With millions of boats and ships plying the waves, it’s easy to forget that mankind isn’t made to survive in the ocean — and the dangers inherent to the sea are compounded when you’re trapped a few decks below the waterline in a huge iron bubble filled with ammunition and fuel that’s on fire as it sinks into icy waters.
A ship goes down, circa 1943.
(John Atherton, CC BY-SA 2.5)
For sailors, attempting to save their vessel and then, if necessary, abandoning it while trying to survive is a real process that they must be prepared to complete. Based on testimony from those who have survived torpedo hits and other attacks that doom a ship, the experience is even more nightmarish than most would imagine.
First, there’s the attack or the crash. For many in war, they see the threat too late to do anything about it. German U-boat Capt. K.G.E. von Spiegel described an attack in his memoirs:
“The steamer appeared to be close to us and looked colossal. I saw the captain walking on his bridge, a small whistle in his mouth. I saw the crew cleaning the deck forward, and I saw, with surprise and a slight shudder, long rows of wooden partitions right along all decks, from which gleamed the shining black and brown backs of horses. ‘Oh heavens, horses! What a pity, those lovely beasts!’ ….
“The death-bringing shot was a true one, and the torpedo ran towards the doomed ship at high speed. I could follow its course exactly by the light streak of bubbles which was left in its wake….
“I saw that the bubble-track of the torpedo had been discovered on the bridge of the steamer, as frightened arms pointed towards the water and the captain put his hands in front of his eyes and waited resignedly. Then a frightful explosion followed, and we were all thrown against one another by the concussion, and then, like Vulcan, huge and majestic, a column of water two hundred metres high and fifty metres broad, terrible in its beauty and power, shot up to the heavens.”
For men not on the deck, the end of the ship can come as even more of a surprise.
“I awoke. I was in the air. I saw a bright light before I felt the concussion of the explosion that threw me up in the air almost to the overhead. A torpedo had detonated under my room. I hit the edge of the bunk, hit the deck, and stood up. Then the second explosion knocked me down again. As I landed on the deck I thought, ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of here!’ I grabbed my life jacket and started to go out the door. My room was already on fire.”
The German battleship Admiral Graf Spee in flames after being scuttled in the River Plate Estuary off Montevideo, Uruguay.
(Imperial War Museums)
For men on sinking ships, fire is a real hazard despite the water rushing to fill the ship. The water is the greatest threat to the ship floating for the moment, but fire can quickly kill all life aboard and cause explosions or melt bulkheads, disabling pumps or allowing even more water in.
Damage control parties move through the ship, attempting to patch holes, pump out flooded compartments, and douse fires. But if they can’t get the damage under control, the ship’s captain has to make one of the hardest decisions: to abandon ship.
Sometimes, it’s the only way to save the crew, giving them the chance to fight another day or to return to their families, but it consigns thousands of tons of American steel and aluminum to the sea, along with the remains of any sailors already dead or too injured or trapped to escape.
The rest of the crew heads for the lifeboats, helping each other through listing decks and smoke-filled compartments that are often without power and light.
But there’s not always room enough for everyone in the lifeboat. This is extremely dangerous, even when the water is warm. The water is often filled with oil and diesel, and the sinking ship is drawing literal tons of water towards itself, creating a situation where even the strongest swimmer can get slowly pulled under and drown.
The HMS Legion, at left, rescues survivors from the slowly sinking HMS Ark Royal near the coast of Gibraltar.
(Royal Navy photo by Lt. S.J. Beadell)
From Dr. Haynes’ account of the Indianapolis sinking:
“I slowly walked down the side of the ship. Another kid came and said he didn’t have a jacket. I had an extra jacket and he put it on. We both jumped into the water which was covered with fuel oil. I wasn’t alone in the water. The hull was covered with people climbing down.
“I didn’t want to get sucked down with the ship so I kicked my feet to get away. And then the ship rose up high. I thought it was going to come down and crush me. The ship kept leaning out away from me, the aft end rising up and leaning over as it stood up on its nose. The ship was still going forward at probably 3 or 4 knots. When it finally sank, it was over a hundred yards from me. Most of the survivors were strung out anywhere from half a mile to a mile behind the ship.
“Suddenly, the ship was gone and it was very quiet. It had only been 12 minutes since the torpedoes hit. We started to gather together. Being in the water wasn’t an unpleasant experience except that the black fuel oil got in your nose and eyes. We all looked the same, black oil all over — white eyes and red mouths. You couldn’t tell the doctor from the boot seamen. Soon everyone had swallowed fuel oil and gotten sick. Then everyone began vomiting.”
USS Indianapolis survivors are moved to the hospital in August 1945.
Best case scenario, the sailors are now safely in the water, attempting to tend to wounds and keep people afloat while awaiting rescue. But, they may still be under attack or could be captured by enemy forces. In the case of the Indianapolis, the crew was returning from the top-secret mission to deliver the atomic bomb to Allied forces for use against Japan.
No one knew where the ship was, and the men were left at sea for four days in shark-infested waters. The crew had 1,195 members when it went down in 1945. 300 men are thought to have gone down with the ship, and nearly 600 more died in the water while waiting for rescue. Only 316 survived.