Tuesday, August 21, 2007

900 Went Into The Ocean, Only 316 Survived

The Worst Shark Attack In History

If you've seen the movie 'Jaws' then you're probably familiar with the story of what happened to the crew of the USS Indianapolis, when it sank beneath the waves of the Pacific in the closing days of World War 2.

But you've probably never heard what happened to all those men, lost in the ocean for four days and five nights, fighting to survive in unimaginable conditions, in such graphic detail as this story provides.

The first sharks were attracted by the noise and activity of the sinking warship. The next wave of sharks were drawn in by the blood, urine and vomit from the men being torn apart.

Is there some kind of terrible irony to be found in the fact that USS Indianapolis had just finished transporting pieces of Little Boy, the atom bomb that would soon be dropped on Hiroshima, killing more than 100,000 civilians, when the flag ship of the US Fifth Fleet was hit by Japanese torpedoes?

The story of what happened in the waters of the Pacific is absolutely horrifying :
There were fins all around, the killer sharks just circling, waiting, assessing their prey in their usual silent, sinister way.

For the men strung out in the oil-streaked water, clinging to the sides of flimsy rafts or floating in sodden life-jackets, the sight was terrifying and the underwater brush of leathery skin against a submerged leg, or the nudge of a snout, was gut-wrenching.

"There were hundreds of them," recalled survivor Woody James. "You'd hear somebody scream, and you'd know the sharks had got him."

Seaman First Class Loel Cox lost one of his friends in a flurry of bloody mayhem just a few feet away: "I was that close, the shark's tail struck me."

"They were upon us every three or four hours," said another survivor, counting himself lucky to be alive.

Bugler First Class Donald Mack would never forget those screams and the realisation "that there was one less man to be rescued".

James and the others - though they didn't know it - were in the middle of what has gone down as the largest recorded encounter ever between men and sharks. Only 316 men came out of the water alive. More than 500 perished.

James was with about 150 other men bobbing about in the swell, lifejackets tied together. Groups of differing sizes - one as big as 300, others just a handful clinging to each other - dotted vast acres of ocean.

Ensign Twible knew the men he was leading had to stick together to have any chance at all. "We had four rafts and I ordered the men swimming to tie themselves to them. But some cut themselves loose and drifted away, and when the sharks first arrived at daybreak on the second day, these were the ones they took first.

"I set up a shark watch. As soon as anyone saw one they were to shout out and then we would all kick and scream, make a commotion and try and chase them off."

As no rescue ships appeared and hopes of survival began to fade, many went mad, overwhelmed by thirst and the sheer helplessness of their predicament. In desperation they drank the salt water around them and died in agony within hours.

There were mass hallucinations. Men shouted out that they could see the Indianapolis beneath the waves, intact and inviting.

It took great strength to remain sane and alive through the freezing nights and the scorching days. "At night, the water was so cold, we prayed for the sun, and in the day the sun so hot we prayed for darkness," said another of the men, Loel Cox.

The doctor, Lewis Haynes, was, as he said himself, by now little more than a coroner, struggling from one unconscious body to another. "I'd just paddle over and look into his eyes and if his pupil was dilated and he didn't blink I'd declare him dead. Then we would take off his life-jacket because we needed every damned one we could get our hands on."

But by now, even the life-jackets were giving up. Their buoyancy limit was 48 hours and that had long since gone. They were waterlogged, and dragged many a wearer beneath the surface.

One survivor recalled being woken by the pain of teeth crunching his hand. He fought back - the men were discovering that if you poked a shark firmly in the eye it would retreat, unused to retaliation.

He dragged his mangled hand back, but then faced a different sort of savagery: his raft-mates saw the blood and tried to push him away, afraid he might provoke another attack.


More than 60 years on, the whole episode remains a serious blot on the record of the U.S. Navy. In popular terms, too, it is also a blot on the reputation of sharks.

But, as shark experts explain, they were only doing what millennia of evolution have honed them to do - to attack and eat voraciously whatever helpless creatures they find in the water.

Survivor Michael Kuryla agreed. "They came around and did their thing. We were in their territory, and that's where a shark belongs, not us.

The whole story is remarkable and worth a full read.

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