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PBS Broadcast Shows USS Indianapolis is a ‘Well Preserved’ Hull

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

Seventy-two years after it disappeared into the black depths of the Philippine Sea, the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) reappeared in bluish-green images captured by a deep-sea drone and aired live during a Wednesday PBS broadcast special.

Viewers could see the ship’s hull number, “35,” clear in the high-definition images relayed in a live, hour-long broadcast from the research vessel Petrel operating in the Philippine Sea that aired on PBS stations. The research ship hovered above the ocean floor where the damaged Indianapolis rested, at 18,000 feet deep, partially buried on its port side in a large crater, near several smaller debris fields.

Cameras on a remotely-operated vehicle operated by an expedition crew relayed images of Indianapolis, its heavy firepower still on watch as it was before two Japanese torpedoes sent the ship to the depths of the sea. The No. 3 gun, still in place despite a buckling deck, and a 40mm anti-aircraft gun, whose 11-member crew included eight men just to feed its foot-long shells, remained locked and loaded. An aft five-inch gun, rifling marks clearly visible in the barrel.

One of the 1,200-lb. torpedoes had struck the ship near the bow, breaking it off as the ship sunk deep into the ocean. The second torpedo struck near crew berthing, about midship and into the lower decks. Images from the starboard side showed just what might be a fraction of the damage, the expedition leader said.

The ROV’s lights also revealed Indianapolis’ small, starboard hangar bay but also a piece of the starboard side half-peeled up above the silty ocean floor. On nearby debris field rested a torn airplane wing, its blue-and-white star and stripe still clearly visible. Another piece of debris showed victory images of a black airplane silhouette and red marks depicting Japan’s rising sun.

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

“The hull the structure is uniquely intact and its well preserved,” expedition director Rob Kraft, aboard Petrel in the Philippine Sea, told viewers. “It’s unbelievable the condition,” he added, describing strikingly sharp images streaming live from the ROV and pictures taken from HD cameras and 3-D images captured by high-tech sonar during the last three weeks as the expedition surveyed and scanned the area.

Other images revealed haunting signs of life that once was. An open hatch near the skipper’s cabin. The ship’s bell. Teak decking. Among the scattered debris shown sitting on the ocean floor: A toolbox. A white bowl. A ship’s crane, slightly damaged. A first-aid kit, its red cross clearly marked.

“It brings back a lot of memories,” said Richard “Dick” Thelen, a 18-year-old gunner who survived the attack, as he watched the program with host Miles O’Brien in PBS’s New York studios. “It’s a tombstone, more or less.”

For more than 70 years, the location of the Indianapolis had remained a mystery. Its final resting place had become almost publicly forgotten amid national grief of the loss of nearly 800 men just days before the end of World War II – many who drowned or were eaten by sharks – and controversy over the Navy’s subsequent court-martialing of the ship’s skipper for hazarding a ship.

“There’s damn few days when I don’t think about …some part of the story,” Thelen said in segment aired during the broadcast. He’s one of only 19 living crewmembers who survived the sinking.

When it was last spotted, the Indy was cruising on a westerly course from Tinian to the Philippines, after the secret mission of delivering components of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima a week later.

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

Past efforts and expeditions to find the ship had come up empty until last year.

Richard Hulver, a Naval History and Heritage Command researcher, had located a log entry from an amphibious landing ship – LST-779 – that had crossed paths with the heavy cruiser just 11 hours before the ill-fated torpedo attack. That helped narrow down the location and time of the sinking of the Indianapolis by the Japanese submarine I-58 on July 30, 1945.

Last month, an expedition led by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen and NHHC researchers found the wreckage in the Philippine Sea. Allen announced the finding in an Aug. 19 tweet.

Indy‘s bow lay about a mile from the bulk of the ship. Its bridge rested in another location.

