Sharks, torpedoes and prayers: The story of USS Indianapolis

'800 men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about half an hour.'

So Quint, in the film Jaws, describes the aftermath of the Indianapolis sinking on July 30, 1945 by a Japanese torpedo.

'When he comes at you, he doesn't seem to be living until he bites you.'

The World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA 35), which was lost July 30, 1945 is seen off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, U.S. on July 10, 1945, after her final overhaul and repair of combat damage.Reuters

Of the 1,196 crew members, about 800 made it overboard. With no distress signal sent out, for five days they floated in shark infested waters with around 12 rafts and limited supplies between them. Baked by the sun in the day and frozen by the water at night, only 316 survived.

Now more than 72 years since that day, the wreckage of that ship has been found, on the bed of the Pacific ocean, 18,000 feet beneath the surface. A team of civilian researches, led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, found part of the remains after months of searching but have been asked by the US Navy to keep the precise location secret.

'While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming,' he said.

The legend of the Indianopolis was revived through the 1975 horror film Jaws with the description of groups of men being gradually eaten by sharks as they prayed for rescue.

Although by most accounts the majority died through diarrhoea after drinking seawater, exposure, hunger or dehydration, the shark attacks were undoubtedly real and terrifying. One survivor described them:

'You'd hear guys scream, especially late in the afternoon,' Woody James, a survivor who died in 2005, recalled in an oral history. 'Seemed like the sharks were the worst late in the afternoon than they were during the day. Everything would be quiet, and then you'd hear somebody scream and you knew a shark had got him.'

What is less well-known was the role Navy chaplains played in the ordeal.

Lt. Thomas Michael Conway, a Catholic priest from Buffalo, New York, spent three days praying for his shipmates before he succumbed and drowned, aged 37.

One survivor, Frank J. Centazzo, described the hours before Conway's death: 'I was in the group with Father Conway. I saw him go from one small group to another getting the shipmates to join in prayer and asking them not to give up hope of being rescued.

'He kept working until he was exhausted. I remember on the third day late in the afternoon when he approached me and Paul McGiness.

'He was thrashing the water and Paul and I held him so he could rest a few hours.

'Later, he managed to get away from us and we never saw him again.'

The US Navy rejected an application for the chaplain to be awarded the Navy Cross for his bravery on the basis the nominating sailors have to be of a higher rank, despite the fact no survivors from the Indianopolis meet that critieria.

Another survivor, now a Baptist minister in Tennessee, told the Baptist Press how God was 'my mainstay the whole time'.

Edgar Harrell had become a Christian two years before the ordeal and in his book Out of the Depths he recalls jumping off the burning ship.

'As I was about to leave the ship, I stepped over the rail and hung on to it for a bit and watched others go over and then basically I just made a couple of big long steps down into the water. I felt assurance, though, at that time, that somehow, some way the Lord ... was going to be with me, that I was going to make it. But certainly I had no comprehension of being out there for four and a half days.'

He goes on: 'There's an old saying, "There's no atheists in fox holes." I say there were no atheists out there. Everyone wanted someone to pray for them.'

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