By DAVID KRIER
Fourteen minutes after midnight on July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was struck by two Japanese torpedoes—sending Robert Witzig and 1,195 of his fellow crewmen into the Pacific Ocean midway between Guam and Leyte Gulf. About 900 made it into the water; the rest went down with the ship. Life rafts were scarce, with most men having to rely on milkweed life jackets to spare them from drowning. At first light, the shark attacks began, and continued for the next five days.
“There was 600 or so in one group; the sharks chewed them up,” Witzig, 91, recalls. “You get a cup of blood in the water and the sharks come from eight miles around, and there was a lot more than one cup of blood in that water. Oh God...” …and he trails off with the memory.
Witzig joined the Navy on Jan. 7, 1944, six months after graduating from Fennimore High School. Following training at Great Lakes Naval Center he found himself in San Francisco assigned to the Indianapolis—a heavy cruiser launched in 1933 that once served as FDR’s flagship.
“President Roosevelt’s flagship, so people understand, the same as Air Force One today,” Witzig explains.
Witzig served in nine major engagements in the Asiatic-Pacific Theatre, including Tinian, Guam, Saipan, Palau Island, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, the first and second raids on Japan, and the second battle of the Philippines.
At Okinawa, the Indianapolis spent seven days in March 1945 pouring 8-inch shells into the beach defenses from barrels 68 feet long. (“That’s a *** damn long gun barrel,” says the feisty sailor.) On March 31, the ship’s lookouts spotted a Japanese fighter as it emerged from the morning twilight and roared at the bridge in a vertical dive. The ship’s 20 mm guns opened fire, but within 15 seconds the plane was over the ship. Tracers converged on it, causing it to swerve ,but the pilot managed to release his bomb from a height of 25 feet. The bomb plummeted through the deck, into the crew’s mess hall, down through the berthing compartment, and through the fuel tanks before crashing through the keel and exploding in the water underneath. The concussion blew two gaping holes in the keel, flooding nearby compartment and killing nine crewmen. Bulkheads prevented any further flooding. Settling slightly by the stern and listing to port, the Indianapolis steamed to a salvage port for emergency repairs.
Further inspection revealed that her propeller shafts were damaged, fuel tanks ruptured and water-distilling equipment ruined. Despite all that, the Indianapolis completed the long trip across the Pacific to Mare Island north of San Francisco for major repairs and an overhaul. Once those were completed the Indianapolis would embark on one of the most important naval missions in United States history.
“We were told to go to Hunters Point and pick up some cargo. There were three large wooden boxes about six feet square and fourteen feet long. We secured them to our hangar deck and were ordered to go to an island called Tinian. No escort, full speed. We were carrying a full load of crude oil, over a million gallons, 10,000 gallons of aviation gas, 5,000 gallons of paint thinner, and sixteen car loads of ammunition. That’s a lot of stuff.”
Which would prove to be a dangerous cargo later on, as well as what was in those wooden boxes, which turned out to be major parts and enriched uranium for the first operational atomic bomb, Little Boy, which would be dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. After safely delivering their top secret cargo to Tinian on July 26, 1945, the Indianapolis reported to CINPAC (Commander-In-Chief, Pacific) headquarters at Guam for further orders. She was directed to join the battleship USS Idaho at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan.
“We didn’t make it,” Witzig says simply. “We got hit by two torpedoes up forward on the bow. I was up in the main battery lookout tower, right up at the top, 97 feet from the water line.”
Witzig made his way down to the main deck, where he saw that about 150 feet of the forward bow had been blown away, “clear back to number two turret.”
“There were men screaming. No matter how bad a man in those situations is tore up, Mother Nature lets him stand once,” Witzig says. “The majority of these men I seen stand once and then drop straight to the deck, never to move again.”
Witzig moved lower and at the deck, 74 feet from the water, he decided to jump.
“The human body goes down eight feet, that’s as far as you go in that ocean water,” he says. “When I surfaced I lost all my food and water, I vomited 13 times, I counted.”
