This week marks the 72nd anniversary of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. On July 30, 1945, the ship was returning from delivering elements of the atomic bombs that would soon be dropped on Japan.
The Indianapolis was spotted by a Japanese submarine which fired torpedoes, sinking the ship in less than 12 minutes.
Almost 900 men were aboard. Only 317 survived.
Today just 31 remain.
This is considered the last great tragedy of of World War II.
In 2003, by chance, I met Lloyd Barto, an Indianapolis survivor who was living in Temecula. As a reporter for The Californian, I was honored to tell his story, which he had not shared with any media outlets since the war ended.
I updated the story in 2005 and again in 2011, when Lloyd passed away.
Lloyd Barto — U.S.S. Indianapolis
In the dream he’s had for more than 50 years, Lloyd Barto is carrying bowling balls on each shoulder, making it nearly impossible for him to tread water and keep his head above the waves.
The fire burning the fuel leaking from his sinking ship illuminates the Pacific sky enough for the 20-year-old sailor to see his shipmates struggling to stay afloat, some so badly burned their flesh hangs from their bones; others, their heads covered thick with diesel fuel, praying or calling out to their wives and family before sinking away.
Barto would wake with a start and look around, trying to get his bearings. He was safe, he was home, but he knew the dream would come again another night. He knew, because, bowling balls aside, the dream was real.
The last tragedy
If the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor —- 61 years ago Saturday —- marks the beginning of the American involvement in World War II, the sinking of the cruiser USS Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine, at 14 minutes past midnight on July 30, 1945, marks the last great American tragedy of that war.
The Indianapolis was heading toward Leyte in the Philippines that night after delivering an atomic bomb to an airstrip in the Marianas Islands. Less than a week later that bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima.
Of the 1,196 men aboard the cruiser, about 900 made it alive into the water in the 12 minutes it took the 9,950-ton vessel to sink. But through a series of miscommunications, the ship was not reported missing.
After more than four days of drifting on makeshift life rafts, or staying afloat with life vests, the sailors were accidentally discovered by pilot Lt. (j.g.) Wilbur C. Gwinn who was flying on a routine submarine patrol.
By the time rescue crews arrived, about 600 of the sailors who survived the sinking had died, either from injuries, drowning, from swallowing diesel fuel or salt water, or in the jaws of sharks that circled and fed on crew members morning and night.
Barto, 78, was one of the 317 survivors. For him the struggle and the screams are real.
“For many, many nights I woke up with that dream,” said Barto, his voice trailing away as his eyes moisten. Barto, who moved to Temecula with his wife Mary Lou five years ago, said he doesn’t have the bowling ball dream as often any more.
“But I still haven’t slept all the way through the night since that night in 1945,” he said.
A secret mission
On the day of the Japanese sneak attack, the Indianapolis was several hundred miles away form Pearl Harbor. The ship received the message “WE ARE AT WAR WITH JAPAN —- THIS IS OFFICIAL” and began an unsuccessful search to find the retreating Japanese Fleet.
Lloyd Barto was in high school in Gile, Wis., that day. In 1943, following graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
“I just always wanted to be in the Navy,” he said. “I thought it would be great.”
After boot camp Barto was assigned to the USS Indianapolis. A seaman first class, Barto was “striking” —- Navy parlance for training —- to be a gunner’s mate aboard the cruiser.
During his nearly two years aboard the Indianapolis Barto and his shipmates participated in some of the fiercest battles of the war. In the spring of 1945 during the invasion of Okinawa, as Barto and the other gunner’s mates fired at enemy positions, a Japanese kamikaze pilot slammed his plane into the deck of the Indianapolis causing major damage to the ship.
The Indianapolis was ordered to return to San Francisco for repairs.
On July 12, 1945, Capt. Charles B. McVay III, the Indianapolis’ commanding officer, received orders for a special mission. His ship was to carry secret equipment from San Francisco to the tiny Island of Tinian about 1,400 miles south of Japan. That equipment was loaded on July 15 and the following day the ship sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge headed west.
Curiosity was great among the crewmembers about the crates the ship was carrying which were guarded around the clock by Marines, Barto said.
Only a few men in the world new the contents of those crates. Among their names were Truman, Churchill and Oppenheimer.
“‘Do you have the end of the war in those boxes?’ we asked the Marines,” Barto said.
The young sailor had no idea how close he was to being correct. In one of the containers were integral parts of the atomic bomb. The other container was packed with uranium-235.
After a brief stop in Hawaii, the Indianapolis left for Tinian, arriving on July 26. Crewmembers, still unaware of what they were delivering, quickly off-loaded their cargo and the ship departed first for Guam and then for the trip to Leyte.
