By Leon Jaroff
On its way back from the Pacific island of Tinian, where it had delivered the uranium core for the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, the heavy cruiser Indianapolis was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-58 and sent to the bottom of the Philippine Sea. It was one of the worst disasters in American naval history; only 317 of its nearly 1,200 crew members survived.
Now experts at Southwest Texas State University have given that tragic story a startling new twist.
It was the moon, they say, that sank the Indianapolis. Or anyway, they write in the July issue of Sky & Telescope, it was the moon that made the sinking possible.
The disastrous tide that failed to rise in the bloody Marine Corps landing at Tarawa
Using astronomical computer programs, records and weather reports, as well as the known coordinates and running speeds of the ship and the submarine that sank it, the authors determined that when the I-58 surfaced, it was perfectly aligned, west to east, with the cruiser. And, they said, a three-quarter moon had just emerged from behind the clouds.
Looking across the moonlit water, an I-58 crewman spotted the ship silhouetted against the sky, 10.3 miles away. Half an hour later, six torpedoes sent it to the bottom.
“It was sheer chance,” said Dr. Donald Olson, an astronomer. “Without that alignment with the moon, the lookouts would not have spotted the cruiser, especially at that distance.”
With Russell Doescher, a physics lecturer, Dr. Olson conducts a university honors course called “Astronomy in Art, History and Literature.” In the last 15 years, he has pinpointed the time and place of the rendering of art masterpieces, given new interpretations of astronomical references in Chaucer and revealed the decisive role of the moon in military and other encounters.
Dr. Donald Olson, who links the moon to art, literature and war.
Two years ago, for example, Dr. Olson turned his attention to the bright star in van Gogh’s “White House at Night.” He and some students went to Auvers, France, where van Gogh created his final works, and searched until they found the house, largely unchanged. Sifting through letters from van Gogh to his brother, Dr. Olson found that the painting was completed in June 1890.
Noting the orientation of the house in the painting, he determined where van Gogh had set his easel and what section of the sky he had portrayed, and from the lighting and shadows, he established that the house had been illuminated by the setting sun. His computer analysis then identified the “star.” It was Venus, which in early evening in mid-June had occupied that part of the sky.
A final check of local weather records pinpointed the actual date van Gogh had composed the painting, June 16, the only clear day in the middle of the month that year.
Dr. Olson has also turned his attention to Shakespeare, intrigued by the opening of “Hamlet,” when guards on the ramparts of Elsinor refer to the “star that’s westward from the pole had made his course to illume that part of heaven where now it burns.” From the guards’ description, the season and the time, other astronomers had suggested several bright stars as possibilities, but Dr. Olson’s calculations placed it in the constellation Cassiopeia, which lacks any notably luminous stars.
Pondering this problem on a trip with his wife, Dr. Olson was suddenly inspired. He was aware that in 1572, a supernova, called Tycho’s star, for the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, suddenly flamed in Cassiopeia, creating a worldwide sensation. Shakespeare, 8 at the time, would certainly have recalled the event, and his memory was probably refreshed by the description of the supernova in a history book that was the source of some of his best-known plays.
Dr. Olson has no doubt that the star that glared above Elsinor that night was Tycho’s, and he has an impressive record of other astronomy-based sleuthing.
Aware that the photographer Ansel Adams often neglected to date his negatives, Dr. Olson set out to find when Adams had shot his classic “Moon and Half Dome.” At Yosemite, Dr. Olson and his students found Adams’s vantage point, studied the location, phase and features of the moon in the photograph, plus the shadows on the Dome, snow on the peak and other clues, and then announced that the picture had been taken at 4:14 p.m., Dec. 28, 1960.
Then, Dr. Olson calculated that the setting would be virtually identical at 4:05 p.m. on Dec. 13, 1994. On that day Adams’s daughter-in-law visited Yosemite and was photographed holding a print of “Moon and the Half Dome” in the foreground of an eerily similar view of the actual moon and the Half Dome.
Analyzing Chaucer’s works, Dr. Olson has confirmed that a particularly rapid movement of the moon described in “The Merchant’s Tale” occurred in April 1389. And in “The Franklin’s Tale,” Chaucer’s description of the heavenly alignment that caused an exceptionally high tide on the Brittany coast, convinced Dr. Olson that Chaucer was an advanced amateur astronomer.
Then there was Paul Revere. On his way to saddle up for his famous ride, how did he manage to row undetected past a British warship on a moonlit night in Boston Harbor? Dr. Olson’s computer program revealed that, while the moon was nearly full that night, it was unusually close to the southern horizon and did not illuminate Revere’s boat.
Dr. Olson’s proudest achievement was explaining “the tide that failed” in the bloody Marine Corps landing at Tarawa atoll on Nov. 20, 1943. Planners had expected a tide to provide a water depth of five feet over a reef some 600 yards from shore, allowing larger landing craft, with drafts of at least four feet, to pass.
But that day and the next, in the words of some observers, “the ocean just sat there,” providing neither low tide nor high tide and leaving a mean depth of three feet over the reef. The craft grounded on the edge of the reef, and many marines were killed or injured as they waded 600 yards to the shore, rifles over their heads, in the face of machine-gun fire from the Japanese.
Asked by a former marine about the tidal phenomenon, Dr. Olson spent six months researching and mastering tidal theory and discovered that the military planners were aware that they had to contend with a "neap" tide. This phenomenon occurs twice a month when the moon is near its first or last quarter, because the countering tug of the sun causes water levels to deviate less.
But that day, the moon was also almost at its farthest point from earth and exerted even less pull, leaving the waters relatively undisturbed and the marines in trouble.
“I’m not in the least blaming the planners,” Dr. Olson said, explaining that the techniques used in accurately determining tides hadn’t been applied to the waters at Tarawa.
Indeed, he modestly claims, by using his computer program, “We can calculate the tides in any port in the world on any day in history.”
Yet Dr. Olson’s greatest satisfaction seems to stem from his interdisciplinary approach to astronomical sleuthing. “I have thought about van Gogh, about Shakespeare and Chaucer,” he says, “and that has made my life as a scientist much richer.”