Oral History -The Sinking of USS
Recollections of the sinking of USS Indianapolis
(CA-35) by CAPT Lewis L. Haynes, MC (Medical Corps) (Ret.), the senior
medical officer on board the ship.
[Source: Haynes, Lewis L.
'Survivor of the Indianapolis.' Navy Medicine 86, no.4 (Jul.-Aug. 1995):
Delivering the [Atomic] Bomb
After our repairs were
completed, we were supposed to go on our post-repair trial run. But instead, on
July 15th, we were ordered to go to San Francisco to take on some cargo. I was
amazed to notice that there was a quiet, almost dead Navy Yard. We tied up at
the dock there and two big trucks came alongside. The big crate on one truck was
put in the port hanger. The other truck had a bunch of men aboard, including two
Army officers, CAPT [James F.] Nolan and MAJ [Robert R.] Furman. I found out
later that Nolan was a medical officer. I don't know what his job was, probably
to monitor radiation. The two men carried a canister, about 3 feet by 4 feet
tall, up to ADM Spruance's cabin where they welded it to the deck. Later on, I
found out that this held the nuclear ingredients for the bomb and the large box
in the hanger contained the device for firing the bomb. And I had that thing
welded to the deck above me for 10 days!
As we got under way on July
16th, CAPT McVay told his staff we were on a special mission. 'I can't tell you
what the mission is. I don't know myself but I've been told that every day we
take off the trip is a day off the war.' CAPT McVay told us his orders were that
if we had an 'abandon ship,' what was in the admiral's cabin was to be placed in
a boat before anybody else. We had all kinds of guesses as to what the cargo
After refueling at an eerily quiet Pearl Harbor, we made a straight
run to Tinian at as much speed as they could economically go, about 25 or 26
knots. Everybody was at Condition Able which was 4 hours on and 4 hours off. It
was like going into battle the whole way out. The trip from San Francisco to
Tinian took a total of 10 days,
When we unloaded our special cargo at
Tinian I noticed a couple of general Air Force officers handling these crates
like they were a bunch of stevedores. I was even more sure we had something
We were then ordered to the Philippines for training exercises
preparing for the invasion of Kyushu. CAPT McVay asked for an escort, but was
told we didn't need one as it was supposedly safe to go to the Philippines. What
he wasn't told was that there were Japanese submarines along the way and that
Naval Intelligence knew it.
On July 29th I was
pretty tired because I had given the whole crew cholera shots all day. I
remember walking through the warrant officer's quarters and declining to join a
poker game as I was so tired. I then went to bed.
I awoke. I was in the
air. I saw a bright light before I felt the concussion of the explosion that
threw me up in the air almost to the overhead. A torpedo had detonated under my
room. I hit the edge of the bunk, hit the deck, and stood up. Then the second
explosion knocked me down again. As I landed on the deck I thought, 'I've got to
get the hell out of here!' I grabbed my life jacket and started to go out the
door. My room was already on fire.
I emerged to see my neighbor Ken
Stout. He said, 'Let's go,' and stepped ahead of me into the main passageway. I
was very close to him when he yelled, 'Look out!' and threw his hands up. I
lifted the life jacket in front of my face, and stepped back. As I did, a wall
of fire went 'Whoosh!' It burned my hair off, burned my face, and the back of my
hands. That's the last I saw of Ken.
I started out trying to go to the
forward ladder to go up on the fo'c'sle deck, There was a lot of fire coming up
through the deck right in front of the dentist's room. That's when I realized I
couldn't go forward and turned to go aft. As I did, I slipped and fell, landing
on my hands. I got third degree burns on my hands -- my palms and all the tips
of my fingers. I still have the scars. I was barefooted and the soles of my feet
were burned off.
Then I turned aft to go back through the wardroom. I
would have to go through the wardroom and down a long passageway to the
quarterdeck, but there was a terrible hazy smoke with a peculiar odor. I
couldn't breathe and got lost in the wardroom. I kept bumping into furniture and
finally fell into this big easy chair. I felt so comfortable. I knew I was dying
but I really didn't care.
Then someone standing over me said, 'My God,
I'm fainting!' and he fell on me. Evidently that gave me a shot of adrenalin and
I forced my way up and out. Somebody was yelling, 'Open a porthole!' All power
was out and it was just a red haze.
The ship was beginning to list and I
moved to that side of the ship. I found a porthole already open. Two other guys
had gone out through it. I stuck my head out the porthole, gulping in some air,
and found they had left a rope dangling. I looked down to see water rushing into
the ship beneath me. I thought about going out the porthole into the ocean but I
knew I couldn't go in there.
Instead I grabbed the rope which was
attached to an overhanging floater net. I pulled myself through the porthole and
up to the deck above. I then went to my battle station, which was the port
hanger. My chief, [CPhM John A.] Shmueck, and a lot of casualties were back
there. I think the moon was going in and out because at times I could see
clearly, other times not. We were trying to put dressings and give morphine to
badly burned men when an officer came up and said, 'Doctor, you'd better get
life jackets on your patients.'