Lucky at cards
Barto had been a big winner in the ship’s poker game on the night of July 29, 1945. He tucked his $700 winnings inside his T-shirt for safekeeping and went to get some shut-eye.
Underwater, about 12 miles from the Indianapolis, the sonar operator on the Japanese submarine I-58 picked up a target he couldn’t identify. The submarine’s captain, Mochitsura Hashimoto, ordered the vessel to the surface for a first-hand look.
During his four years at sea the 36-year-old submarine commander had yet to sink an enemy ship and now, knowing the war was likely in its final stage, he worried he might return home without a single kill.
When the submarine surfaced a lookout spotted the target with his binoculars, now about six miles away. Hashimoto ordered his boat to dive again, and through the submarine’s periscope it became clear, with the help of a sliver of the light from the moon, that the target was a large American cruiser.
Hashimoto maneuvered his submarine for a broadside hit. Just after midnight he ordered his crew to fire their torpedoes.
The first torpedo struck near the ship’s bow, blowing it away. The second hit near midship on the starboard side, nearly cutting the Indianapolis in half.
“I had just fallen asleep,” Barto said. “All of a sudden I flew up into the air. I couldn’t breathe. My right leg was bleeding.”
The ship’s electrical system was destroyed, making it impossible for McVay to communicate with his crew.
“I never heard the words ‘abandon ship’,” he said. “I finally just figured out it was time to get off.”
Barto reached above an air duct where he’d stashed a blow-up rubber life vest.
“I figured I might need it someday,” he said.
He jumped off the ship, hitting the side of the vessel before splashing into the Pacific. The water surrounding the Indianapolis was thick with fuel leaking from the ship.
“I swallowed a lot of fuel,” Barto said. “I swallowed so much I was vomiting bile and I couldn’t blow up the rubber vest.”
A chief petty officer swam over to Barto and inflated the vest.
“I wish I knew the name of that chief,” Barto said. “He saved my life.”
There was little to do but wait for sunrise and the rescue ships that would surely arrive.
“We thought the next morning we’d be picked up,” Barto said. “I just kept thinking if I could last through the night I’d be OK.”
Dawn came and the tropical sun soon scorched the bare heads of those bobbing in the water.
“I took my T-shirt and covered up my head with it,” said Barto. “When I did all the poker money fell out.”
The survivors had no idea that no one was looking for the USS Indianapolis.
“The next morning came and then the next morning,” Barto said. “I never gave up hope.”
It was a day after the sinking before those still alive began to notice something bumping them from underneath. The shark attacks had actually begun the night of the sinking, but in the frenzy went unnoticed by most of those struggling to survive.
Barto, floating in the waves, saw the predators.
“The sharks were constantly under you and around you,” Barto said. “There seemed to be hundreds of them.”
For the first day or so, the sharks had been content to prey on dead bodies that were floating around, buoyed by life vests. Over time however, injuries and hallucinations caused many of the crew to thrash about in the water, drawing the attention of the sharks that by now had encircled the floating clusters of men.
“When one of the fellows was dying it seemed like there were dozens of sharks that would attack him at once,” Barto said.
Some estimates say as many as 200 men, or about 50 each day, were killed by the frenzied sharks.
Barto credits three things —- Cmdr. Lewis Haynes, Barto’s own excellent physical condition and his mother for his survival.
Barto floated with a group led by Haynes, the ship’s doctor.
“I stayed near him because he kept his head and stayed pretty cool,” Barto said. “Not many others did.”
Lifting barbells with a crewmember he remembers as “Muscles Russell” improved his stamina, Barto said.
“I was in really good shape,” he said. “When the other guys were fooling around I was boxing or doing pushups.”
Finally, Barto was worried about what would become of his mother if he died.
“Most of the guys were crying for their wives or their girlfriends,” he said. “I didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend. I just kept worrying about what my mother would think.”
Four days following the sinking, Gwinn’s patrol aircraft spotted an oil slick floating on the ocean surface. Descending to 300 feet for a closer look, the pilot spotted about 30 sailors floating in the waves.
The patrol plane was loaded with life rafts, vests and other emergency equipment and Gwinn —- still unsure if the men were friend or foe —- ordered his crew to drop the supplies into the water. He then radioed his position to headquarters on the island of Peleliu. Ships and airplanes throughout the area were ordered to the site.
Other airplanes arrived, some landing in the sea to pick up survivors and others dropping more rescue gear into the water. The first to be picked up by the planes identified themselves as crewmembers of the Indianapolis.
Barto was able to crawl into a life raft. Beside him was his high school friend and fellow gunner’s mate Charles Bruneau. The two had joined the Navy together.
“He was in bad shape and I put my arm around him,” Barto said. “Then he stopped moving.”
Bruneau died in Barto’s arms.
