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Navy: USS Indianapolis Wreckage Well Preserved by Depth and Undersea Environment

Image from the Paul Allen-led expedition that found the wreck of USS Indianapolis.

The condition of USS Indianapolis (CA-35), the World War II-era cruiser preserved for 72 years at the bottom of the sea, has so far proved to be most surprising to researchers studying the wreckage site discovered earlier this week.

“The paint is still in place, like on the anchor and on parts of the ship. On the anchor, you can read Norfolk on there. You can read on boxes, on supply boxes, you can read Indianapolis and read very clearly what is on that box,” said Robert Neyland, Underwater Archeology Branch Head with the Naval History and Heritage Command.

During a Facebook LIVE discussion Wednesday, Neyland and Richard Hulver, a historian with the command, described their research used by billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen used to find Indianapolis on Saturday.

Neyland explained the wreckage, more than 18,000 feet below the sea surface, is resting in a spot protected from currents, at a depth with low oxygen levels and little natural light. “This [was] one of the hardest shipwrecks in the world to find,” he said.

But the combination of circumstances making the search so difficult also means the wreckage is well preserved. Metal on the ship, based on the photos Allen’s team has released so far, doesn’t appear to be corroded. “Not much in the way of marine growth,” Neyland said

As Allen’s team releases more photos and video, Neyland said there will be more to talk about in terms of the ship’s condition and more about how its final moments.

Image from the Paul Allen-led expedition that found the wreck of USS Indianapolis.

Answering a question submitted during the LIVE event, Neyland said the wreckage’s final resting location also helps the long-term preservation of the site. Indianapolis is considered the property of the Navy and is by law considered a protected gravesite. But the extreme depth and rough undersea terrain make it very difficult to visit.

“Human divers cannot get to that depth,” Neyland said.

Allen’s team is working with the Navy to survey the site, and Neyland said is taking care in a very tough environment to not disturb the wreckage.

“This is an incredibly difficult survey, it’s like looking for something on the dark side of the Moon,” Neyland said.

Hulver, who is credited with discovering a long-overlooked clue to Indianapolis’ whereabouts, stressed how important it is to not forget the crew and the ship’s illustrious service.

Image from the Paul Allen-led expedition that found the wreck of USS Indianapolis.

Before the war, Indianapolis acted as a flagship for several years, even transporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to South America as part of his “Good Neighbor” cruise in 1936, according to the NHHC. After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Indianapolis was one of the first ships to respond, searching for enemy aircraft carriers thought to be nearby.

Hulver explained his first knowledge of Indianapolis’ story came through popular culture.

“Like many people out there, my initial introduction to the Indianapolis was ‘Jaws,’” Hulver said.

In the movie, fisherman Quint has a monologue detailing spending days in the water after Indianapolis went down, as sailors were attacked by sharks and succumbed to exhaustion.

“That was the time I was most frightened, waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a life jacket again,” says the character Quint, played by Robert Shaw in the 1975 film.

Hulver said the shark attacks get the most attention, probably because of the film, and are an important part of the story, but exhaustion and dehydration were also major reasons why only 316 of the 800 sailors who entered the water were rescued.

USS Indianapolis in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1937. US Navy Photo

But Quint’s line also alludes to one of the lessons learned from the incident. Hulver said the lifejackets used by Indianapolis sailors were only designed to be used for about 48 hours. The sailors were in the water for much longer than that, “and they started to weigh the men down.”

Both Hulver and Neyland said the real story of Indianapolis is one of courage, both during the war, and after torpedoes from a Japanese submarine sank the ship. For example, Lt. Thomas Michael Conway, ship’s chaplain, continued tending to men in the water, Hulver said, giving last rights to those dying, before he eventually succumbed to exhaustion and drowned.

Indianapolis was one of the most decorated warships in WWII,” Hulver said of the ship which earned 10 battle stars. “This rich history has been overshadowed by its last 15 minutes.”

  • NavySubNuke

    Amazing how well preserved she is – and what great pictures they were able to capture. I am glad that we have found her and can properly honor her and the sacrifices her crew made.

    • D. Jones

      Amen.

    • Kim Chul Soo

      But wasn’t the Captain ultimately court martialed?

  • kye154

    This is no surprise that the ship would be preserved well. They discovered this back in 1968, when the mini-sub Alvin sank in 4900 feet of water. When they brought it up months afterwards, they found the crew’s lunch, which they left behind while escaping the sub, in stainless steel Thermoses with imploded plastic tops, meat-flavored bouillon, apples, bologna sandwiches wrapped in wax paper,,were exceptionally well-preserved, and eatable.. You can bet that the Indianapolis in 18,000 feet of water will still have eatable food inside its galley’s refers after 72 years. Also, any dead crew members that went down inside the ship are probably well preserved too.

    The one big question is, will the navy recover the atomic bomb that the Indianapolis was carrying, when it sank? That would require re-floating the ship, to get to the magazine, or aft bay hangar, where it may have been stored. It would not be something that a robot could remove easily on its own, mainly because of the bomb’s size, weight (about 10,300 lbs), and space limitations to negotiate of the magazine hatch. Also, have they measured for any radioactivity leakage? This is to say nothing about the fuses on the naval shells on board that might detonate if there were pressure changes. They could refloat the ship, but it would be a very risky operation.

    • cutterman75

      What bomb are you talking about? The Indianapolis had already delivered parts of the atomic bomb to Tinian. Her mission had been completed. Please check your history before making incorrect statements.

    • Pat Patterson

      That bomb was dropped on Hiroshima!

    • Ctrot

      This is the most factually bereft post I’ve ever seen on this site. Congratulations.

      Great depth does not preserve food or bodies. Refloating a 10000+ ton cruiser from a depth of 18000 feet is insanity. And there is no atomic bomb aboard Indy, she delivered it to Tinian and it was dropped on Hiroshima.

      • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

        Be cool if we could refloat her but the engineering costs would be beyond astronomical. I think it is doable personally (yes, I am an engineer) but for oh, a billion dollars and to what end? It is a grave. It should be undisturbed.

        I would be more interested in raising a couple of aircraft from the Lexington.

  • Scott

    One of the pictures posted in a different article on this site showed a box, almost completely intact. Since it wasn’t on the ship itself, I wonder if it would be ok to bring that to the surface?

  • CurtNewton

    What about the USS Juneau? The USS Indianapolis gains the attention whilst the loss of 690 sailors and Marines aboard the Juneau are known only by the Sullivan Brothers. 150 sailors survived a second torpedoing only to be left to suffer for 10 days even though a B-17 pilot informed an intelligence officer upon landing. There is more than a hint of incompetence associated with the loss of so many men as related in the book ‘Left to die’.

  • bobf123

    don’t they have to be worried about the munitions on board? wouldn’t they at this time be very sensitive to blowing up?

    • Joseph Carr

      The munitions for the guns pose no threat whatever at 18,000 ft underwater

  • Donald Carey

    Modern paint, reformulated to be environmentally benign, probably would not have lasted like that.

  • TJ Schultz

    I purchased the 1/350th scale model of Indianapolis wanting to build the wreck but most all photos are close ups and you can’t tell the location on the ship. Any hope for better or will they leave her be? Something similar to the attention Titanic got?