So Shmueck and I went up a ladder to the
deck above where there were some life jackets. We got a whole bunch of life
jackets and went back down and started to put them on the patients. I remember
helping a warrant officer. His skin was hanging in shreds and he was yelling,
'Don't touch me, don't touch me.' I kept telling him we had to get the jacket
on. I was putting the jacket on when the ship tipped right over. He just slid
away from me. The patients and the plane on the catapult all went down in a big,
tangling crash to the other side. I grabbed the lifeline and climbed through to
avoid falling. And by the time I did, the ship was on its side. Those men
probably all died as the plane came down on top of them. All the rescue gear and
everything we had out went down, patients and everything
Into the Water
I slowly walked down the side of
the ship. Another kid came and said he didn't have a jacket. I had an extra
jacket and he put it on. We both jumped into the water which was covered with
fuel oil. I wasn't alone in the water. The hull was covered with people climbing
I didn't want to get sucked down with the ship so I kicked my feet
to get away. And then the ship rose up high. I thought it was going to come down
and crush me. The ship kept leaning out away from me, the aft end rising up and
leaning over as it stood up on its nose. The ship was still going forward at
probably 3 or 4 knots. When it finally sank, it was over a hundred yards from
me. Most of the survivors were strung out anywhere from half a mile to a mile
behind the ship.
Suddenly the ship was gone and it was very quiet. It had
only been 12 minutes since the torpedoes hit. We started to gather together.
Being in the water wasn't an unpleasant experience except that the black fuel
oil got in your nose and eyes. We all looked the same, black oil all over --
white eyes and red mouths. You couldn't tell the doctor from the boot seamen.
Soon everyone had swallowed fuel oil and gotten sick. Then everyone began
At that time, I could have hidden but somebody yelled, 'Is the
doctor there?' And I made myself known. From that point on -- and that's
probably why I'm here today -- I was kept so busy I had to keep going. But
without any equipment, from that point on I became a coroner.
A lot of
men were without life jackets. The kapok life jacket is designed with a space in
the back. Those who had life jackets that were injured, you could put your arm
through that space and pull them up on your hip and keep them out of the water.
And the men were very good about doing this, Further more, those with jackets
supported men without jackets. They held on the back of them, put their arms
through there and held on floating in tandem.
When daylight came we began
to get ourselves organized into a group and the leaders began to come out. When
first light came we had between three and four hundred men in our group. I would
guess that probably seven or eight hundred men made it out of the ship. I began
to find the wounded and dead. The only way I could tell they were dead was to
put my finger in their eye. If their pupils were dilated and they didn't blink I
assumed they were dead. We would then laboriously take off their life jacket and
give it to men who didn't have jackets. In the beginning I took off their
dogtags, said The Lord's Prayer, and let them go. Eventually, I got such an
armful of dogtags I couldn't hold them any longer. Even today, when I try to say
The Lord's Prayer or hear it, I simply lose it.
Later, when the sun came
up the covering of oil was a help. It kept us from burning. But it also
reflected off the fuel oil and was like a searchlight in your eyes that you
couldn't get away from. So I had all the men tie strips of their clothing around
their eyes to keep the sun out.
The second night, which was Monday night,
we had all the men put their arms through the life jacket of the man in front of
him and we made a big mass so we could stay together. We kept the wounded and
those who were sickest in the center of the pack and that was my territory. Some
of the men could doze off and sleep for a few minutes. The next day we found a
life ring. I could put one very sick man across it to support him.
was nothing I could do but give advice, bury the dead, save the life jackets,
and try to keep the men from drinking the salt water when we drifted out of the
fuel oil. When the hot sun came out and we were in this crystal clear water, you
were so thirsty you couldn't believe it wasn't good enough to drink. I had a
hard time convincing the men that they shouldn't drink. The real young ones --
you take away their hope, you take away their water and food -- they would drink
salt water and then would go fast. I can remember striking men who were drinking
water to try and stop them. They would get diarrhea, then get more dehydrated,
then become very maniacal.
In the beginning, we tried to hold them and
support them while they were thrashing around. And then we found we were losing
a good man to get rid of one who had been bad and drank. As terrible as it may
sound, towards the end when they did this, we shoved them away from the pack
because we had to.
The water in that part of the Pacific was warm and
good for swimming. But body temperature is over 98 and when you immerse someone
up to their chin in that water for a couple of days, you're going to chill him
down. So at night we would tie everyone close together to stay warm. But they
still had severe chills which led to fever and delirium. On Tuesday night some
guy began yelling,
'There's a Jap here and he's trying to kill me.' And then
everybody started to fight. They were totally out of their minds. A lot of men
were killed that night. A lot of men drowned. Overnight everybody untied
themselves and got scattered in all directions. But you couldn't blame the men.
