Paul Allen discovers USS Indianapolis in Pacific Ocean, and the continuing legacy of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws

Philanthropist Paul Allen is known by many as the owner of the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trailblazers, but he’s also known by space technology and science enthusiasts and science fiction fans.  In addition to co-founding Microsoft and earning billions allowing him to fund myriad projects, he owns the suborbital commercial spacecraft SpaceShipOne, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, which houses several screen-used props and costumes from the history of sci-fi TV and film, among many other educational, charitable, and influential enterprises.  Recently Allen used his wealth to begin to earn his sea legs as the next Dr. Robert Ballard, the ocean explorer who discovered the shipwrecks of the R.M.S Titanic in 1985, the battleship Bismarck in 1989, the USS Yorktown in 1998, and John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 in 2002.  In 2015 expeditions Allen and his team discovered among the ocean’s depths the bell to the British vessel HMS Hood and the remnants of the Japanese battleship Musashi, and earlier this year he located the wreckage of the Italian destroyer Artigliere.  Yesterday Allen and a small expedition crew on the research vessel Petrel discovered what was thought unfindable: the remains of the World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35).  Allen’s discovery off the coast of the Philippines, 18,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, now puts him in league with Ballard, and more importantly, will hopefully bring closure to the 22 remaining survivors of one of the most famous ships in modern history to meet a dire end at sea.

At 12:20 pm local time Saturday, August 19, 2017, Allen released the following tweet:

The “35” in the photograph above is the ship’s registry number painted on the hull (and throughout the vessel) clearly identifying the ship as the Indianapolis.  “To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling,” Allen said in a statement.  “As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances.  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.”

Ship’s bell of the USS Indianapolis as photographed by the crew of the research vessel Petrel Saturday.

In the final days of World War II, the USS Indianapolis had completed delivery of components of the atomic bomb to the island Tinian.  Dubbed “Little Boy,” the bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima, precipitating the end of the war.  The mission was secret, and so on July 30, 1945, when Japanese submarine I-58 struck the ship’s starboard side with two Type 95 torpedoes–one in the bow and one amidships–the Indianapolis sank within 12 minutes, but tragically was not listed as overdue.  By the time a rescue party arrived, more than four days had passed and the approximately 800 survivors of the 1,196 crew ship dwindled to only 316, resulting from dehydration and shark attack.  A fantastic National Geographic compilation of interviews from 2015 provides first-hand accounts from surviving sailors of the Indianapolis’s end 72 years ago. But you already know this story.  Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the Indianapolis has been etched in modern memory since the film’s debut in 1975.  Without the fictional character of Robert Shaw’s seaman Quint, the Indianapolis might be but a forgotten footnote to history along with so many equally valiant ships lost in wartime.  The Indianapolis is now a revered part of the American consciousness along with the USS Arizona, and it’s doubtful anyone would have pursued this project but for the importance and tragedy of this ship’s crew communicated to us by a film, and amplified by that film’s continuing legacy.

The making of Jaws has become the stuff of legend, (check out our review of screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s brilliant The Jaws Log here, and Matt Taylor’s Jaws Memories here).  Five years ago Steven Spielberg set the record straight on Robert Shaw’s famous speech, recounting the details of the creation of the speech only Shaw could perform so profoundly, and that was not to be found in Peter Benchley’s popular novel the movie was based upon:

