As Lt. Adrian Marks gazed out of his PBY5A Catalina seaplane (also known as a "Dumbo"), he was stunned by the number of men in the water below. Bodies bobbed up and down, each movement revealing heads covered in oil and eyes glazed with dehydration and exposure -- eyes too dulled to care about the sharks picking off men at random. These were the remaining survivors of the USS Indianapolis, the cruiser whose wreck is the worst sea disaster in U.S. naval history.
The Indianapolis had delivered the world's first operational atomic bomb to the island of Tinian on July 26, 1945, and was then ordered to the Philippines for training. With his ship unescorted and carrying 1,200 men, ship's Capt. Charles McVay III opted, as was his prerogative, against a safe zigzag course. Instead, he chose the straightest and quickest route to Leyte Gulf. Just past midnight on July 30, the Indianapolis was hit by two Japanese torpedoes from Lt. Cmdr. Mochitsura Hashimoto's I-58 submarine. Rocked by explosions, the U.S. ship sank in 12 minutes. Of Indianapolis' crew, 800 men scrambled into the water. Through a series of bureaucratic snafus, the ship was not reported as missing.
By the time Marks spotted them in the water on Thursday, Aug. 2, only 320 men remained alive. Marks' crew threw out life rafts and shipwreck kits, but the survivors were too weak to reach them. Marks immediately radioed for help, but knew he had to do what he could to save as many men as possible. He had been ordered not to attempt open-sea landings, but he also knew that no one could have foreseen the present situation. After polling his crew, all of whom assented to the landing attempt, Marks set down the Dumbo amid 12-foot swells.
"When we landed, we realized that we couldn't rescue everyone," he later recalled. "We would have to make heartbreaking decisions." The crew first rescued men who were alone. "I decided that the men in groups stood the best chance of survival," Marks said.
The heroic crew pulled survivor after survivor aboard the seaplane, placing the men two and three deep in all available compartments and, when those were full, tying them to the wings with parachute cord. All in all, Marks and his men rescued 56 near-wraiths from the sea. As night fell, a light appeared on the horizon: the destroyer Cecil J. Doyle, the first of seven belatedly dispatched rescue ships.
Marks, already a lawyer and an Indiana native, retired after the war to his Frankfort, Ind., home and opened a law practice. But he never forgot the men he had first seen from his seaplane. "I met you 30 years ago," he later told a reunion of Indianapolis survivors. "I met you on a sparkling, sun-swept afternoon of horror. I have known you through a balmy tropic night of fear. I will never forget you."