Yanked underwater by the 610-foot ship's massive pull, he fought to the surface, gagging from oil and diesel fuel that coated the heaving sea.
That was only the beginning for those who survived the sinking on July 30, 1945. They drifted aimlessly for nearly five days, battling thirst, exposure and ravenous sharks. Only 321 of the 1,196 crewmen were alive when the Navy, which hadn't realized the
Indianapolis was missing, finally rescued them.
"You're wondering if you're going to be alive the next day, wondering if you'll ever get back home. ... But we made it," says Bitonti, now a 75-year-old retired trucking company dispatcher.
When journalist Doug Stanton attended a reunion of Indianapolis survivors two years ago in the ship's namesake city, he heard many such tales. Inspired, he wrote "In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors."
As the 56th anniversary of the sinking approaches, Stanton's work is kindling new interest in the worst sea disaster in U.S. naval history. (The book has been on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list for 12 weeks, and on July 29, Stanton will appear on the History Channel's "Hardcover History.")
As in other recent books and films about World War II, such as "Saving Private Ryan" and Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation," its focus is the ordinary men who prevailed against overwhelming odds.
"It's about surviving the insurmountable, simply because you believe in your ability to do so," Stanton, a contributing editor of Men's Journal, said in an interview at his northern Michigan home. "Things kept getting worse and worse ... but they just kept saying, 'I'm going to live."'
It's also about the battle waged by the remaining crewmen to clear the name of their skipper, Charles Butler McVay III, the only U.S. Navy captain ever court-martialed for losing his ship in wartime. He was convicted of negligence.
Their efforts recently were rewarded when the Navy exonerated McVay.
The Indianapolis departed from San Francisco on July 16, 1945, on a top-secret mission: delivering to the island of Tinian the uranium-235 and other components of the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima.
Afterward, the ship headed southwest toward the Philippines, where preparations were under way to invade Japan. A Japanese submarine torpedoed the Indianapolis, tearing the ship nearly in two, destroying much of the bow and igniting a firestorm below decks. Within 12 minutes, the vessel was gone and 300 crewmen were dead. The rest were left bobbing in the waves, hundreds of miles from land - some on rafts, others with life jackets.
Because of a combination of blunders and bad luck - the ship'SOS messages were received in the Philippines but disregarded as likely hoaxes - no rescue was launched.
By the third day, some of the drifting seamen were hallucinating, as visions of hotels, dancing girls and ships swirled before their eyes. In one group, a fight broke out - the men apparently thought they were battling Japanese - and perhaps 50 were drowned or stabbed. Some began swimming, convinced an island lay just ahead. They fell prey to sharks or exhaustion.
"We'd try to hold them back, but when guys go berserk, they've got a lot of energy," said survivor Clarke Seabert, 74.
Prayer, thoughts of home and plain grit sustained him and the others who held out.
Finally, four days after the sinking, a bomber pilot noticed an oil slick, assumed it was an enemy sub and swooped downward to attack. Gazing in astonishment at about 30 people waving for help, he radioed an alarm that triggered a frantic recovery operation.
Four men died soon after their rescue, and many other survivors were in bad shape. Seabert, his legs weakened and covered with sores, couldn't walk at first. Even now, he has trouble with his knees.
For Bitonti, the long-term effect was psychological: He has never since gone swimming.
"It's all I can do to take a bath or shower," he said.
(Pop-culture note: Remember why Quint, in the movie "Jaws" was obsessed with killing sharks? He was an Indianapolis survivor and tells the harrowing story to Police Chief Martin Brody and the oceanographer who joins them to hunt and kill the great white shark.)
McVay, the Indianapolis' captain, made it through the ordeal in good physical condition, but suffered wounds of the spirit that never healed. Disgraced by the court martial, hounded by hate mail from relatives of lost crewmen, he committed suicide in 1968.
The charge of hazarding his ship was based on the captain's decision to discontinue a "zigzag" course meant to evade torpedoes. Stanton contends the tactic was of little value and McVay acted properly under Navy regulations. Even the commander of the Japanese sub testified he would have sunk the Indianapolis in any event.
"What they did to him was rotten," Seabert said.
"Headquarters in Guam told us we didn't need an escort, no enemy subs or ships were out there. Why put the blame on our captain?"
Survivors, who began their periodic reunions in 1960, long campaigned to clear McVay's name. Last fall, then-President Clinton signed legislation absolving the captain.
The Navy refused to lift the conviction from his record, saying he got a fair trial, but reversed course this week. A spokesman said Navy Secretary Gordon England had ordered that a document exonerating McVay be placed in his file.
Stanton said he believed the book helped build public pressure that induced the Navy to act. But he said the Indianapolis story has deeper meanings in a society whose icons are movie and rock stars, some of whom he has profiled for magazines.
"We're hungry for people who are humble and heroic, and here's an entire generation of true heroes about to pass from the scene."
Stanton, 39, said his outlook on life changed as he researched the book, listening as aging veterans called forth long-buried memories in response to a question some had never been asked: "How did you make it?"
More than one spoke of having drawn just enough inspiration from the memory of a parent's "never give up" lecture.
"It made me examine my own responsibilities as a citizen," Stanton said. "Had I ever said anything to any of my friends, or to my son or daughter, that would be enough to keep them alive in a similar circumstance?"
Fewer than 100 of the Indianapolis crewmen remain alive, and their numbers dwindle yearly, says Giles McCoy, who organized the first reunion and was a primary source for "In Harm's Way."
"I hope the book will help young people understand the sacrifices that were made in World War II," said McCoy, of Palm Coast, Fla. "I'm 76 years old, but I'd fight for my country right now to keep it free."
By John Flesher
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