Deep Dives Level Up Newsletters Saved Articles Challenges

The deadliest shark attack in history saw 150 shipwrecked sailors eaten one by one

On 30 July 1945, the US Navy heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sank within minutes in shark-infested waters. Out of the 1,196 men on board, only 316 survived the gruesome four-day feeding frenzy. However, the Indianapolis had already completed its top secret mission: the delivery of key components of the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb that would be dropped a week later on Hiroshima, Japan. The ship’s crew was unaware of its cargo.

It is believed that as many as 150 men were eaten by the predators during the wait for rescue, making it the worst recorded shark attack in history.

After completing its mission, the Indianapolis was sailing for the island of Leyte in the Philippines, where just after midnight it was hit by two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine and quickly began to sink. The torpedoes triggered a chain of explosions that rolled the ship over and caused it to plunge in just 12 minutes.

A 19-year-old seaman, Loel Dean Cox, was on duty on the bridge. Aged 87, he spoke to the BBC and recalled the moment when the torpedo hit. “Whoom. Up in the air I went. There was water, debris, fire, everything just coming up and we were 81feet (25 metres) from the water line. It was a tremendous explosion. Then, about the time I got to my knees, another one hit. Whoom.”

“Can you imagine a ship 610 feet long—that’s two football fields in length—sinking in 12 minutes? It just rolled over and went under,” Cox added.

Around 900 of the crew members were initially still alive when the cruiser first went into the water. The survivors were left with only a few life rafts and forced to face the prospect of dying out in the middle of the ocean with nobody there to save them.

Drawn by the sound of the explosions and the thrashing of hundreds of people in the water, that’s when the sharks swarmed. While it should be noted that most sharks don’t actually attack humans, and when they do, it’s mostly due to curiosity, the Indianapolis’ survivors weren’t as lucky.

The Oceanic Whitetip is considered to be one of the most aggressive sharks in the world, and a large group of them was headed right for the survivors. Though slow-moving, it is opportunistic and combative, and is reputed to be dangerous to shipwreck survivors.

On the first night, they largely focused on the floating bodies of dead men, but as more blood spilt in the water, it drew in even more sharks who were enticed by the moving bodies and kicking legs of hundreds of men trying to stay afloat.

“We were losing three or four [men] each night and day,” Cox revealed. “You were constantly in fear because you’d see them all the time. Every few minutes you’d see their fins—a dozen to two dozen fins in the water. They would come up and bump you. I was bumped a few times—you never know when they are going to attack you.”

For four days those men had to stay in the water as the sharks fed first on the dead and then on the living, killing up to 150 of the shipwrecked survivors. Even those who weren’t killed directly by the sharks but from exposure, dehydration or salt poisoning (some tried to drink seawater), still ended up as fish food regardless.

It wasn’t until 11:00 am on the fourth day that they were finally rescued by a US Navy plane that spotted the survivors and radioed for help. An hours-long rescue operation was launched and the last of the survivors was found just after midnight.

The deadliest shark attack in history saw 150 shipwrecked sailors eaten one by one

This spine-chilling tale might sound familiar to those of you who have seen the film Jaws, as in one scene veteran shark hunter Quint (played by Robert Shaw) tells the whole story. Unlike Quint’s recount in the movie, however, many taken by the sharks could have been saved as the ship had actually sent out a distress signal.

Three stations received it but none responded as one commander was drunk, another had been ordered not to be disturbed and a third thought it was a trap set by the Japanese to lure the Americans out.

The deadliest shark attack in history saw 150 shipwrecked sailors eaten one by one

Another film on the ship’s sinking and subsequent shark attack is 2016’s USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage, with Nicholas Cage starring as ship captain Charles McVay, who was wrongly blamed for the sinking and only exonerated in 2000. Sadly, McVay died by suicide in 1968. Many of his surviving crewmen believed the military had made him a scapegoat.

Recent studies show steeply declining populations of Oceanic Whitetips because its large fins are highly valued as the chief ingredient of shark fin soup, and as with other shark species, it faces mounting fishing pressure throughout its range.

14-year-old black boy executed by electric chair proven innocent 70 years later

George Stinney Jr. became the youngest person to have ever been executed by electric chair in the US, at only 14 years old. 70 years then passed and, in 2014, he was finally proven innocent. So, what is the true story behind the ten minutes that led a harmless young African-American boy to an unjust, racist and tragic execution?

Stinney Jr. was wrongfully killed in the Deep South of the US in 1944, right in the midst of the Jim Crow era. Jim Crow laws, named after a Black minstrel show character, were a collection of state and local regulations that legalised racial segregation. They lasted from post-Civil War to 1968, spanning around 100 years and were put in place after the abolition of slavery to continue the marginalisation of black Americans in the country. Just some of the ways this was enacted was by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education or basically any basic civil rights that every single person should have the freedom to. Anyone who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws would be arrested, faced with fines, jail sentences, violence and even death.

White and black people were physically separated by railroad tracks where Stinney Jr’s. family lived in the mill town of Alcolu, South Carolina; a location they were forced to leave when he was falsely accused of killing two local white girls—11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames. It took a jury, made up of solely white men, just ten minutes to find the boy ‘guilty’.

