WASHINGTON, August 20, 2017 — In July 1945, the crew of an American heavy cruiser anchored at a Pacific island named Tinian, gazed up as the ship’s metal crane lowered a large and mysterious crate to the dock below.
Unnoticed by the crew was the balding man walking down the rear gangplank, a lead-lined case in hand.
The man was U.S. Navy Captain William S. Parsons. In his case was a bullet made of uranium 235 and target rings; components to a bomb that eleven days later would atomize the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing more than 80,000 people.
The U.S. Navy vessel that conveyed Parsons and his atomic cargo to Tinian was the USS Indianapolis. Three days after making its historic handoff, the ship was sunk by Japanese torpedoes while on route to Leyte in the Philippines.
Only 316 of its 1,196 crewmen survived.
Her skipper, Captain Charles McVay, was later court-martialed and found guilty of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag,” thus making it vulnerable to attack.
After suffering years of mental anguish, McVay committed suicide in November of 1968 using his Navy-issued sidearm.
In 1996, inspired by a 12-year-old Florida school boy’s history project on the USS Indianapolis, the United States Congress issued a resolution exonerating Captain McVay of all wrongdoing.
“I felt that he [McVay] was made a scapegoat,” seventh grader Hunter Scott told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1997. “These men had to fight off sharks and had nothing to eat or drink for four days and five nights. They had to pay the true cost of freedom so the rest of us could be free.”
This horrific incident entered the popular imagination after the movie “Jaws” was released in 1976. In his famous soliloquy, Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) recounts his experience as a surviving member of the USS Indianapolis:
“You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour. Thursday mornin’, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist.”
Saturday, Microsoft co-founder Paul Alan announced his expedition discovered the wreck of the Indianapolis. The research vessel Petrel found the ships remains “resting on the floor of the North Pacific Ocean,” at a depth of more than 16,000 feet.
“As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence, and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances,” said Allen in a written statement.
The report added that the expedition is “collaborating with Navy authorities throughout its search operations and will continue to work on plans to honor the 22 crew members still alive today, as well as the families of all those who served on the highly decorated cruiser.”