Navy Q&A yields insight into discovery of USS Indianapolis

By Cameron Mattern

INDIANAPOLIS — The USS Indianapolis sunk swiftly 72 years ago in the closing days of World War II, disappearing beneath the ocean in a mere 12 minutes.

With the ship went all of its records, making it difficult to find the wreckage over the decades, said Dr. Richard Hulver, Naval History and Heritage Command historian.

An image shot from a remotely operated vehicle shows wreckage which appears to be one of the two anchor windlass mechanisms from the forecastle of the ship. Note the star-emblazoned capstans in this photo dated July 12, 1945 just weeks before the ship was lost. Photo provided to courtesy of Paul G. Allen

“The latitude and longitude from the stress signal never left the ship,” said Hulver, of the signal that might have indicated where the Navy cruiser lay. “The radiomen that keyed the SOS coordinates, the ones that survived, had forgotten the coordinates they had keyed in after they were rescued.”

Hulver and the Naval History and Heritage Command held a question and answer forum on Facebook Live on Wednesday to answer questions about the surprising discovery of the Indianapolis.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen led a team of civilians in search of the wreckage, announcing earlier this week that they found the remains of the Indianapolis nearly 18,000 feet below the surface in the Philippine Sea.

“We thought that not only could we could some information out there about the Navy’s role in locating the Indianapolis, we could make it more engaging by taking questions from people,” said Paul Taylor, communication branch head of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Hulver and Underwater Archaeology Branch Head Dr. Robert Neyland answered a wide variety of questions about the recently discovered USS Indianapolis and the Navy’s role in the accomplishment.

Hulver said that the Navy provided historical data, re-navigation details and analyzed photos for the crew that made the discovery.

The USS Indianapolis was struck by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine and sunk in 12 minutes during the last days of World War II. A majority of the 1,196 sailors and marines survived the sinking only to die in the coming days because of circumstances like dehydration, drowning and shark attacks.

Only 316 crewmembers survived, 22 of whom are still alive today.

When rescuers picked up the captain of the ship, Charles Butler McVay III, he said the Indianapolis had routing instructions for how to get from Guam to the Philippines.

“These instructions were a guideline. There are certain times where you’re going to pass certain points if you’re going exactly as routed,” said Hulver.

Because McVay reported where they were supposed to be, the Navy used that information to make an estimated calculation of the location.

“So we’ve got really a rough estimate instead of an exact position of where Indianapolis went down. So that obviously makes it difficult,” said Hulver.

The Indianapolis wasn’t alone at the bottom of the sea. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates that there are over 3 million shipwrecks along the ocean floor, some being thousands of years old.

Cameron Mattern is a reporter for, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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