By Capt. Lewis Haynes (1912-2001)
Editor’s Note. Any “Jaws” fan can tell you that the U.S. Navy has its own unique history with sharks. In what is known in movie parlance as simply the “Indianapolis scene,” fisherman Sam Quint (Robert Shaw) tells Brody (Roy Scheider) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) a horrifying shark tale of the crew of USS Indianapolis, a Navy ship torpedoed and sunk on July 30, 1945. In the four days before their rescue, some 883 Sailors would die in the Pacific Ocean. According to Quint, most were “taken away” by sharks making it one of the greatest shark feeding frenzies in history. But what is the real story? Capt. Lewis Haynes, was one of the Indianapolis survivors and later related his harrowing experiences as a survivor in an oral history. The following is an excerpt of this session.(1)
Being in the water wasn’t an unpleasant experience except that it was black fuel oil and you got it in your nose, and you got it in your eyes. As the ship went up, I thought I would be sucked down with it but it had just the opposite effect. Because the ship went down so fast because of the forward momentum, the air burst out of the compartments and there were explosions of air that turned you end over end and kept blowing us all farther away. I went tumbling ass over teakettle in the fuel oil and water. And the ship was gone. And suddenly it was very quiet.
As the ship rolled, the swimmers all walked down the side like I did. The captain and a lot of the men and perhaps those people on the afterdeck–the gunnery crew that was up there–when the ship rolled, they all fell off on that side. And as it rolled over all the life rafts and all the floater nets went off on that side, opposite to our side. Capt. [Charles B.] McVay and 10 men had two life rafts and two floater nets between them. (2) And another group had four or five rafts and floater nets.
And when the ship went down so fast and the air blew out of the compartments like explosions, they went that way and we went this way and never the twain would meet. We never saw them again. When you’re in the ocean at sea level and there are big waves you can’t see very far.
We started to gather together. We all looked the same, black oil all over–white eyes and red mouths. No personalities at all. You couldn’t tell the doctor from the boot seaman. Everyone swallowed fuel oil which made everyone sick. And then everyone began vomiting. And it was in your eyes, it was in your nose. Later, when the sun came up the covering of oil was a help. It kept us from burning. But 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.
And this was midnight and most of the men were probably dehydrated to start with because they’d been asleep. A lot of them hadn’t had fluid for some time. And they began to get very thirsty. And that was the big problem I had as time went on. Trying to keep them from drinking saltwater.
A lot of the men were without life jackets. The kapok life jacket is designed with a space in the back.(3) 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 up out of the water. And the men were very good about doing this. Those with jackets supported men without jackets. They held onto the back of the jacket, put their arms through there and held on floating in tandem.
When daylight came and we began to get ourselves organized into a group and the leaders began to come out, and they knew I was the doctor, I began to find the wounded and we began to find the dead. And when we got to the 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 jackets and give it to men who didn’t have jackets. In the beginning I took off their dogtags and 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 I hear it, I simply lose it.
When the sun came up it reflected off the fuel oil and was like a search light in your eyes that you couldn’t get away from. And everyone got photophobia. So I had all the men take their clothes off and we tore them into strips and tied them around our eyes to keep the sun 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.
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—Capt. [Edward L., USMC] Parke and the others swam around the outside and we supported one another. Some of the men could doze off and sleep for a few minutes. We kept the wounded and those who were sickest in the center of the pack, and that was my territory.
There was nothing I could do but give advice, bury the dead, and save the life jackets, and try to keep the men from drinking the saltwater 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. I can remember striking men who were drinking water to try and stop them. The saltwater acted like a physic. The men 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 discovered 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 with everybody tied together we would take the strings from the leg part of our jackets which normally kept the jacket from riding up, and we would tie it to the man next. Everybody was tied together and they all had severe chills. And after they were chilled, they ran a fever and then they all became delirious.
In fact, there were mass hallucinations. It was amazing how everyone would see the same thing. One would see something, than 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. They also saw the ship just beneath the surface, and the scuttlebutt [water fountain] down there. And they would dive down to get a drink of water and the salt water killed them. They could see it. You couldn’t convince them. Even I thought I saw the ship once. I fought hallucinations off and on. Something always brought me back.
I saw one shark. He was about this long and he went around in front of me in the afternoon. I remember reaching out trying to grab a hold of him. I thought maybe it would be food. However, when night came, things would bang 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 afterward found a large number of those bodies–in the report I read—56 bodies were all mutilated by fish. Maybe the sharks were satisfied with the dead; they didn’t have to bite the living.
(2) Capt. (later Rear Adm.) Charles B. McVay, USN was the skipper of the USS Indianapolis.
(3) Kapok— a fibrous vegetable material made from the seeds of the ceiba tree and used for the filling of lifejackets.