After 72 years, wreckage from the USS Indianapolis – the sinking of which was the greatest sea disaster in U.S. naval history – was discovered on Aug. 18 in the Philippine Sea, 18,000 feet below the water’s surface.
Unknown at the time, and prior to docking at Guam Harbor, the Indianapolis delivered parts for the atomic bomb “Little Boy” to the U.S. air base in Tinian. On Aug. 6, 1945, the bomb was dropped on the Japan city of Hiroshima – the first atomic weapon used in warfare.
“We weren’t supposed to know it at the time, and my captain said ‘don’t repeat this.’ The Indianapolis had dropped off some parts at Tinian,” said Caro resident Dallas Likens.
It was later found out that the “parts” the captain was referring to was the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
Likens, 91, wasn’t on the Indianapolis at the time, but was in the U.S. Navy as a petty officer 3rd class aboard the USS New Orleans.
Likens was alongside the Indianapolis just a few days before it took off on what would be a fateful final journey.
“I was a machinist,” he said. “I was acting chief, they froze my pay. I had to be chief petty officer getting paid Third Class. Aboard the New Orleans I worked on the auxiliaries – steam heat, refrigeration and all the diesel equipment.”
When he found out the news that the wreckage had been discovered, Likens said, “I cried when I heard about it. I had talked to some of the guys on the Indianapolis. I couldn’t help it. I’m a grown man and I still cried.”
According to ussindianapolis.org, when the Indianapolis was torpedoed by the Japanese and sunk in 12 minutes on July 30, 1945, it was the greatest sea disaster in U.S. naval history. Of the 1,196 crewmen who were aboard, approximately 300 went down with the ship and the remainder were left floating in shark-infested waters with no lifeboats and most with no food or water. The ship wasn’t immediately listed as missing, and by the time survivors were spotted by accident four days later, only 317 men were still alive.
“Now, they will not tell us where the wreckage was found exactly,” Likens said. “They don’t want a bunch of people going over there now to see what’s happening. They’re claiming that area now as our own property. They aren’t sure if it is going to be preserved as a grave, or what they’re going to do with the ship. I doubt they will ever raise it.”
Timeline of events
Likens joined the military in 1944, in the midst of World War II, when he was 18.
He described how he ended up aboard the New Orleans in 1945.
“I was standing in line,” Likens said. “One line was going to the USS Franklin – an aircraft carrier, the other to go aboard the New Orleans. A kid behind me asked to change places with me since he wanted to go on the Franklin with his buddy. I ended up in the New Orleans line.”
On March 19, 1945, the Franklin was attacked when a Japanese dive bomber dropped two semi-armor piercing bombs. Casualties totaled 724 killed and 265 wounded, according to the U.S. Navy.
“The Lord was with me,” he said. “That thing took a suicide hit mid-ship. I was a machinist, and that is where I would’ve been had I gone on the Ben Franklin. I saw steel girders that were melted down. I thanked the Lord I wasn’t aboard that ship. We had to go in for repairs to it as it was pulled in alongside us.”
One month later, Likens arrived on April 23, 1945 for the Battle of Okinawa.
“We went up through the China coast into the Battle of Okinawa,” he said. “We secured Okinawa and I was on the New Orleans. All we did was bombard them. Our job was to secure the battle.” The ship fired directly against enemy lines.
The New Orleans was classified as a “heavy cruiser” because it had 8 inch/55 caliber guns.
“We had eight-inch guns,” he said. “There were nine of them. There was eight-inch armor plate all around that sucker.”
July 1945 – Alongside the Indianapolis
After they successfully completed their mission in Okinawa, it was time for Likens and the rest of the crew on the New Orleans to head south.
“They sent us south and we heard a rumor there were problems down in Borneo,” he said. “That’s where we thought we were going from Okinawa.”
Eventually the New Orleans arrived in Guam Harbor in July of 1945.
“We got to Guam Harbor in 1945 and docked there,” Likens said. The Indianapolis arrived at Guam Harbor on July 27, 1945.
While the New Orleans was docked, anytime an officer wanted to depart from the ship, Likens was called upon since he was a diesel mechanic.
“One morning I got a call saying ‘Likens report to the officer of the deck,’” he said. “Dallas, lower your whale boat. I lowered it, saluted the captain. He said ‘Dallas, our sister ship (Indianapolis) is coming in and we want to talk to them.’”
Capt. Jack Ellett Hurff was the captain of the New Orleans during this time.
“On the way over, the captain said he couldn’t see her.” As Hurff was looking through binoculars, Likens snapped a picture of the New Orleans, which was illegal to do at the time.
“I could have been court-martialed to the worst degree there,” he added.
Likens now has the picture framed and is displayed on a chest of drawers at his house in Caro.
The captain made his way over to the Indianapolis. “It seemed like he was over there for ages,” Likens said. “I asked to see if they were coming over to the New Orleans for a party and he said we had to wait and see. I’ll never forget him saying that.”
Likens played the guitar and was looking forward to performing for the sailors of the Indianapolis. He didn’t know it at the time, but Likens would end up being one of the last people to see the Indianapolis afloat, before it became the greatest sea disaster in U.S. naval history.
The Indianapolis departed on July 28, 1945 from Guam Harbor, headed for the Philippines, according to ussindianapolis.org. “That’s where they were headed when they sunk it,” Likens said.
“After they left, Tokyo Rose came on and said ‘We just sunk the Indianapolis.’ We all laughed. We heard her say that they sunk us about eight times before, according to her and we figured it wasn’t real. The next day, Armed Forces Radio came on and said, ‘We’ve lost the Indianapolis. They sunk her.’”
Tokyo Rose was a fabricated name given by Allied troops during World War II to female English-speaking radio broadcasters of Japanese propaganda. The purpose of the broadcasts was to demoralize troops abroad and their families.
“Tokyo Rose was the propaganda girl for the Japs,” Likens said.
The New Orleans was still in Guam when Likens heard the news. Soon after the Indianapolis sank, the New Orleans was ordered to go up the China coast. According to Likens, the New Orleans was the first foreign ship in the North China Sea in over 35 years.
“A couple days later, they dropped the A-Bomb,” Likens said. “The war wasn’t over yet. One was in Hiroshima and one in Nagasaki.”
Throughout the course of the interview, Likens repeatedly brought up what the Americans’ biggest concern was during World War II, from his perspective.
“Our worst enemy at that time was 16-year-old (Japanese kamikaze soldiers),” he said. “They would fly right out of the sun and our gunners aboard ship were prepared. They were coming at us. They wanted a direct hit on ships. They were destined to die for their imperial leader.”
Likens admits that over the years, from time to time, he would think about the Indianapolis.
“I always wondered what they would do with it,” he said. “We didn’t know where it was sunk or what. It would help if they did something now to honor them.”
The ship was found by a crew led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. They are working closely with the U.S. Navy and are keeping the ship’s location a secret.