“I owe three people a lot for this speech, Spielberg said.  “You’ve heard all this, but you’ve probably never heard it from me.  There’s a lot of apocryphal reporting about who did what on Jaws and I’ve heard it for the last three decades, but the fact is the speech was conceived by Howard Sackler, who was an uncredited writer, didn’t want a credit and didn’t arbitrate for one, but he’s the guy that broke the back of the script before we ever got to Martha’s Vineyard to shoot the movie.  I hired later Carl Gottlieb to come onto the island, who was a friend of mine, to punch up the script, but Howard conceived of the Indianapolis speech.  I had never heard of the Indianapolis before Howard, who wrote the script at the Bel Air Hotel and I was with him a couple times a week reading pages and discussing them.  Howard one day said, “Quint needs some motivation to show all of us what made him the way he is and I think it’s this Indianapolis incident.”  I said, “Howard, what’s that?”  And he explained the whole incident of the Indianapolis and the Atomic Bomb being delivered and on its way back it was sunk by a submarine and sharks surrounded the helpless sailors who had been cast adrift and it was just a horrendous piece of World War II history.  Howard didn’t write a long speech, he probably wrote about three-quarters of a page.  But then, when I showed the script to my friend John Milius, John said “Can I take a crack at this speech?” and John wrote a 10 page monologue, that was absolutely brilliant, but out-sized for the Jaws I was making!  But it was brilliant and then Robert Shaw took the speech and Robert did the cut down.  Robert himself was a fine writer, who had written the play The Man in the Glass Booth.  Robert took a crack at the speech and he brought it down to five pages.  So, that was sort of the evolution just of that speech.”

Here again is Shaw’s speech in full:

The tangible objects of history are critical to human memory.  Tangible objects do not lie.  They are witnesses to history and serve as irrefutable evidence of its story, and help to form the lessons we learn from history.  Once removable components of the Indianapolis can be salvaged and make their way to one or more museums, they will further educate future generations about the sacrifice made during wartime, along with all the corresponding events and decisions made during the war for continued study and analysis.  But for tangible evidence of war, like those items preserved in the Smithsonian Museum of American History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the truths of wartime could one day be forgotten or dismissed.

A simple spare parts box with an unequivocal designation, found by Allen and his team on the ocean floor Saturday.

And these tangible objects, these primary source materials of history, are also important outside the context of war.  In 1999 in the Atlantic Ocean near Grand Bahamas an expedition led by undersea explorer Curt Newport–a salvager of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle–discovered astronaut Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 space capsule, 38 years after Grissom supposedly made a hatch mistake and lost the ship during recovery efforts.  Most believe it was as likely as not a functional issue was to blame, but the mystery is still unsolved as the hatch itself remains on the ocean floor.  Restored and conserved by the Kansas Cosmosphere and currently on loan to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the Liberty Bell 7 capsule continues to educate new generations on the technology of spaceflight.

Modern sonar analysis was used to locate the USS Indianapolis.

Allen’s team used modern sonar methods to locate the ship, which was sought after by prior expeditions of others that failed.  In brief, first the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) deployed with pre-programed search parameters for up to 20 hours, a search and survey technique commonly referred to as “mowing the lawn.”  Once a search grid is complete, the AUV returns to a pre-programmed location where it is retrieved and the team downloads its data.  While reviewing the data, the team looks for anomalies that indicate man-made objects or features that appear abstract to the surrounding geology.

One of the anchors of the USS Indianapolis as it appeared to Allen’s team Saturday. Note the words “NAVY YARD NORFOLK,” the casting date “1929” and “US NAVY.”

Then the targets or features of interest are subsequently explored with the remotely-operated underwater vehicle (ROV) for positive identification.  The ROV descends and ascends at 35 meters per minute, depending on depth, and can take up to three hours to reach its target.  The AUV data provide precise location information that allows the ROV to pinpoint previously detected targets.  In Petrel’s survey suite the team reviews the video feed to determine what the AUV scan detected.

The Petrel and the AUV.

For anyone whose interest in underwater archaeology and undersea exploration is piqued by Allen’s discovery of the Indianapolis, check out these excellent books:  The Discovery of the Titanic, by Dr. Robert D. Ballard, Robert Ballard’s Bismarck, Robert Ballard’s Lusitania, Ballard’s Collision With History: The Search for John F. Kennedy’s PT-109, Ballard’s Return to Midway, and Curt Newport’s Lost Spacecraft: The Search for Liberty Bell 7.

For further works on the Indianapolis, check out Doug Stanton’s book In Harm’s Way, Edgar Harrell’s Out of the Depths, and Richard F. Newcomb’s Abandon Ship!  Also look for the documentary USS Indianapolis: The Legacy.  In addition to Jaws, one of our most discussed and read subjects here at, those wanting some cinematic drama may want to check out the 2016 fictionalized account starring Nicolas Cage, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.

C.J. Bunce

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