Obit of the Day: Survivor of the USS Indianapolis
On June 26, 1945 the USS Indianapolis reached the island of Tinian in the South Pacific. Their mission was to unload the world’s first atomic bomb, “Fat Man,” dropped 10 days later on the city of Hiroshima.
Having completed their mission the Indianapolis headed to a rendezvous with the USS Idaho. Then at 12:15 a.m. on July 30 they were struck by two torpedoes, the second which hit fuel tanks and the ammunition magazine. The ship sunk in 12 minutes.
Of the nearly 1200 men on board, 900 made it into the water. Some might say that the 300 who died immediately were the lucky ones.
It was proven later that the Indianapolis had sent a distress signal but it was dismissed as a Japanese trick designed to trap other ships. To make matters worse, no one recorded their failure to rendezvous. So the 900 survivors were left floating in the Pacific Ocean for four days.
And then came the sharks. For three days hundreds of sharks circled and attacked the survivors. As one man later said, “Blood mixed with fuel oil.”
By the time the Indianapolis’ crew were pulled from the water by a PBY sea plane (who tied some survivors to the wings with parachute cords) and the USS Cecil Doyle, only 317 men were left alive. It remains the worst disaster in U.S. naval history.
One of those survivors was Lt. Erwin Hensch. As Mr. Hensch floated in the ocean he focused on one thing: “I was absolutely determined to make it because I had a brand new wife at home and I’d seen her only a few times since we were married. I did not give up.”
After his return to the mainland and recovery, Mr. Hensch assisted Captain Charles McVay in writing condolence letters to the more than 800 families who lost a sailor during the disaster. Later he testified at Capt. McVay’s court martial defending the actions of his captain*.
Erwin Hensch died on October 15, 2013 at the age of 93. Mr. Hensch’s wife of 71 years, Helen, who was his inspiration for survival in 1945 is still living.
Note: There are only 37 members of the USS Indianapolis crew still alive.
(Image of the survivors of the USS Indianapolis aboard the USS Hollandia, is courtesy of www.rightplanet.com)
* Capt. McVay was found in dereliction of duty for failing to “zigzag” across the ocean to avoid submarine traffic. However it was later discovered that US intelligence had kept information from the captain including the fact that days earlier another naval ship was sunk on the same route. And he was refused a destroyer escort. In 2001, Capt. McVay’s record was cleared, unfortunately he died in 1968 with his career in shambles.
Note: The film Jaws refers to the Indianapolis in a small monologue by Robert Shaw in the role of Quint. Incredibly dramatic, even if some of the numbers are wrong.