“We had to put him overboard,” Barto said. “I never had the heart to tell his parents he almost made it. I just told them I didn’t see him.”
Long after dark the USS Doyle arrived on the scene and began plucking survivors from the sea, including Barto.
It had been more than four days since he’d eaten or had fresh water.
“They gave us spoonfuls of water that tasted like sugar,” he said. “Later they covered me in salve and wrapped me up in sheets. The boys on the Doyle were sure great to us.”
‘In Harm’s Way’
Author and contributing editor to Men’s Journal magazine, Doug Stanton attended a reunion of Indianapolis survivors in 1999 intending to write a magazine piece on the veterans.
“I walked around informally asking them how they got off the ship and how they survived,” Stanton said last week from his home in Traverse City, Mich.
Several books and at least one movie have been made over the years about the sinking of the Indianapolis.
“I was surprised to find that many of the crew said they’d never been asked those questions,” Stanton said.
Stanton turned the magazine piece turned into the book “In Harm’s Way,” which spent over five months on the New York Times Bestseller List and brought new attention to the survivors of the sinking.
“If I’d made up the story the editors would have shot it down,” Stanton said. “The Indy was not the last shot fired, but it was the last major casualty-inducing attack of World War II.”
A full life
Barto recovered from his wounds, got out of the Navy and spent about 40 years working for the Dunn-Edwards paint company in the Los Angeles area.
“They were the best company you could ever work for,” he said with a smile.
Now retired, he and Mary Lou —- they’ve been married for 51 years —- visited the Temecula area several times over the years before buying a home here.
“I just thought it was the greatest place in the world to live,” he said.
The couple has two children and two grandchildren.
One of about 112 remaining survivors of the sinking, Barto said he had not, until this week, been interviewed about his experience since 1946 and has never been to a reunion of his shipmates.
“If they have one in Las Vegas, I think I’ll go,” he said, with a glint in his eye, perhaps hoping he’ll get a chance to win back his $700.
It’s taken 60 years, but the nightmare that has gripped Lloyd Barto of Temecula may finally be behind him.
Just past midnight on July 30, 1945, a Japanese submarine sank the USS Indianapolis, which was enroute to the Philippines after delivering an atomic bomb to an airstrip in the Marianas Islands. Less than a week later, that bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Of the 1,196 men aboard the cruiser, about 900 made it alive into the water in the 12 minutes it took the 9,950-ton vessel to sink.
Through a series of miscommunications, the ship was not reported missing.
After more than four days of drifting on make-shift life rafts or staying afloat with life vests, the surviving sailors were accidentally discovered by an aircraft on routine patrol.
By the time rescue crews arrived, about 600 of the sailors had died, either from injuries, drowning, swallowing diesel fuel or salt water, or from sharks that circled, claiming an estimated 200 men.
Seaman 1st Class Barto was one of 317 men who made it out of the water. Since that day, he has been haunted by the guilt of his surviving when so many others didn’t.
So guilty, in fact, he had never attended any of the survivor reunions held over the years.
“For years, Dad would never go in a boat or go on a cruise,” said his daughter Beth Siapkas. Barto kept his story —— and his nightmares —— to himself, not wanting to burden his family. As the years went by, his daughter learned piece by piece the horror of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the waning days of World War II.
Beth convinced her father to attend the reunion marking the 60th anniversary of the sinking, which was held last month in Indianapolis. Beth booked the airfare and hotel and went along with her father.
The reunions, which began in 1969, were once held every five years. Now, given the age of those remaining, the gatherings are held every two years. Since the last reunion in 2003, 15 of the men who made it out of the water have died.
Today, just 93 survivors remain. About 60 made it to the reunion.
“I never had the guts to go back there before,” Lloyd said. “But I’m glad I went. I was able to get so much out of my system.”
Several thousand family, friends and dignitaries attended the weekend-long reunion, which included a parade through the city and luncheons and dinners, one attended by the secretary of the Navy.
“Because it was his first time at a reunion, they made a big deal about him,” Beth said. “They lined up to get his autograph.”
Barto enjoyed seeing his old shipmates.
“Some of those guys really looked darn spry,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
For Lloyd Barto, a true hero, hopefully the nightmares have been put astern.
“My daughter wants to go again in two years,” he said. “And so do I.”
Lloyd Barto of Temecula, a survivor of the USS Indianapolis (CA-85) —- sunk by the Japanese in the waning days of World War II after it delivered an atomic bomb to the Mariana Islands —- died in June at 85.
Barto was one of just 317 crew members —- out of a complement of 1,200 men —- who survived for four days in the water as many of his shipmates drowned or were eaten by sharks. The sinking of his ship, which Barto rarely spoke of, is considered the final tragedy of World War II.