knowledge to work in U.S. labs, had just begun.
And with hostilities ended, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section was working overtime to locate Europe’s cultural treasures from their Nazi plunderers and return them to their rightful owners. Memorialized in the 2014 movie “The Monuments Men,” the work this group did both during and after the war has civilization’s eternal thanks.
Yet, for all the relief of peace in Europe, the horrors of war still raged in the Pacific. The iconic picture of U.S. Marines raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi months earlier may have raised morale back home, but it couldn’t stop deaths in the field. Death rolls kept getting longer and longer the closer American forces got to the Japanese home islands. More than 12,000 soldiers, sailors and marines were killed in the Battle of Okinawa alone.
It was under this cloud of untold American deaths to come with Operation Olympic — the invasion of the Japanese home islands in November — that the package was delivered. Weighing 9,700 pounds and 10 feet in length, its code name, “Little Boy,” was a misnomer. The date was July 26, 1945, and the place was Tinian atoll, Northern Mariana Islands, in the South Pacific.
Ten days later, “Little Boy” would be loaded into the belly of the B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay.” The next day, Aug. 6, 1945, the bomb bay doors would open, and the most destructive force of its day begin its descent. Less than a minute later, at an altitude of 1,968 feet, the first nuclear device to ever be used in war would explode over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
While Aug. 6, 1945, is a date that will always be remembered, often overlooked is July 30, 1945, a date that should never be forgotten. On that date, two Japanese torpedoes brought one of America’s most secret missions of the war to an abrupt end and in so doing started the clock ticking on more than four days of hell that no human being should ever have to endure.
The story starts on July 16, when the world’s first ever nuclear bomb was detonated at the Alamogordo Test Range in New Mexico. Within hours of that success, the cruiser USS Indianapolis set out from Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, San Francisco, and steamed unaccompanied toward Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Averaging a speed of 29 knots (33 miles per hour), she arrived at Pearl in less than 75 hours, a record that still stands today.
Ten days later, she arrived at Tinian to deliver her cargo before sailing on to Guam. After some crew transitioning, she headed for Leyte on July 28, expected arrival July 31.
But just after midnight on the morning of July 30, her bow and amidships on her starboard side were ripped apart by two torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58. Within 12 minutes, the Indianapolis was slipping below the waves and heading to the bottom of the Pacific, taking approximately 300 of her 1,196 crew with her. The remaining men found themselves in the darkness of night with nothing but their life vests and crewmates to cling to — no food, no water and only minimal life rafts scattered about.
Being only a day out from Leyte, the men held hope that they’d be noticed overdue and help would come soon. But a combination of bureaucratic foul up and the secrecy of the mission meant that unbeknownst to the survivors, help was not to come for four agonizing days — days that would see them blistered by the heat of the day, freezing from the cold of the night.
But their hell was only beginning as sharks began arriving that morning, swimming just below their feet, bumping some, killing many more.
Along with the dehydration and starvation came the constant screams of terror as one after another was dragged down to his brutal death.
By the time Lt. Chuck Gwinn spotted the remaining survivors while on routine submarine patrol the morning of Aug. 2, almost 600 of the original survivors who went into the water four days earlier were gone — their last hours adrift in shark-infested waters, feeling abandoned by their Navy and cursed by their God.
Depending on which source used, only 316 or 317 souls survived.
A reminder to us all, that no matter what challenges we may face today, none compare with that faced the crew of the USS Indianapolis those 74 years ago.
Geoff Caldwell lives in Joplin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.