Deadliest ever shark attack: 150 torn apart by pack of ‘most aggressive’ predators

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The sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945 remains the single deadliest shark attack incident in history.

It’s unclear how many of the Indianapolis’s crew were killed by sharks, but the figure is thought to be as many as 150, over a period of 4 days.

In the closing stages of World War 2 the US Navy Portland-class heavy cruiser was returning from a secret mission to deliver the warhead of experimental atomic bomb Little Boy – which was to be dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 – when it was hit by two Type 95 torpedoes fired from the Japanese submarine I-58.

The ship, which had been made unstable by the addition of extra guns in the latter stages of the war, quickly rolled over and sank.

Of the 1,195 crewmen who were aboard at the time, 300 went down with the ship.

The remainder of the crew were left adrift in open water for nearly 4 days.

The survivors were swarmed by highly-aggressive oceanic whitetip sharks

The animals were initially attracted by the sound of the explosion and the disturbance in the water.

The sharks were mostly the highly-aggressive oceanic whitetip. Though slow-moving, compared to other shark species they are notoriously aggressive, and are especially a danger to shipwreck survivors.

At first the sharks focused on the dead seamen floating in the water but the survivors’ desperate attempts to get away from the creatures only created more vibration in the water – attracting more sharks.

Sailors tried to get away from anyone with an open wound, because they knew the smell of blood in the water would attract a shark. One hungry group of survivors opened a can of Spam, not realising that the sharks’ keen sense of smell would bring them swarming around the sailor with the rations.

They ditched the rest of their food supply rather than risk another attack.

Captain Charles B. McVay was court-martialled over the sinking even though he was ultimately blameless, and took his own life in 1968

The sharks circled for days, with no sign of rescue for the men. Anyone on the edges of the group was at risk of being picked off.

American codebreakers intercepted a triumphant signal from the Japanese submarine about their success, but dismissed it as a ploy to lure other ships into an ambush.

The USS Indianapolis passing the Battery, New York

Steven Spielberg wrote a visceral account of the crew of the Indianapolis’s fate which was delivered by Robert Shaw as Quint in his 1975 blockbuster Jaws: “Didn’t see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. 13-footer.

“You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know, was that our bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent.”

He goes on to describe how the men formed into groups to try to defend themselves against the masses of sharks that converged on them.

Men on the fringes of the group were most vulnerable to attack

“You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour.

“Thursday mornin’, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up.

“He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist.”

He concludes: “…eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.”

The numbers in the screenplay were accurate, but two more survivors, Robert Lee Shipman and Frederick Harrison, died later that month in hospital.

While many had been killed by sharks, she died from dehydration and exposure, and a few killed each other through delirium and hallucinations.

Survivors of USS Indianapolis en route to hospital following rescue, August 1945.

It was on the 4th day of the disaster that a Navy plane spotted the survivors in the water and signalled for help. A few hours later a PBY Catalina rescue plane piloted by Lieutenant Adrian Marks, arrived on the scene and dropped rafts, one of which was destroyed on impact, and other supplies.

A Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina patrol bomber similar to Lt. Mark’s plane

When Marks realised how desperate the situation had become he landed his seaplane in the open ocean and, despite then fact that he was unable to then take off again, used his aircraft as an emergency rescue boat to help keep men afloat until, at around midnight on that 4th day, the USS Doyle arrived on the scene and helped to pull the last survivors from the water.

Crewman Michael A Homa aboard Indianapolis

One abiding mystery about the exact number of sailors who died in the incident was only resolved in 2018.

Were there 1,195 crewmen aboard the Indianapolis— or 1,196? Did 879 men die in the tragedy or 880?

The riddle was resolved when two historians determined that one young man escaped almost certain death on that fateful journey because of a last-minute change of plans. Clarence Donnor was listed as lost in action in some official documents even though he was back in the US by the time news of the tragedy broke.

Memorabilia belonging to one of the victims of the tragedy, William Emery

Clarence Donnor’s parents were even informed of their son’s death in the wreck, even though he was very much alive and had spoken to them shortly before they received the dreaded telegram.

It was to be 72 years before the Indianapolis herself was found.

A research vessel owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen discovered the wreck in the Philippine Sea, 5,500 meters below the surface in August 2017.

The ship, which remains the property of the U.S. Navy, was left undisturbed by Allen’s team following the discovery.



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