Finding the USS Indianapolis — and the human side of war

While I enjoyed my career as a marine engineer — operating and managing remote underwater systems and manned submersibles — it rarely touched on anything significant or on the human experience.

That changed when I joined Paul Allen’s expedition team that discovered the USS IndianapolisI experienced firsthand that a discovery such as this is a shared experience that brings many people joy, grief and closure. 

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It started in 2007 when I parlayed my 25 years of maritime experience to become Allen’s director of subsea operations. He was interested in utilizing his private expedition yacht, the Octopus, to explore historic ships and other culturally significant artifacts in his quest to bring history, education and discovery to life. 

Allen had a history of his own, of course. As co-founder of Microsoft, he had a keen understanding of and appreciation for data and technology. Within his philanthropic efforts, he used data and technology to tackle the world’s toughest challenges. 

He counted Africa’s elephants and led the swift response to the Ebola outbreak. It was only natural for him to apply the same principles to honoring history and service members, including his father.

Our small crew aboard the Octopus discovered the Imperial Japanese Navy’s battleship Musashi in 2015. The reaction of Japanese media and naval officials validated the importance of these missions, and he set his sights on discoveries as resonant with an American audience. 

He directed us to think big and be aggressive in scheduling our next missions. How could we not identify the USS Indianapolis as a prime opportunity? The resting place of the Indianapolis, one of the most storied cruisers in U.S. naval history, was a mystery untouched for 72 years.

The ship had sunk in one of the most hostile environments on earth. To find it required new assets and better technology.

In 2016, we purchased the Petrel, a 250-foot, purpose-built research vessel, and we fitted her with state-of-the-art subsea equipment capable of searching the ocean floor down to 6,000 meters with remote sonar systems and real-time video in high definition. 

In June 2017, we embarked to the Philippine Sea to look for the USS Indianapolis armed with historic information and the support of the U.S. Navy and other researchers. It was a clinical operation using the best technology and data available, and I approached it the same way I had operations earlier in my career — guided by research, facts and analysis. 

However, nothing had prepared me or my team for the emotional response to our discovery. On Aug. 19, 2017, I experienced my own sense of wonder and excitement when Indy’s hull-number appeared on our camera. 

But what came after was a tidal wave of emotion, brought on by the response from survivors, their families and the families of those lost at sea. We were flooded with stories and personal accounts on social media.

My work had become deeply personal. I was honored to sit down with John Woolston, a survivor of the USS Indianapolis who is no longer with us, to show him first-hand the footage of the underwater grave of so many of his fellow sailors.

I witnessed his facial expressions as he peered at the portal that was his escape route from the galley where he had been eating a sandwich when the ship exploded. I listened to his hushed exclamations as he studied the hull that had been torn away by one or more Japanese torpedoes.

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It was there and then I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility that stays with me today and one that should be shared among all who enjoy America’s freedoms. We need to remember and honor our history and its heroes, living and dead. We need to bring their spirit to life and be grateful every day for the sacrifices made by so many on our behalf.

I am honored to be part of a PBS documentary, "USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter."  It shares the first-hand story of this discovery as well as the ship’s proud service and its fateful sinking. 

Before his death, Paul Allen said it best:

“In documenting the final resting place of so many service members, all of us involved want to keep alive the memory of their dedication, heroism and self-sacrifice. These missions will continue with the same purpose, but with a deeper understanding that this work is important and makes a difference to thousands of families across the globe.”

Robert Kraft is the director of Subsea Operations, Vulcan Inc. "USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter" airs at 10 p.m. EST on Jan. 8 on PBS.