As the case was told, the girls were riding their bicycles in Alcolu looking for flowers when they saw both Stinney Jr. and his younger sister Aime, who had taken their family’s cow out grazing, and asked them whether the two might know where to find maypops—the edible fruit of passionflowers (commonly referred to as passionfruit). The girls walked on after realising the brother and sister didn’t know where to find what they were looking for, which is when a lumber truck allegedly drove past, witnessing the interaction.

The two girls Binnicker and Thames didn’t come home that day, the local community responded with a town-wide search by hundreds of Alcolu residents, including Stinney Jr’s father. The bodies were found in a ditch the following day, with no apparent sign of struggle, but still what were said to be violent deaths that involved multiple head injuries.

The Post and Courier described the scene where they were found, “The girls’ bodies were stiff when the preacher’s boy found them in a shallow, waterlogged ditch in the woods. They were on their backs, like a pair of discarded dolls, bruised and broken beyond repair. On top of them lay a bicycle, its front wheel gone from the frame.”

The publication went on to explain that following an examination, it was clear the method of murder was bloody. Thames had a prominent cut and hole that permeated straight through her forehead into the skull while Binnicker displayed signs of multiple blows to the head—the doctor noting it was “nothing but a mass of crushed bones.”

This is where the story splits in two, the first false and historically final version led to the abrupt end of Stinney Jr’s life. According to seemingly no one in particular, the young boy supposedly followed and single-handedly beat the two girls to death with a railroad spike.

The second version that solidified only as much as a whisper, is that Stinney Jr. and his sister simply continued with their own business—the girls to theirs, which led them to the home of a white lumber mill family where they asked if the wife of the house would join them on their hunt for maypops. She said no, but the son of the house drove up in his logging truck and offered to take the girls off to find their maypops while he unloaded the logs. They jumped in. And then? Well, no other versions really mattered, because suspicion fell on Stinney Jr. as he was pointed out to be the ‘mean’ kid in town.

The county law enforcement officers were tipped that Binnicker and Thames were seen talking to Stinney Jr., so they stormed over to his home where the boy was handcuffed and interrogated without his parents, an attorney or any witnesses whatsoever. The police claimed that the 14-year-old confessed to murdering the two girls. According to All That’s Interesting, an officer named H.S. Newman wrote in a statement that he “arrested a boy by the name of George Stinney. He then made a confession and told me where to find a piece of iron about 15 inches long. He said he put it in a ditch about six feet from the bicycle.”

All the while Stinney Jr. was being detained alone, without any telling as to where—not even his parents knew where he was being kept. At that time in history, 14 years of age was considered to be an age of responsibility, as teens experienced puberty. He was never seen alive again by his siblings after that day, alone throughout the 83-day detainment and alone when faced by a solely white jury. Only until he was in his casket was the family together again.

In 2014, The Guardian conducted an interview with the boy’s family, writing that Aime will never forget the last time she saw her brother alive, “She was eight at the time, hunkering in the chicken coop, scared half to death, when two black cars drove up to their house. Neither her mother, also [called] Aime, a cook, nor her father, George senior, were home when white law enforcement officers came and took away George and her stepbrother, Johnny, in handcuffs. Johnny was later let go. She idolised George and followed him everywhere. He called her his shadow.”

The events of that day in 1944, when Aime and Stinney Jr. came across the girls were said to be clear in her mind, because “no white people came around” to the black side of town. She continued, “We didn’t see those girls no more. But somebody followed those girls and killed them.” Realistically, no black child would threaten a white kid without there being strong repercussions at that time, as Aime stated, “We didn’t fool around with white people.” However, as I said before, Stinney Jr. was pointed out by someone down the ‘grapevine’, turning him into an easy suspect.

According to The Guardian, back in 1995, “WL Hamilton, George’s seventh-grade teacher, who is black, told the Item newspaper that he had a temper and had gotten into a fight with a girl at school, scratching her with a knife.” Aime said she phoned Hamilton after she read the story. “That bastard. That was a damn lie. When I heard about that lie Mr Hamilton told I called him up. I said my name is Aime Stinney and you said my brother was a bad boy. You’ve got one foot on a banana peel and the other going straight to hell.”

Stinney Jr’s execution was not without protest, both white and black ministerial unions petitioned for his release based on his young age. Hundreds of letters came through the governor’s door begging for mercy, but none of it was enough to save him from the execution that occurred on 16 June 1944. A bible under the 14-year-old’s arm, he was strapped into the adult-sized electric chair.

70 years later

Stinney Jr’s siblings never gave up on claiming their brother’s innocence, and in 2014, 70 years too late, the jury resided in the fact that he was falsely accused and sentenced to his death. His siblings convinced the court that Stinney Jr. of course had an alibi, he was with his sister Aime [now married as Aime Stinney Ruffner, 77 years old when the case closed] and their cow. Their brother’s cellmate at the time of conviction, Wilford ‘Johnny’ hunter, reported that the boy had denied murdering the girls as well.

By 17 December 2014, Judge Carmen T. Mullen relieved Stinney’s murder conviction, calling the death sentence “a great and fundamental injustice.” The 14-year-old innocent boy’s siblings felt that “a cloud just moved away,” when hearing the news. George Stinney Jr. can never have his life back, but his story will be told, and told again, as well as every other racial unjust prosecution. Echos of the past lie all around us still to this day—we infinitely, generation after generation, are on stand to call out discrimination and inequality.