Nearly 300 sailors of the crew of 1,196 might have gone down with the ship, killed by the torpedo explosions. About 880 sailors and Marines survived the attack and subsequent sinking, but the Indianapolis wasn’t reported missing for several days. For nearly five days, they suffered in the sea’s heavy swells, under the unrelenting sun, suffering from dehydration, drinking salt water, drowning and shark attacks. Only 316 survived the oil-stained seas to see rescue by Navy forces.

“It would be easier to die out there than to stay alive,” Thelen recalled.

John Woolston, another Indy survivor and former engineering officer, recently viewed the video and images of his former ship that brought back some dark memories. “A lot of people who were seriously injured died, and almost all of them died in somebody’s arms, a couple in mine,” he said in a clip aired during the broadcast. “Not a nice time.”

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

Kraft didn’t disclose the location. The Navy won’t reveal the site coordinates to protect it since the wreckage is considered an underwater memorial. “It is hallowed ground and it is being treated as such,” said Bill Toti, the former commanding officer of the submarine USS Indianapolis (SSN-697) said during the broadcast.

While the ROVs have captured camera and video images of the wreckage and mapped the area with sonar, the expedition has not disturbed the site and no artifacts will be collected. Nor will the remote vehicles enter the wreckage of the ship. “So you must treat them with he utmost respect,” said Scott Matthews, an ROV pilot.

At the deep, dark depth, Indianapolis today is host to corals and other sea life, some which give gun turrets a crusty coating. At the No. 3 gun, aluminum-eating bacteria whose waste creates rusticles pour out of four-foot hatch.

The Indy’s discovery may provide closure to some survivors and relatives, as well as to the Navy. Interestingly, in what Toti calls “an unbelievable coincidence,” a Japanese expedition crew “just in the last few weeks” located the wreckage of I-58, which continued attacks on the U.S. fleet in the war’s final days. The U.S. Navy had scuttled the submarine in 1946.

  • NavySubNuke

    Truly amazing how well preserved she is. I am glad to hear her location is being protected though her depth provides probably the best layer of protection.

    • john

      Just like it has protected the Titanic from being raped for salable artifacts?

      • NavySubNuke

        I was thinking more of the Java, Perch, and other who have vanished entirely.

        • john

          Yes, Sir!

      • nerwen_aldarion

        I get what you are saying about the Titanic but it’s a double edged sword. She lies in an area that has a lot of oxygen so she’s being eaten away quickly by rust. In the not so distant future she’ll be gone forever. So I’m for preserving a select number of artifacts to keep the memory alive. However I agree I think it has gotten out of hand. Let the dead rest

  • MLepay

    Like a needle in a haystack to find her. The preservation is amazing. Hopefully it brings some closure to the remaining survivors and of course the families of those no longer with us.

  • PolicyWonk

    A serious documentary accomplishment, done with class and respect.

    Bravo PBS!

  • Ed L

    Even being 18,000 feet down. I wished they only let the families know. In my opinion the general public has no respect

    • Ctrot

      I am a member of the USS Indianapolis family, and we want the public to know and to remember.

      • Ed L

        I think I understand your feelings. But I reserve the right to feel my way about the general public. especially since the early 1970’s, I was assaulted (passing through American Airports) by so called general public who called me a murderer and a baby killer.

        • john

          I stand right there with you, buddy. Not long ago, I got into a discussion with some teens about the Vietnam war. The first kid was home on leave after boot camp at MCRD San Diego. His friend unfortunately let it be known that the spitting on returning vets never happened. When pushed to explain why he thought so, he sais it was because SNOPES had said so. When I asked him if he was calling me liar for saying it happened to me in San Francisco airport, he had the decency to be embarrassed. It kind of irritated me. Yes, you have the right to be cynical, friend. Welcome home

          • Dlanor

            Worse than spitting. Certainly by 1972, it had become dangerous to wear a uniform in places frequented by college age punks.

