Meet the U.S. Navy Cruiser That Carried the Atom Bomb (And Then Sank)

Warfare History Network

Key Point: Later retold in the movie blockbuster Jaws, the story of the USS Indianopolis is an important capstone to the Second World War. 

There was tight security and feverish activity on the dock at the Hunters Point Navy Shipyard in San Francisco Bay around 3 am on Monday, July 16, 1945.

Two U.S. Army trucks unloaded a precious cargo—a large crate and a two-foot-long metal cylinder containing a uranium projectile and components for the “Little Boy” bomb, destined to be dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima and usher in the atomic age.

Moored at the dock and making ready to get underway was the fast, heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35), commanded by 46-year-old Captain Charles B. McVay. As soon as a big gantry crane quickly lowered the cargo aboard the ship, the crate was secured to the deck and surrounded by a U.S. Marine guard, and the cylinder was placed in the flag lieutenant’s cabin.

Rear Admiral William R. Purnell, the naval member of the Manhattan Project’s Military Policy Committee, told McVay that if the ship ran into trouble the cylinder was to be saved at all costs. The ship would be carefully tracked during its voyage, and if anything happened to her, it would be known within hours.

It was a unique, top-secret assignment for the 13-year-old Indianapolis. Rushed to completion and commissioned on November 15, 1932, she and her sister ship, the USS Portland, were modifications of the Northampton-class cruisers. They were critically top heavy with new electronics, light antiaircraft weaponry, and fire control gear.

With a complement of 1,196 officers and sailors, the Indianapolis displaced 9,800 tons, was 610 feet long, and had a top speed of 32.5 knots. Her armament included nine 8-inch guns, eight 5-inch dual-purpose guns, and two 3-pounder guns. Though a “treaty cruiser” with some design deficiencies like others of the Northampton class, the Indianapolis was a proud member of the U.S. Fleet. She boasted a handsome teak quarterdeck before being stripped for war and had an enviable reputation for sharp ceremonies and honors performed by her Marine Corps detachment.

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