Personally, I never trust any list claiming to contain the “best movie monologues” if Quint’s USS Indianapolis scene from “Jaws” doesn’t at least break the Top 3 (and if it’s not included at all, I say just throw that whole list away). In one of the film’s most understated yet most impactful scenes, the colorfully gruff captain of the Orca, Quint (played brilliantly by Robert Shaw), vividly describes what it was like to survive the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis, the Navy vessel that was sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1945, killing almost 1,000 men. While our archetypal anti-hero’s retelling gets the overall gist of the real-world event correct, there are some details that appear to be conscious embellishments made by director Steven Spielberg, and some that are just plain inaccurate.
The date Quint gives is wrong
“So, eleven hundred men went in the water… three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway…we delivered the bomb.”
The sinking of the Indianapolis occurred following its delivery of integral parts of an atomic bomb to an Army base on the island of Tinian. The bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy”, would become the first nuclear weapon used in combat on August 6th, 1945, when it was dropped on Hiroshima by a B-29 Superfortress. While Quint cites June 29th as an integral date, the real attack by the Japanese sub was a month later, less than a week before the Hiroshima bombing, on July 30th. What the scene does get right about the incident itself is the 12 minutes that it took the heavy cruiser to sink following the torpedo hit, as well as the 316 men that survived, of the 1,195 that had been on board.
Sharks weren’t the only threat
“Y’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.”
At the end of his speech, Quint implies that sharks were responsible for the almost 900 lives lost at sea. While it seems mainly like an easier way to integrate the sheer number of casualties into the story (and really hammer home the reasoning behind Quint’s visceral obsession with sharks) the fact remains that there were a myriad of forces working against the men of the Indianapolis. An estimated 300 lives were lost almost immediately when, after only a few minutes, the top-heavy ship capsized and started its descent below the surface.
The remaining 600 casualties were, in part, caused by shark attacks, but other causes of death included dehydration, starvation, hypothermia, salt poisoning (from drinking seawater), and by some accounts suicide and psychosis-induced homicide. Estimates of shark-related deaths range anywhere from a few dozen to over 200, depending on the source. While they may not have been responsible for all deaths, the incident is still regarded as one of the worst shark attacks in history. Another detail added by the writers was Quint’s unfortunate discovery of his friend “Herbie Robinson from Cleveland.” While that part of the story could potentially have grains of truth to it, by all known reports there was no one named Herbie Robinson on the real vessel at the time it sank.
What the scriptwriters did seem to nail with haunting accuracy, however, is the description of what it was like to witness the continuous shark attacks for days on end. In interview after interview, real survivors of the USS Indianapolis all seem to tell similar stories about their own inconceivable experiences. They also corroborate Quint’s identification of the Ventura bomber that initially found some of the crew during a routine patrol, and the PBY seaplane that was the first to pick up as many survivors as possible, while dropping rafts and other supplies to those who would need to wait for further aid.
The real reason it took so long to find the survivors
“`Cause our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week.”
Equipped with only life jackets and a very small number of lifeboats, those who had survived the initial sinking were in no way equipped with the right provisions to appropriately, or even optimistically, wait the almost five days it would take to be found. Quint posited that the reason it took so long was due to no signal being sent, because of the secrecy of their mission involving “Little Boy,” but that isn’t accurate. An initial report made by the Navy in February of 1946 claimed:
“There is ample evidence that distress messages were keyed by radio operators and possibly were actually transmitted on at least one (500 k.c.) and possibly two frequencies. No evidence has been developed that any distress message from the ship was received by any ship, aircraft or shore station.”
This would subsequently be in direct opposition to later declassified Navy reports, seemingly confirming that there were actually three signals that were successfully sent, each one ignored or dismissed for different reasons. One was said to be ignored by a drunk commanding officer (CO). The second was never given to a CO who had ordered not to be disturbed, and the third was wrongfully thought to be a trap devised by Japan to lure in Navy ships. That third ignored signal is thought to have actually come from the Japanese submarine responsible for the attack, and ignoring it cost a lot of precious time, and potentially hundreds of lives.
“Within 16 hours of the actual sinking of the Indianapolis, there was in the Advance Headquarters of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet an indication (from a single enemy source) to the effect that the Japanese had sunk something (the nature of which was unknown) in a position which was approximately the predicted position of the Indianapolis at the time. Had this information been evaluated as authentic, it is possible that the survivors of the Indianapolis might have been located within 24 hours of the time of the sinking of the ship and many additional lives might have been saved.”
Along with that were several other instances in which poor, or non-existent, communication led to the prolonged time it took for others to realize they had never made it to Leyte when they were supposed to on July 31st. The tragedy of the Indianapolis was the driving force behind the development of what is now the Navy’s Movement Report System (MOVREP), which is designed to track the travel status of any ship under Navy control, and prevent anything similar from happening again.
Of course, there are no hard and fast rules dictating historical accuracy in movies, especially those that aren’t necessarily trying to serve as a reference point for certain events. But when a character like Quint delivers such an evocative performance, it’s really easy to believe everything he’s saying is true… although Shaw could have probably captivated any audience just by reading from a phone book or watching paint dry.