Countdown to The Cold War: Jaws and the Atomic Bomb

Earlier this summer, we posted about seeing the film Jaws for its nationwide 40th-anniversary screening. One of the most memorable scenes in that film is when the three main characters—Brody, Hooper, and Quint—are sitting around on the boat drinking. Quint, the weathered captain, talks of his experience years earlier aboard the USS Indianapolis. He says:

We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte…just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb.

On July 16, 1945, shortly after the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert, the USS Indianapolis departed San Francisco for Tinian island in the Pacific Ocean. The ship carried crucial parts for the atomic bomb that would be dropped over Hiroshima Japan on August 6. Aboard was roughly half the enriched uranium in the world at the time. The ship delivered that cargo ten days after it had set sail.

Trinity Aerial View (US Government Photo)
Trinity Aerial View (US Government Photo)

The USS Indianapolis then stopped in Guam for crew changes before heading to Leyte for training on July 28. Shortly after midnight on July 30, the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Within twelve minutes, the ship rolled over and sank.

Three hundred men went down with the ship, and almost 900 were left bobbing in the ocean. The Navy assumed that, unless it was reported otherwise, a ship was where it was supposed to be. The Navy mistakenly recorded the USS Indianapolis as having arrived at Leyte, and distress calls made before sinking were ignored for various, ill-conceived reasons. Three-and-a-half days later, 321 men were pulled from the ocean still alive. The rest had died of starvation, dehydration, exposure, suicide, and, yes, as Quint says, shark attack.

Hiroshima after the bombing
Hiroshima after the bombing

The Navy’s mistakes were covered up, and the ship’s captain was blamed for not taking evasive zigzagging action in dangerous waters. Only later, in 1996, did a sixth-grader’s investigation eventually lead Congress to exonerate the captain. As an eleven-year-old, Hunter Scott saw the film Jaws and was captivated by Quint’s speech about the USS Indianapolis. He turned it into a history project for school, then contacted survivors of the sinking to answer some of his questions. All of the survivors told Scott that the captain was not to blame, and that’s what Scott told the Senate. Representative Joe Scarborough led an effort to exonerate Captain McVay, and President Bill Clinton signed the resolution in 2000.

When we posted about Jaws, we weren’t thinking about its connection to our series on The Countdown to The Cold War. And we didn’t yet know that a sixth-grader’s research would play a role in the story. Just like Hunter Scott, we’ve followed this series topic where it’s taken us. Today, just a few weeks belated, we commemorate the anniversary of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

That sinking occurred only a few days after this ship delivered crucial components of the Little Boy atomic weapon to Tinian and only days before that bomb would be dropped over Japan. That sinking occurred only a week before the bomb was detonated, only two weeks before the war ended. We end with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s final novel, “The Marble Faun,” a story about guilt published under the title “Transformation” in the United Kingdom:

Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.

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