In My Words: When sharks had another role in making history

Associate Professor Tom Nelson shared the tragic story of the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed 70 years ago this summer near the end of World War II, in a guest column published by several regional newspapers.

The following column appeared recently in the Winston-Salem Journal, the Fayetteville Observer, the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record and the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.


Associate Professor Tom Nelson
In My Words: When sharks had another role in making history
By Tom Nelson –

The only thing worse than remembering is forgetting.

The final week of July is many things to many people, though an undercurrent of history to the week can sweep you down and deep no matter how buoyantly pleasant this slice of summer may otherwise be.

Media reports of recent shark attacks along the Atlantic coast are a grim prompt to ponder that undercurrent of history. Seventy years ago this July, the Pacific Ocean was peppered with Allied and Axis warships fighting World War Two, and the American heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis was one of those warships.

The war between Japan and America was grinding to America’s advantage in ways both seen and unseen. It is the unseen advantage that lifted the anchor of the Indianapolis and set her to sail.

That unseen advantage was the still very secret atomic bomb. The ship’s mission was straightforward. Deliver parts for the new weapon to American military fighting in Asia.

Technologically advanced, the bomb was nevertheless subject to the mundane logistics of transport. Somehow it had to get from where it was developed in the United States, across the Pacific Ocean and into history.

A tag team of transport was organized to make it happen. A truck, a train, a ship and, finally, a plane formed the team. The Indianapolis was the ship in this winner-takes-all game.

A very big and very mysterious crate containing the new weapon was lashed to the Indianapolis’ deck for the ocean crossing. It was delivered shortly to an American air base on a Pacific island. Just cargo like any other cargo was the disingenuous message.

Days later an American plane dropped that bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima with apocalyptic effect. So began a chain reaction that ended World War Two in a searing snapshot of horror.

Few sailors on board the Indianapolis would live to see it. After dropping off the cargo, the ship’s crew had every reason to hope their best days were ahead. So it was until a quarter past midnight on July 30, 1945.

A Japanese submarine sank the heavy cruiser in deep water practically the day after her atomic payload was uncrated. There were nearly 1,200 men on board.

The ship foundered in minutes; about 900 sailors survived the rapid sinking but only a third would live to be rescued days later. There is no polite way to put it. Sharks ate many of them. One by one ill-starred sailors were pulled to their fate. The numbers numb us to the enormity of it.

The story of the Indianapolis was once legend but it is now largely forgotten. 

Shark attacks this summer along the Atlantic seaboard leave us cold. The story of the USS Indianapolis should leave us colder.

Tom Nelson is an associate professor of communications at Elon University.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend ( in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.



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