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Legacy of war in Asia

Team lead by billionaire Paul Allen find famed US warship Indianapolis 72 years after Japanese sub torpedo attack in shark-infested waters

About 800 of the 1,196 crew members aboard survived the sinking, but only 316 were rescued alive five days later, with the rest lost to exposure, dehydration, drowning and sharks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 August, 2017, 11:17am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 August, 2017, 9:46pm

Civilian researchers say they have located the wreck of the USS Indianapolis, the second world war heavy cruiser that played a critical role in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima before being struck by Japanese torpedoes.

The sinking of the Indianapolis remains the US Navy’s single worst loss at sea. The fate of its crew - nearly 900 were killed, many by sharks, and just 316 survived - was one of the Pacific war’s more horrible and fascinating tales.

The expedition crew of Research Vessel Petrel, which is owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, says it located the wreckage of the Indianapolis on the floor of the North Pacific Ocean, more than 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) below the surface, the US Navy said in a news release.

“To be able to honour the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling,” Allen said in the news release.

The Indianapolis, with 1,196 sailors and Marines on board, was sailing the Philippine Sea between Guam and Leyte Gulf when two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine struck just after midnight on July 30, 1945.

It sank in 12 minutes, killing about 300. Survivors were left in the water, most of them with only life jackets.

There was no time to send a distress signal, and four days passed before a bomber on routine patrol happened to spot the survivors in the water.

By the time rescuers arrived, a combination of exposure, dehydration, drowning and constant shark attacks had left only one-fourth of the ship’s original number alive.

Watch: Captain Quint recalls horrors of Indianapolis sinking in movie Jaws

Over the years numerous books recounted the ship’s disaster and its role in delivering key components of what would become the atomic bomb “Little Boy” to the island of Tinian, the take-off point for the bomber Enola Gay’s mission to Hiroshima in August 1945.

Documentaries and movies, most recently USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016) starring Nicolas Cage, have recounted the crew’s horror-filled days at sea. The Indianapolis sinking also was a plot point in the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jaws (1975), with the fictitious survivor Captain Quint recounting the terror he felt waiting to be rescued.

“In that clear water you could see the sharks circling,” recalled survivor Loel Dean Cox in a 2014 BBC interview.

“Then every now and then, like lightning, one would come straight up and take a sailor and take him straight down. One came up and took the sailor next to me. It was just somebody screaming, yelling or getting bit.

“They were continually there, mostly feeding off the dead bodies. Thank goodness, there were lots of dead people floating in the area.”

Others died from drinking seawater, he said.

The US Navy news release issued Saturday said a key to finding the Indianapolis came in 2016 when Richard Hulver, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command, determined a new search area.

Hulver’s research identified a naval landing craft that had recorded a sighting of the Indianapolis the day before it sank. The research team developed a new search area, although it was still 1500 square kilometres of open ocean.

Identification was easier than in some deep-sea expeditions: some of the exposed wreck was clearly marked with Indianapolis signage, according to photographs shared by Allen and the US Navy.

“It is exceedingly rare you find the name of the ship on a piece of the wreckage,” Paul Taylor, a spokesman for the Naval History and Heritage Command, said.

“If that’s not Indianapolis then I don’t know what is.”

The US Navy said the 13-person expedition team on the R/V Petrel was surveying the Indianapolis site. The team’s work has been compliant with US law regarding a sunken warship as a military grave not to be disturbed, according to the US Navy. The wrecked ship remains the property of the US Navy and its location is both confidential and restricted, it said

The US Navy said it had plans to honour the 22 survivors from the Indianapolis still alive along with the families of the ship’s crew.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters