Monday, May 28, 2012

The Siege of Newbury Castle, 1152


Stephen of Blois, King of England

Despite having more than twenty children, when King Henry I of England died in 1135, he had no surviving legitimate sons.  He left his kingdom to his daughter Matilda, but common citizenry and powerful nobles alike rejected her in favor of Henry's nephew, Stephen of Blois, who was crowned King in 1135.  However, Matilda had her supporters, and a civil war called the Anarchy broke out between the two factions.

One of Stephen's knights, John Marshal, deserted his service and backed Matilda instead.  He forged an alliance with Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, by deserting his wife and marrying Patrick's sister Sybilla instead.  In 1152, he found himself in Newbury Castle, 65 miles west of London, under siege by King Stephen himself.  The conflict was not going well for John, and he and Stephen signed a truce while John supposedly was to plead with Matilda for allowing the castle to surrender.  As assurance that he would comply with the terms of the truce, and as was the custom of the day, Stephen accepted John's fourth son William as a hostage.  Stephen kept William, then about six years old, in his personal tent, where they would sit on the floor and play undertake games of chance, which Stephen naturally let little William consistently win.

John, however, had no intentions of surrendering the castle.  During the break in hostilities, he filled the keep to capacity with men and supplies - a gross violation of the truce - and then informed the King that he would not surrender after all.  Stephen was infuriated by this betrayal, and his advisors informed him that William's death would have to be at least threatened, if not carried out.  Stephen sent John an angry message, threatening to publicly hang the boy if John did not cease his actions.  John, apparently caring more for the castle than for the fourth of his six sons, essentially dared Stephen to carry through on his threat, replying "I have both the hammer and the forge to make more, and better, sons!"

Stephen's advisors told him that he must then carry through with the threat.  Begrudgingly, but still angry over John's violations, Stephen ordered that the young boy would have to be killed as custom dictated.  On the way to the execution, little William asked to play with the shiny, bright javelin of one of his escorting soldiers.  When they approached the catapult with which William's body was to be hurled back at his father's forces, the cheerful boy said the bucket was just his size, and asked if he could swing from its ropes.  Stephen could no longer bear the thought of killing the boy, and personally lifted William up in his arms and carried him back to his tent.  On the way, the King chastised his advisors, saying that "one would have a heart of iron to see such a child perish."  

William stayed with King Stephen for another two months, during which time they would play a game of toy soldiers, using plantains as stand-ins for duelling knights; William was quite pleased with his repeated victories over the King.  As for Newbury Castle, as it turns out it did not fall; a peace treaty was derived in 1153 in which Stephen would continue as King, but upon his death the title would pass to Matilda's heir; the war was over, and William was returned to his father.  Stephen died only a year after that in 1154, and Matilda's son Henry became King Henry II of England, in whose time Newbury Castle was disassembled so thoroughly that its very location is no longer certain to anyone.  John Marshal fell out of favor with the court, and William cut ties with him before his 20th birthday.

William Marshal in a tournament
It was also fortuitous that King Stephen decided to save young William Marshal.  Despite the fact that landless fourth sons of disgraced, brutish soldiers usually amounted to very little in feudal England, William served as a notable exception to this trend.  He sought his fortune in France, where he was knighted in 1166.  Sponsored - and, at one point, ransomed - by Eleanor of Aquitaine, he grew to be known (without hyperbole) as the greatest knight that ever lived, winning tournament after tournament and defeating more than 500 knights during his career.   He served Henry II as a military captain, went on Crusade, and married the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke.   After Henry II's death, he served Richard I, and after Richard's death, he served King John, supporting him even in the face of rebellion and promoting the Magna Carta, which may not have passed otherwise.  After John's death, William served as Regent for the nine-year-old Henry III and personally leading the Royal Army to victory in a charge at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, despite being over 70 years old at the time. 

William died two years later.  William's father had originally taken his surname from his occupation, as 'Marshal' at the time meant 'Stable keeper'.  It is because of William's achievements that the word has its current meaning, as the commander of an army.
     
Pembroke Castle, which became William Marshal's home

Sources and Links:
William Marshal on Wikipedia
William Marshal in the Dictory of National Biography 1885-1900, as presented in Wikisource.

Duby, Georges and Richard Howard, William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry, Random House, 1987.
Money, Walter, The History of the Ancient Town and Borough in Newbury in the County of Berks, Parker and Co., 1887.
Painter, Sidney, William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of England, University of Toronto Press, 1933.

Image of William Marshal on horseback is by Angus McBride, and appeared in Christopher Gravett's Elite 17: Knights at Tournament, Osprey Books, 1988.
Photo of Pembroke Castle by Athena's Pix.



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Highlander on D-Day

On the morning of June 6, 1944, the invasion of Normandy was under way. An armada of landing ships chopped through the icy, stinging waters of the English Channel, ferrying thousands of troops toward the German-held beaches in a surprise attack that would change the course of the war and of human history. On the far eastern edge of the invasion fleet, one landing craft held a special commodity which no other could boast: deployed along with the 1st Special Services Brigade, many of whom were Scottish, was 21-year-old Bill Millin, a Royal Marine Commando in direct service to the brigade commander. Private Millin was preparing for the landing, but he was not going to be wearing a helmet, wielding a rifle, or affixing a bayonet; Millin instead hoisted and readied a traditional and iconic instrument of Scottish warriors: bagpipes.

Bill Millin’s father had played the bagpipes in World War I years before, and as Millin himself was growing up in Glasgow, he also excelled in their use. He played in the pipe bands of two separate Highland regiments before volunteering as a Commando during World War II. While there, he caught the ear of Simon Fraser, 17th Lord Lovat, the eccentric 32-year-old commander of the Special Services Regiment, who quickly volunteered Millin as his personal piper. When the troops assembled for the D-Day Invasion, Lovat - disobeying recent standing orders that bagpipes, being obvious targets, were not to be deployed in battle, on the grounds that English rules did not apply to Scots such as them - ordered Millin to report for duty with his bagpipes.  

As the landing craft headed down the River Hamble toward the Channel, Millin raised the spirits of the men by standing on the bow and playing Scottish standards on his pipes. Someone relayed the music over the loudspeaker, and passing ships - including a destroyer named the HMS Montrose, which Lovat gleefully saluted - cheered at the sound of bagpipes rising over the waters. As soon as Millin’s ship reached the choppy seas of the Channel, he was concerned about falling over the edge, so he retired inside and closed the lid.

At Normandy, early in the morning of the 6th, the rear door to the lander opened and it was time to take the beach. Resistance was light but present, and Millin watched as his fellow Scots lept into the seas to wade to shore. After Lord Lovat himself jumped in, the next man in line - standing next to Millin at the time - was shot in the face and dropped dead into the water. Millin immediately lept in to the Channel and hastened toward the shore.


Millin, being a loyal Scot, was the only man on the beach wearing a kilt, which floated up around him like a ballerina’s tutu as he waded ashore.  He held his bagpipes over his head to protect them from the sea water, but he lowered them and began playing as soon as he was able. He played “Highland Laddie” as he strode ashore through the surf, and when finished, Lovat insisted that he continue, specifically requesting “The Road to the Isles”. Millin - again at Lovat’s request - then strode back and forth along the battle lines, standing up straight and playing the bagpipe music that filled the air. Someone called him a “mad bastard”, an epithet that had until then been generally reserved by the troops for Lovat.

The sound of the pipes did wonders for the morale of the soldiers; some even stopped digging cover for themselves to wave at the piper. One soldier, Tom Duncan, would years later recall, “[Millin’s piping] reminded us of home and why we were there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones.” German soldiers were similarly impressed; some snipers would later recount how they had Millin in their sights, but decided not to shoot him because they thought he was crazy.

Millin and Lovat continued with the 1st Special Services commandos up the beach and toward the key village of Caen. Along the way, Millin marched at a walk down the center of contested streets while his fellow soldiers used rifles and grenades to clear adjacent buildings of enemy soldiers. At one point, Millin stopped playing as he dove for cover from a German sniper; Lovat personally stalked and shot the harassing rifleman, and then nonchalantly motioned for Millin to continue his music.

Lovat’s forces reinforced the first wave of Commandos at the crucial battle of Pegasus Bridge, which Millen crossed alone while under direct fire that had killed twelve of his compatriots just minutes before, to many cheers and much fanfare. While clearing out the countryside, Millin’s eyes were caught by a family of terrified French villagers. Their red-haired daughter kept crying for “Music! Music!”, and so Millin obliged her by playing “The Nut Brown Maiden”, which she enjoyed greatly.  

Millin continued to serve during the war, and afterward donated his pipes, beret and the skean dhu (Scottish dagger) he wore strapped to his leg to the Pegasus Bridge museum. He worked for a while on Lovat’s estate, but desiring more adventure he left to play pipes in a travelling theater group, and then later became a psychiatric nurse. He returned to Normand frequently for services and memorials over the years; during one of these visits, he was enthusiastically welcomed by a French woman with faded red hair, who remembered the special tune he had played just for her, years ago.

Bill Millin married and had a son named John, then retired to Devon. He suffered a stroke in 2003, and died in 2010 at the age of 88 years old.  




Links and Sources:

"Bill Millin", in The Economist, August 26, 2010.
"Piper Bill Millin", in The Telegraph, August 18, 2010.
"Piper Bill Millin", on Pegasus Archive, retrieved May 22, 2012.

Ambrose, Steven E., Pegasus Bridge, Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Bruce, Duncan A., The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature, and the Arts, Citadel Press, 1998.

The color painting of Lovat and Millin is by David Pentland, and is available for sale here.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Malta 1565


Jean de Valette

After nine Crusades spanning nearly 200 years, the Christian armies were finally expelled from the Middle Eastern coast by the successful Muslim Siege of Acre in 1291.  Over time, Turkish armies spread westward, intent on spreading their religion throughout Europe.  In 1453, Turks captured the mighty Byzantine city of Constantinople, and their gateway to the west was opened.  In 1523, the order of Knights Hospitaller were defending the island of Rhodes, off the southwest coast of Asia Minor, when the Ottomans - under 28-year-old Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent - besieged it as well.  Despite a valiant stand, the Knights eventually ran out of supplies and were forced to withdraw, first to Crete, and then to island of Malta, just south of Sicily.  One of those retreating was a French Knight named Jean de Valette. 

In the years that followed, the Christian Mediterranean kingdoms were under near-constant assault by the Ottoman forces, most notably by the ships commanded by the famed corsair Turgut Reis.  In 1551, Reis invaded Malta, but abandoned the attempt after only a few days.  De Valette - who in the meantime had spent a year in slavery under Reis, but who escaped and was by then the commander of the Knights - ordered the defenses of the city of Birgu to be strengthened.  De Valette was a severe but pious commander, the descendent of a family of Crusade knights and specially chosen to prepare for what was seen as the inevitable Ottoman assault on the island.  The walled city of Birgu sat on a rock promontory on the southern side of the Grand Harbor, and was already protected by Fort St. Angelo, jutting out over the Harbor; to this was added Fort St. Michael on an adjacent outcropping, and Fort St. Elmo across the harbor.    

De Valette had roughly 600 knights under his command.  He also hired about 1,200 men, received about 1,000 in assistance from Italy, and there were a little over 6,000 militia men and galley slaves.  On May 18, 1565, over 30,000 Ottoman troops began to land on Maltese shores from 180 ships; roughly 20% of the Ottoman foot troops were the justifiably-feared Janissaries, elite Ottoman arquebusiers (that is, medieval gunmen) representing the personal investiture of the Sultan himself, who held the customary Janissary rank of Private.  The Ottomans were known for the effectiveness of their artillery, and to that they did not disappoint; 13 cannons were set up only a short distance from Fort St. Elmo, their first target, including two culverins hurling 60-pound balls, 10 cannons hurling 80-pound balls, and one Basilisk, a multiton monstrosity that hurled 160 pound cannonballs.   Mustafa Pasha, the overall commander of the Ottomans, expected that Fort St. Elmo would be overrun and siezed within days, but due to an error in artillery placement (his sub-commander had placed it within range of the Christian artillery from Fort St. Angelo) and the stalwart defense of the 200 Knights assigned to defend St. Elmo, the siege of even this first fort lasted for more than a month, and cost the Ottomans more than 2,000 men - one of which was the pirate Reis. 

Mustafa now turned his army's attentions to Forts St. Angelo and St. Michael, and the town of Birgu.  The Ottoman cannons were of less use, especially as Mustafa feared Maltese reinforcements and therefore attempted to siege the island with more haste than usual.  Meanwhile, De Valette and his defenders posed a staunch resistance.  Ottoman ships sent to attack from the sea were targeted and sunk by Maltese cannons.  Siege towers, forty feet high and filled with assault soldiers, approached the gates but were hobbled when de Valette ordered some ground-level wall blocks removed and had cannons blow the legs off of the structures at point blank range.  One of Mustafa's lieutenants found a way to ignite a barrel of black powder within a crevice in the otherwise smooth rock face supporting the fortress walls; in response, de Valette himself - at the time about 70 or 71 years old - grabbed a spear and led his men to defend the breach, driving the Turks back and securing the hole. 

Probably the most terrifying weapons developed by de Valette and the Maltese Knights were their incendiary devices.  They developed an early form of hand grenades, clay pots filled with napalm-like Greek Fire and hurled at their opponents; the shards of clay would explode as shrapnel, and the Maltese kept piles of these to throw at their tormentors.  They also invented fire hoops, which were wooden rings, about the size of a modern hula hoop, wrapped in layers of burnable material such as brandy, gunpowder, turpentine, and heavy cloth, then ignited and rolled down the hills towards attackers, by the hundreds.  Perhaps most terrifying was the Trump, a hollow metal tube filled with flammable sulfur resin and linseed oil; when lit, a gout of flame several yards long would issue forth from the snout for as long as a half hour.  The defenders stationed these primitive hand-held flamethrowers  at doorways, portcullises, breaches, and other choke points to deter any approach; as the attacking Turks typically wore long, flowing robes, the effects of being set on fire were particularly devastating to them.  One account of the battle records a lone Maltese knight in Fort St. Elmo, visible from across the harbor as he held off many Ottoman assaulters while armed with only a single trump.

The attack, which Mustafa had originally estimated would take only days, lasted for three months.  The Ottoman soldiers, seeing soldier after soldier meet grisly, sudden, or incendiary deaths, lost heart and morale among the attackers plummeted.  Finally, in September, word reached Mustafa that Sicilian reinforcements were heading for the island, and he made the decision to withdraw.  By that time, only about 600 defenders remained, and about 1/3 of the entire population of the island of Malta had been killed in the fighting.  The Turks, including periodic reinforcements, had totalled about 40,000 men, and the battle had cost them about 25,000.  Immediately following the Ottoman retreat, the Knights decided to build a city where Fort St. Elmo once stood; De Valette himself laid the first cornerstone in the city which bore his name.  Today, Valetta is the capital city of the sovereign state of Malta.

Fort St. Angelo today
Links and Sources:
Balbi, Francesco, The Siege of Malta, 1565, Boydell Press, 1965.
Bradford, Ernle, The Great Siege: Malta 1565, E-Reads/E-Rights, 2010.
Pickles, Tim, Campaign 50: Malta 1565, Last Battle of the Crusades, Osprey Publishing, 1998.  The image of the cannon crippling the tower is by Christa Hook, and appeared in this book.
"The Last Crusaders", episode of Warriors, The History Channel, 2009.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sgt. Stubby, the War Dog


In late 1918, a group of American soldiers from the 102nd Regiment of the 26th "Yankee" Division were patrolling the area around their foxholes in the Argonne Forest of northeastern France, near the Belgian border.  The density of the woodlands made infiltration by spies and reconnaissance troops relatively easy, as so patrols were required to sweep the area for any German presence.  One of the patrolling troops that day was Private John Robert Conroy from Connecticut, who was unique among the soldiers of the 102nd because when he shipped off to war, he brought his dog, a tiny terrier mix named Stubby.  During the patrol, Stubby broke free without warning, and immediately darted off into the underbrush, barking as he went.  Conroy and other American soldiers followed him, and when they found Stubby, his jaws were clamped around buttocks of a German infiltrator, who was mapping out the American trenches when he was surprised by Stubby.  The spy attempted to flee, but Stubby tripped him up by nipping at his heels.  The American soldiers quickly disarmed and captured the insurgent, but it reportedly took quite a bit of convincing before Stubby would let go of the man's rear end.

Stubby was a stray mutt only a year before, when he wandered in to the 102nd's mustering camp on the grounds of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.  Conroy adopted him and the little dog became very popular with the Connecticut men, and when they shipped out for France in October of 1917, Conroy smuggled Stubby aboard the troop ship SS Minnesota, by hiding the small dog under his greatcoat.   

Despite the fact that the US at the time had no official combat dog program, Stubby was adopted as the mascot of the 102nd by the time they were sent to the front in February of 1918.  His presence not only increased morale, but had practical advantages as well; Stubby could hear the whistling of falling bombs before his human counterparts would, and would warn them of the incoming dangers.  Stubby could also smell gas attacks, and his warnings gave the soldiers more time to put on their gas masks (and to help him with his own); this ability grew even more acute after Stubby survived a mustard gas attack, enhancing his sensitivity to the specific odor.

American soldiers in Seicheprey
In April of 1918, the American Expeditionary Force - of which the 102nd was a part - had its first major test during the German assault on the French hamlet of Seicheprey, Lorraine, on the border with Germany.  The Americans did not perform to the best of their abilities; confusion and poor command decisions allowed the German assault to sieze the village, but they withdrew in the face of approaching American reinforcements.  Stubby, in his exuberance, bounded ahead a little too far and was wounded in one of his forelegs. 

The Americans redeemed themselves with a major victory in the capture of Chateau Thierry on July 18, and in the wake of that victory, some of the appreciative women of that town sewed a chamois uniform jersey of sorts for Stubby, on which he could hang his medals and commendations.  The 102nd also took part in the Meuse-Argonnes offensive in the autumn - the same action in which Sergeant Alvin York famously earned his Medal of Honor - and this was when Stubby ran off and captured his spy; the German's captured Iron Cross was awarded to Stubby, who wore it on his uniform for years.  As a reward for capturing an enemy combatant without any assistance, General 'Black Jack' Pershing, the commander of the US contingent of Meuse-Argonne, promoted Stubby to the rank of Sergeant, meaning that, if he could speak, he would have had the right to give orders to the soldiers who accompanied him.

After Armistice, Private Conroy returned home to Connecticut, once again smuggling Stubby back with him on the troop ship.  "Sgt. Stubby", as he was now known, achieved a certain amount of celebrity due to his heroics, and was given lifetime memberships to the YMCA and Red Cross.  He marched in numerous parades, appeared in fund-raising and recruitment drives for the Red Cross, and met with three separate US Presidents.  His list of awards include the Yankee Division's YD patch, a Wound Stripe, a gold medal from the Humane Society, and the French Grande War Medal.  When Conroy later attended Georgetown University in Washington, DC, Stubby became one of the early mascots for their sports teams. 




Stubby eventually died in 1926.  His remains are currently on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, as part of a display called The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.  For those interested, it's on the eastern side of the third floor.

Links and Sources:

"The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum, retrieved May 6, 2012.  The specific page for Stubby's display is here.
"Stubby the Military Dog", Connecticut Military Department, retrieved May 6, 2012.

Stone, Barry, The Diggers' Menagerie: Mates, Mascots and Marvels - True Stories of Animals Who Went to War, HarperCollins Australia, 2012.
Garden, Joe, et. al., The Dangerous Book for Dogs, Random House Digital, 2007.
Goodavage, Maria, Soldier Dogs, Penguin, 2012.




Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Apache Woman


An unidentified Apache woman, late 19th century
In the mid-1860's, Sonoran merceneries raided a small Apache town near the US-Mexican border, near what are now the cities of Esqueda, Mexico and neighboring Douglas, Arizona.  After slaughtering the captured males, they force-marched many of the surviving women southwest to the Gulf of California. Many of the women died en route, and the rest were sold into slavery and put to work in the fields of a local hacienda.

Several of the Apache women, including a middle-aged grandmother from the Eastern Chiracahua nation named Dilchthe, hatched a plan to escape and return to their tribe.  They surreptitiously gathered some supplies, and successfully broke away from the patron and, remembering the route they took in, fled east to the Gulf.  Once their disappearance was discovered, the hacienda owners dispatched vaqueros to track them down, but the group of women evaded them.  When they reached the gulf, they travelled north along its shore.   After the food they brought with them ran out, they subsisted by eating leaves and bugs.

The group of women travelled for nearly 300 miles up the coast, until they reached the mouth of the Colorado River.  None of the women could swim, so they had no direct way of crossing the great river until Dilchthe made friends with an old Mexican woman who lived nearby.  The woman told the party of a shallow spot in the river far to the north, where the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers, near present-day Yuma, at the southern tip of the California-Arizona border.  Dilchthe led the group up there and herself waded out into the Colorado River.  Discovering it was safe to walk across, she motioned the others to join her, and they continued east.  They were halfway home.

They followed the Gila River toward Apache land.  Despite the scorching heat in the Yuma Valley, Dilchthe prevented them from moving to the cooler, higher land because of enemy tribes.  After three days of following the Gila, the women were ambushed by a party of Yuma warriors, who were no friends of the Apache; Dilchthe and one other Apache woman escaped by hiding in some brush, but the Yuma captured one other woman, and killed the rest.  Dilchthe and her companion were the last two remaining, and they continued their walk, past what is now Phoenix and Tucson.

Finally, they could not go any further.  Suffering from exhaustion, hunger, and thirst, they were reaching the limits of their endurance; for their last hundred miles they had only been able to move at a slow walk.  Finally, one misty morning, they collapsed on the side of a mountain near what is now the city of Safford.  When the sky cleared, Dilchthe could see a heart-shaped mountain in the distance.  Being an Apache, she knew the mountains of the desert southwest very well, and she recognized that one at once.  She built a smoky fire as a signal beacon, and she and her companion laid down on the earth, too tired to move.

In a moment of sheer coincidence, the Apache that investigated, and found the two women lying on the rocky soil, was Dilchthe's own son-in-law.  In those days, it was customary for a man and his mother-in-law to avoid physical contact, but they both ignored that custom and embraced heartily.  After walking for more than a thousand miles through harsh desert terrain, with no map or weapons and almost no food, these two women made it back from a life of slavery to their home tribe.  Dilchthe was received back into her tribe as a returning hero.

Links and Sources:
Aldama, Arturo J., Elisa Facio, Daryl Maeda, and Reiland Rabaka, Enduring Legacies: Ethnic Histories and Cultures of Colorado, O'Reilly Media Inc., 2011.
Kan, Sergei, Pauline Turner Strong, and Raymond Fogelson, New Perspectives on Native North America: Cultures, Histories, and Representations, University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
Wright, Mike, What They Didn't Teach You About the Wild West, Presidio Books, 2000.



Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Many Men in the Water


There is a memorable scene in the 1975 movie Jaws in which Captain Quint, played by Robert Shaw, tells of his World War II experience onboard the USS Indianapolis as it sank in shark-infested waters in 1945.  Although the characters in the film were all obviously fictitious, the sinking actually happened, and it was every inch terrible enough to warrant its inclusion in one of the most horrifying thriller movies ever produced.

The Indianapolis was a heavy cruiser, first commissioned on November 15, 1932, and it served in various capacities for about seven years before entering dry dock.  After America entered the war, the Indianapolis become one of many to be recommissioned for wartime duty, despite its age.  On March 31, 1945, it was hit by a kamikaze, and although the plane itself did very little damage, a bomb it was carrying plunged through several decks and exploded, killing nine sailors and doing extensive damage to the propellor shafts and several fuel tanks.  The Indianapolis spent the months of May and June in San Diego, undergoing extensive repairs and being retrofitted with newer, updated electronics. 

At the time, the US had also developed the atomic bomb, and were preparing to drop the first two - code-named Fat Man and Little Boy - on the Japanese mainland.  The crucial ingredient in the bombs' design was a supply of Uranium-235, and the Indianapolis - due to her speed and proximity - was chosen to convey the radioactive material to the Pacific island of Tinian, leaving port in California on July 16.  Although no one on board - including Captain Charles McVay - knew what was in the mysterious containers, the Indianapolis and her crew dutifully conveyed the mysterious cargo across the Pacific, a journey of more than 6,000 miles.   After arriving in Tinian on July 25th, the Indianapolis headed south to Guam for new orders, and from there proceded west.  As about 400 of the cruiser's 1,196 men were raw recruits, the Indianapolis's next mission was to proceed west another 1700 miles to the Philippines for a training mission with the USS IdahoIndianapolis left dock on Sunday, July 28, and headed west, and straight into the hunting grounds of the Imperial Japanese submarine I-58, and the Indianapolis - for an unknown reason - was denied it request for a destroyer escort ship, which were specially equipped to detect and destroy enemy subs.

The Indianapolis was making good time, but it was alone and blind, so a highly vulnerable target.  Fourteen minutes after midnight, in the early morning hours of July 30, a torpedo from the I-58 struck the bow of the Indianapolis with tremendous force.  It was nighttime, but it was also right about the time of shift change aboard the cruiser, so many of the officers were awake, but in their own cabins, which happened to be right about where the torpedo struck.  One such officer, the ship's doctor, was awoken by his cabin porthole being blasted past his face by the explosion as he lay in bed.

While the crew was reeling from the impact, a second torpedo struck the Indianapolis on the port side amidships.  The cruiser, having been built for speed, had armor of only about four inches thick (compared to about 13 for a battleship) so the torpedo punctured the skin with relative ease, striking and igniting several powder magazines and fuel oil tanks.  The resultant explosion tore the Indianapolis open with terrible ease, not only causing the ship to topple, flounder, and begin to quickly sink, but also knocking out the power, and coating everything in the area - the ship, the crew, the ocean - with a layer of black inky oil.

The ship's momentum continued to carry it forward as it spent the next twelve minutes pitching, breaking apart, and finally sinking nose-first into one of the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean.  About 300 of the crewmen died in the initial blasts, and the remaning 900 were spread out over about a mile of water.  Some clung to debris, some to the hastily-deployed life rafts, and others floated free; Captain McVay, who escaped the ship, clung first to a box of potatoes, then to a desk, and finally he met up with other sailors aboard a rubber life raft which had been deployed upside-down.  Not all were so fortunate in their ability to spot their fellow sailors - at water level, visibility is very limited, especially when bobbing up and down in estimated 12 foot waves. 

The men took what comfort they could in the fact that since the Idaho knew they were on their way, they would be missed and a search party would be sent out.  Unfortunately, a cascade of sloppy decisions, bad policies, and stunning coincidences ensured that that was not the case.  The message to the Idaho was garbled, and no request was made to re-send the confusing message, so it was ultimately ignored.  The ship-tracking logistics at the time assumed that all large warships such as the Indianapolis would reach their destinations safely, so there was so system to account their actual arrival.  At least one distress call was sent out before the power went out, but it was discounted as a Japanese fake; other receptors of the call were drunk, or failed to respond as they didn't want to be disturbed.  As no one received a warning or alarm, no one was aware the Indianapolis was missing, and so no help was forthcoming.

At first, the men did relatively well; they organized themselves as best they could, they looped their arms through straps in the back of their fellow sailor's life vests to keep them from sinking, their clustered together to support the wounded and preserve their body heat.  Some men scavenged potatoes and Spam from floating pieces of debris, and they ate, albeit sparingly.  Over time, however, their conditions deteriorated.  With no fresh water to drink, some men panicked and drank salt water, the diarrhea from which causing them to dehydrate more quickly; this, along with the constant chill of being submerged, and the rampant salt poisoning, caused a delerium, and many men went mad, started fights, and drowned.  The oil on the water, while it protected them somewhat from sunburn, caused photophobia, or a type of sun blindness caused by the reflection of the light off of the oil-coated ocean water.  Others died of thirst.  

Perhaps most terrifying, however, were the constant schools of sharks circling the water-borne sailors.   Many of the sailors they ate had already died on their own, but the survivors in the water could often sense the lurking presence of hundreds of hunting sharks just below the waterline.  Screams could be heard in the distance as lone stragglers, unable to find their companions, were regularly dragged underwater and devoured.  This constant threat added to the despair and madness, and it lasted for several days.

At 10:25 on Thursday, August 2, the two-man crew of a PV-1 bomber, on a mission to find and sink enemy subs, saw a lengthy, oblong oil slick, and thought it was evidence of a recently-submerged Japanese submarine.  As the bomber opened the bay doors and prepared to drop explosives, he noticed a long trail of men, waving and shouting for his help.  They immediately notified their command of "many men in the water", and spent hours circling the crash site, relaying specifics.  It took hours for their commanders to decide it was not, in fact, a prank, and rescuers should be dispatched immediately.

Next at the location was a heavy PBY seaplane piloted by Adrian Marks, who promptly disobeyed safety procedures and landed on the open ocean water, nearly crashing in the process.  Marks puttered about in circles for hours, collecting the most vulnerable survivors, even lashing some to his wings with parachute cord when he ran out of interior space; he collected 56 men in total.  When the destroyer Cecil Doyle arrived, Marks transferred his rescues to that ship, then sunk his seaplane, as he had damage it irretrievably during the course of the rescue.

Five more ships eventually arrived, searching the water for further survivors for almost a week.  In all, 317 sailors survived the four days floating in the Pacific Ocean.  These survivors were brought aboard a hospital ship and treated for dehydration, starvation, and all sorts of injuries and wounds suffered both aboard the ship and in the water.  On August 6, Enola Gay delivered the two atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Captain McVay was court-martialed for the loss of his ship, on the basis that he didn't take sufficient precautions, but in 2000 Congress retroactively overturned the result after further investigation and the availability of previously-declassified files on the subject. 



Links and Sources:
"Narrative of the Circumstances on the Loss of the U.S.S. Indianapolis", press release by the U.S. Navy, February 23, 1946, retrieved from the Naval Historical Center web page, on May 1, 2012.
Finneran, Patrick J., "The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis", on USSIndianapolis.org, retrieved May 1, 2012.
Haynes, Lewis L., "Recollections of the Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis", retrieved from the Naval Historical Center web page, on May 1, 2012.
Kurzman, Dan, Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Random House Digital, 2001.
Newcomb, Richard F., Abandon Ship!: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster, HarperCollins, 2002.

Portrait of the U.S.S. Indianapolis CA-35, by Michael Guyot, from Art of the U.S.S. Indianapolis on the Maritime Quest web site.
Film clip from Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, 1975.