It was mass hysteria. You became wary of everyone. Till daylight came, you
weren't sure. When we got back together the next day there were a hell of a lot
There were also mass hallucinations. It was amazing how everyone
would see the same thing. One would see something, then someone else would see
it. One day everyone got in a long line. I said, 'What are you doing?' Someone
answered, 'Doctor, there's an island up here just ahead of us. One of us can go
ashore at a time and you can get 15 minutes sleep.' They all saw the island. You
couldn't convince them otherwise. Even I fought hallucinations off and on, but
something always brought me back.
I saw only one shark. I remember
reaching out trying to grab hold of him. I thought maybe it would be food.
However, when night came, things would bump against you in the dark or brush
against your leg and you would wonder what it was. But honestly, in the entire
110 hours I was in the water I did not see a man attacked by a shark. However,
the destroyers that picked up the bodies afterwards found a large number of
those bodies. In the report I read 56 bodies were mutilated, Maybe the sharks
were satisfied with the dead; they didn't have to bite the
It was Thursday [2 Aug] when the plane
spotted us. By then we were in very bad shape. The kapok life jacket becomes
waterlogged. It's good for about 48 hours. We sunk lower down in the water and
you had to think about keeping your face out of water. I knew we didn't have
very long to go. The men were semicomatose. We were all on the verge of dying
when suddenly this plane flew over. I'm here today because someone on that plane
had a sore neck. He went to fix the aerial and got a stiff neck and lay down in
the blister underneath. While he was rubbing his neck he saw us
dropped life jackets with canisters of water but the canisters ruptured. Then a
PBY [seaplane] showed up and dropped rubber life rafts. We put the sickest
people aboard and the others hung around the side. I found a flask of water with
a 1-ounce cup. I doled out the water, passing the cup down hand to hand. Not one
man cheated and I know how thirsty they were.
Towards the end of the day,
just before dark, I found a kit for making fresh water out of salt water. I
tried to read the instructions, but couldn't make sense of it or get it to work
right. My product tasted like salt water and I didn't want to take a chance so I
threw it into the ocean. I then went to pieces.
I watched the PBY circle
and suddenly make an open-sea landing. This took an awful lot of guts. It hit,
went back up in the air and splashed down again. I thought he'd crashed but he
came taxiing back. I found out later he was taxiing around picking up the
singles. If he hadn't done this, I don't think we would have survived. He stayed
on the water during the night and turned his searchlight up into the sky so the
Cecil J. Doyle (DE-368) could find us. The ship came right over and began
picking us up.
The Cecil J. Doyle had a big net down over the
side. Some of the sailors came down the side of the netting and pulled our rafts
alongside. They put a rope around me; we were too weak to climb up. When they
tried to grab hold of me I remember saying, 'I can get up!' But I couldn't. Two
sailors dragged me down the passageway. By the wardroom pantry, someone gave me
a glass of water with a mark on it and would only give me so much water. I drank
and when I asked for more, he said that was all I could have this time. Then the
skipper asked me what ship I was from. I told him we were what was left of the
The next thing I knew, I was sitting in a shower. I
remember corpsmen or seamen cleaning off my wounds, trying to wash the oil from
me and dress my burns. I remember trying to lick the water coming down from the
shower. They put me in a bunk and I passed out for about 12 hours. I recall the
first bowel movement I had after I was picked up, I passed fuel oil. The other
fellows found the same thing.
The Cecil J. Doyle took us to
Peleliu. We were taken ashore and put into hospital bunks. I remember they came
in and got our vital statistics -- we had discarded our dogtags because they
were heavy. They changed our dressings. Some of the men got IV's [intravenous
solution], though I didn't, While there I began to eat a little and get some
Then after 2 or 3 days at Peleliu, someone came in and
said that I was going to Guam. The next thing I knew, they hauled me out on a
stretcher and onto a hospital ship.
The commanding officer of the ship, a
friend of mine, was Bart [Bartholomew, Surgeon General of the Navy, 1955-1959]
Hogan. Bart came in and said, 'I know you don't feel well but you're going to
have to go before the Inspector General. I'm going to send a corpsman in and I
want you to start at the beginning and dictate everything you can remember about
what happened because as time goes on you're going to forget and things are
going to change.'
So I sat down and dictated off and on for 3 days on the
way to Guam. When I'd get tired I'd fall asleep and then I'd wake up and he'd
When we landed, Bart gave me a copy of what I dictated and I
took it when I went to the Inspector General's office. I told my story, answered
their questions, and gave them this report unedited, saying, 'Here it is. This
is probably as accurate as I can be.' And that document is the file at the
Inspector General's office. All the people who wrote books about the
Indianapolis used it.
Normally, I don't have the nightmares. Last
night, I didn't sleep well. And I won't sleep well tonight. But eventually my
mind will turn off and I'll be all right. It's like when I try to say The Lord's
Prayer or I sit down and try to talk to somebody about it. I'm all right as long
as I stay away from talking about individuals -- my friends... I was on that
ship over a year and a half and we were all close friends and we'd been through
a lot together and I knew their wives and their families. As a doctor you get
more intimate than normal.
Source: Naval Historical Center