I Watched “Shark Week”

Ready or not, they’re here
Treading the water,
Dreadful and dark things draw near


Overcome fear
Overcome fear
They come over here
We’re thrashing around
We slowly spiral down*

SHARK WEEK!!!!!!!!!

OK, I didn’t watch the entire week, I just watched the kick-off episode “Ocean of Fear,” because it was about an event in naval history that has horrified and fascinated me since . . . well, since I saw Jaws for the first time.

You all know the scene. Robert Shaw, brilliant as Captain Quint, delivers the unforgettable and controversial speech to his enrapt shipmates Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, also narrator of “Ocean of Fear”) and Brody (Roy “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” Scheider).

The three men are drinking, laughing, and comparing scars. When Brody asks Quint about a scar that turns out to be a tattoo he’d had removed, Hooper jokes that the tattoo had said “Mother.” Hooper and Brody die laughing. But Quint isn’t laughing. You know he’s about to unload some heavy shit.

“Mr. Hooper, that’s the USS Indianapolis.”

Hooper shuts up. He’s suitably impressed and aghast. But Brody asks, “What happened?”

Now, this may be just a narrative device to allow Quint to tell his story, but I wonder how many people were asking that question. What happened? When I saw the movie, I had never heard of the USS Indianapolis. I thought the whole story was made up. It wasn’t.
Here’s Quint’s version:

Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. We’d just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes.

Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water, chief? You can tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know, was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week.

Very first light, chief, sharks come cruisin’, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know, it was kinda like old squares in a battle like you see on a calendar, like the Battle of Waterloo and the idea was the shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes that shark he go away . . . but sometimes he wouldn’t go away.

Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’ . . . until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then . . . ah, then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and they rip you to pieces.

You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand. I don’t know how many men, they averaged six an hour. Thursday mornin’, chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Bosun’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist.

Noon the fifth day, Mr. Brody, a Lockheed Ventura swung in low and he saw us, a young pilot, lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and he come in low and three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and started to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.

Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

Now, Quint was drunk in this scene (and Shaw was reportedly drunk during much of the production), so it’s perhaps understandable that he got a few things wrong. A handful of survivors have told their story, and according to “Ocean of Fear” and the book In Harm’s Way by Doug Stanton, here’s a more accurate account.

“Eleven hundred men went into the water.” I quoted this line with great relish and a terrible New England accent in the week leading up to the “Ocean of Fear” special. I soon learned, however, that Quint’s famous line should have been changed to “Nine hundred men went into the water.” Around 300 of the original 1,196 crew members died instantly following the torpedo hits and subsequent explosions. The ship did go down in twelve minutes, a fact that the crew and captain had difficulty comprehending.

The mission of the Indianapolis (to carry the components of the bomb “Little Boy” to the island of Tinian, near Guam) was secret—so secret that the captain himself was unaware of the crate’s contents. But it’s not true that no distress signals were sent. In an almost unbelievable sequence of events, signals were sent and either ignored or misinterpreted. Due to a security policy of not reporting ships’ arrivals, it was overlooked that ships’ nonarrivals were also not being tracked. No one knew the Indy was missing.

Quint talks about sharks. Well, this is Jaws, after all, that’s what we wanna hear about. But for the men in the water, formed into groups spread out over several miles in the middle of Philippine Sea, the sharks were just one component of their ordeal. The explosions resulted in a deadly layer of burning oil in the water. That and the seawater the men inevitably ingested made them extremely ill. Many had suffered broken bones and other injuries while onboard or while jumping off the burning ship. Not all had lifejackets or lifebelts. Many succumbed to drinking seawater and died agonizing deaths from hypernatremia; still others hallucinated or just went crazy and started killing each other.

The sharks came during the first light, as Quint said. But they’d actually started attacking late on Sunday, when it was too dark for the disoriented men to realize what was happening. One of the survivors saw around 150 to 200 sharks that first day. To the question “Were there a lot of them?” one survivor answered, “Two sharks are a lot when you’re in the water.” Interestingly, some of the groups of men huddled together in the ocean never even saw a shark.

The “poundin'” and “hollerin'” Quint describes was accurate. Training material for navy and marine personnel indicated that such activity was the best method to keep sharks away. Some of the survivors, however, knew instinctively to lie still and silent. That’s probably why they’re survivors.

How many men were lost to sharks? Around 200. “Six an hour”? Yup. Stanton says,

“Boys had been dying at an average of one every ten minutes for the past three days.”

Quint’s dramatic account of bumping into a man who’d been bitten in half is based on actual events, as is the horror of the shark attacks.

“One of the boys was dragged through the water like a fisherman’s bobber . . . clenched in the uplifted jaws of a shark, [he] was pushed at waist level through the surf, screaming.”

This comes from In Harm’s Way; “Ocean of Fear” seemed to downplay the sharks’ role in the ordeal. Even though the show calls it the “worst shark attack in history,” the point is made several times that the sharks mainly feasted on men who were already dead.

Quint was right to be frightened even after the rescue mission was under way. Not long after the pilot spotted the survivors, a major shark attack took over sixty lives in about fifteen minutes. Some men, weakened and injured, drowned while flapping their arms in the water to get the pilot’s attention.

Of 1,196 crew members of the USS Indianapolis, only 316 (later amended to 317) survived.

Perhaps Quint’s most egregious mistake was dating the event “June 29th, 1945.” The Indy was sunk on July 30 and the survivors were rescued on August 2.

And yes, they delivered the bomb. Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and killed 140,000 people. The end of WWII would overshadow the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis, but thanks to Jaws and Robert Shaw, some of us know the story.

Sharks! Did You Know?
  • Sharks don’t necessarily prefer humans to fish.
  • Sharks don’t necessarily prefer bleeding or wounded people to unwounded.
  • Sharks have been on this earth for 400 million years.
  • Sharks can live for 50 years.
  • Sharks kill about 4 people a year. In that same period, people kill 40 million sharks.
  • Sharks are, in a word, awesome!
If you want to have a “Shark Week” experience:
  • Watch Quint’s famous speech.
  • Read a good book.
  • Rent the Discovery Channel’s DVD.

* Today’s lyrics are courtesy of The Chills. The song “Water Wolves” is from their album Soft Bomb and features orchestration by Van Dyke Parks.