          • john

            In the mid-’70s, it was ordered that we wear our uniforms to school every Friday as students. I was in a liberal school, in a program dominated by women. I can tell you that there were some problems. Women can be just as mean-spirited and narrow minded as any male.

          • nerwen_aldarion

            An absolute travesty that people would treat you and the rest of our military that way. Unfortunately too many people have grown up without any sense of decency or understanding of the sacrifices needed for the freedoms they take for granted. If WWII happened today there is no way we could have won, not when so few understand what it takes to defeat such evil. Disgusts me that people seem to be so stupid. I’ll nevef allow my children to disrespect our flag, our vets or our country, not while I’m breathing

          • john

            Thank you for being kind. I agree with you. Now, there are many who are anti-American and anti-military. It is better now than it was in the ’70s. I have kids and grand-kids, and I really do worry about what kind of nation they will live in, and did my best to defend the American traditional values, and I still do support those that I think are right in their approaches to life, politics and business. I still have hope. Do not get me started on the Liberal Left and the mass media, because I will rant! I apologize for taking so long to get back to you, but we were on a great cruise-ship vacation.

  • Centaurus

    Oh, like someone in the, “General public” is going to finance their own expedition to go picking through the skulls and bones to yank out ‘Cmdr. Gutz’ footlocker for some morbid mementos ? Pleeze…

    • muzzleloader

      agreed. I would venture to say that you can ask anyone under 50 what is the USS Indianapolis and you would get a blank stare. (Sadly) It is an opportunity for closure for the families of sailors who were lost.

      • Jeff L

        I’m 47. I know the Indy, so, one less blank stare than expected. This is an amazing find! 🙂

  • RobM1981

    I’m not sure why people want to do this. The Titanic, maybe. There was always some “why?” in that particular wreck. Ditto Thresher, Scorpion, etc. Some wrecks require investigation, for sure.

    But Indianapolis has no mystery. She was torpedoed and sank, just like so many other ships.

    I, again, don’t understand what the allure is. She’s a grave. Perhaps we should have left her in peace?

    • John Locke

      Can you not drive/walk through Arlington?
      There was also a “why?” or rather “where?” due to conflicting information in the records.

      • RobM1981

        Good point. It is, indeed, a battleground.

      • john

        Yes, Arlington holds its own mysteries and secrets. Moreso for the Indy.

    • muzzleloader

      There are perhaps 3 vessels on the planet capable of reaching her. I think she is safe.

      • john

        We can hope. my cynical nature forces me to consider that raping her could happen.

        • nerwen_aldarion

          They aren’t releasing the coordinates to the public precisely so she stays hidden. The military look after their own, even after death

    • david46

      Well, Rob, it is because there are still 800 sailors on that ship and as a matter of principle, we don’t leave anyone behind. Did you spend any time in combat or at sea, Rob? If you had, you wouldn’t have to ask the question.

      • john

        My father spent his earliest days on The Indy. In those days, and individual would stay on a single vessel for years. He knew men that went down with her, or dis not survive the after-effects. He kept their memories until his dying day.

  • Donald Carey

    A good article, but it should have been looked over by someone who knows a little marine biology: Coral doesn’t grow without sunlight. No coral grows on the wreck.

    • john

      Donald, do you really expect articles like this to be factual? I am sorry that you are disappointed, but the fact remains that writers like this, and on TV and the movies are not big on facts. That is why I avoid war movies or medical TV. I always suspect that if they cannot get the little facts straight, why should they be trusted to provide us with the big facts? Do I sound cynical? Guilty as charged.

  • nerwen_aldarion

    Always felt a bit of connection to this wreck. My great uncle was in the Navy during WWII, he was Butch O’Hare’s wingman and survived the sinking of the Lexington but was shot down in Soloman Islamds. The commissioned a ship named after him, the USS Dufilho which actually picked up survivors of the Indianapolis. I just think it was so poetic that a ship named after a survivor of a sinking picked up survivors too.

    God bless the men who died and still rest within that ship. Gone but not forgotten