Swimming away from the sinking ship, Witzig had what he calls “an act of Mother Nature,” when a life jacket floated right under his arm, no doubt saving his life.
“I put that jacket on and it carried me through right near six days—day and night,” he says. “There’s something about the ocean water, its care for human wounds, even our modern medical science can’t compete with it, clean ocean water.”
As an example, Witzig says the constant up and down motion of the ocean led his life jacket to rub the flesh off a portion of his chin, clear to the bone.
“The ocean water will care for that for three and a half days,” he says. “The flesh re-growed after that in the clean ocean water and I don’t have a scar on my face or my chin today.”
While one group of 600 men was faced with constant shark attacks, Witzig was with a separate group of 124 men.
“We all made it,” he says, adding that he doesn’t know why his group was spared and others were not.
The men were accidentally discovered by a PV-1 Ventura Bomber pilot on a routine antisubmarine patrol shortly after 11 a.m. on the fourth day. Radioing his base at Peleiu, he alerted, “many men in water.” A PBY seaplane was dispatched to the scene and began dropping rubber rafts and supplies. While so engaged, they observed men being attacked by sharks. Disregarding orders not to land at sea, Lt. R. Adrian Marks landed and behan taxiing to pick up the stragglers and lone swimmers who were at the greatest risk of shark attack.
Marks radioed the news that it was the crew of the Indianapolis and requested immediate assistance. As complete darkness fell, Marks waited for help to arrive while continuing to pull nearly dead men from the water. When the plane’s fuselage was full, survivors were tied to the wing with parachute cord. Marks and his crew rescued 56 men that day. The destroyer USS Cecil Doyle arrived and began taking Marks’ survivors aboard, stopping to avoid killing or further injuring survivors.
The Doyle’s captain disregarded the safety of his own vessel and pointed his largest searchlight into the night sky to serve as a beacon for other rescue vessels. That beacon was the first indication to most of the survivors that their prayers had been answered—help had finally arrived. Of the 900 who made it into the water, only 317 remained alive, including Fennimore’s Bob Witzig. For he and his eventual fellow Purple Heart recipients, the war was effectively over.
These days you can find Bob Witzig having his morning coffee and toast at the Vale Inn in Boscobel, or perhaps dining out with his longtime “lady friend” in Dubuque on Saturday nights.
“I’m 91 years old and take no pills,” he says. “If you can say you got to 91 with no pills, that’s saying something.
Witzig will be attending the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization’s 70th Anniversary Reunion July 23-26 in Indianapolis. He is one of just 28 living survivors on that fateful mission. He has attended similar reunions in the past, but none with this significance.
“There are going to be some important people there, but I don’t know who yet,” he says. When asked what goes on at these reunions, Witzig responds, “We don’t talk war.”
He is looking forward to “a sum of money” rumored to be given to the survivors. He doesn’t know how much, but is hoping it will be enough to buy a new Lincoln.
The saga of the USS Indianapolis lives on in print, on film and in steel. Lockheed Martin has been contracted to build the new $350 million USS Indianapolis LCS17 at the shipyards in Marinette, Wisconsin.
Filming started June 20 on “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.” Mario Van Peebles is directing the feature film that stars Nicolas Cage as Capt. Butler McVay, who was court martialed, then exonerated more than half a century later after it was learned that evidence was withheld during his trial.
U.S. intelligence using a top secret operation labeled ULTRA had broken the Japanese code and was aware that two Japanese submarines, including the I-58, were operating in the path of the Indianapolis.
This information was classified and not made available to either the court-martial board or to Captain McVay's defense counsel. It did not become known until the early 1990s that—despite knowledge of the danger in its path—naval authorities at Guam had sent the Indianapolis into harm's way without any warning, refusing her captain's request for a destroyer escort, and leading him to believe his route was safe.
Captain Butler McVay committed suicide at his Connecticut home on November 6, 1968.