The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis set out on its secret mission on July 16, 1945, under the command of Captain Charles Butler McVay, III. She was delivering “Little Boy” to the Pacific island of Tinian, the atomic bomb which would later be dropped on Hiroshima.
Indianapolis made her delivery on July 26, arriving at Guam two days later and then heading for Leyte to take part in the planned invasion of Japan. She was expected to arrive on the 31st.
Japanese submarine I-58, Captain Mochitsura Hashimoto commanding, fired a spread of six torpedoes at the cruiser, two striking Indianapolis’ starboard bow at fourteen minutes past midnight on Monday, July 30. The damage was massive. Within 12 minutes she had rolled over, gone straight up by the stern, and sunk beneath the waves.
About 300 of Indianapolis’ 1,196-member crew were killed outright, leaving almost 900 treading water. Many had no life jackets and there were few life boats. There had been too little time.
For four days they treaded water, alone in open ocean, hoping for the rescue that did not come. Shark attacks began on the first day, and didn’t let up for the entire time they were in the water. Kapok life vests became waterlogged and sank after 48 hours, becoming worse than useless.
Exhaustion, hypothermia, and severe sunburn took their toll as the days went by. Some went insane and began to attack shipmates. Others found the thirst so unbearable that they drank seawater, setting off a biological chain reaction which killed them in a matter of hours.
Some simply swam away, following some hallucination that only they could see. Through it all, random individuals would suddenly rise up screaming from the ocean, and then disappear from sight, as the sharks claimed another victim.
At Naval Command, there was confusion about where Indianapolis was to report when it arrived. When the cruiser failed to arrive on the 31st, there was no report of the non-arrival. Perhaps worst, a message which could have clarified Indianapolis’ expected arrival on Monday came through garbled, and there was no request to repeat it.
As it was, only the barest of chances led to Indianapolis’ survivors being located at all. Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn, pilot of a Ventura scout-bomber, had lost the weight from a navigational antenna wire. Belly-crawling through the fuselage to fix the thrashing antenna, Gwinn noticed an oil slick. Back in the cockpit, he dropped down to have a better look. Only then did he spot men floating in open ocean.
Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks and his PBY Catalina amphibious patrol aircraft were the first on the scene. Horrified to see sharks actually attacking the men below, Marks landed his flying boat at sea. The last Indianapolis survivor was plucked from the ocean Friday afternoon, half dead after almost five days in the water. Of the 900 or so who survived the sinking, only 317 remained alive at the end of the ordeal.
The Navy had committed multiple errors, from denying McVay’s requested escort to informing him that his route was safe, even when the surface operations officer knew at least two Japanese submarines operated within the area. No Matter. A capital ship had been lost and someone was going to pay. A hastily convened court of inquiry was held in Guam on August 13, leading to Captain McVay’s court-martial.
No less a figure than Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz (CINCPAC) and Admiral Raymond Spruance, for whom the Indianapolis had served as 5th Fleet flagship, opposed the court-martial, believing McVay to be guilty of an error in judgement at worst, not gross negligence. Naval authorities in Washington saw things differently, particularly Navy Secretary James Forrestal and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King.
Captain McVay’s orders were to “zigzag” at discretion, a naval maneuver most effective at avoiding torpedoes already in the water. No Navy directives in effect at that time or since have so much as recommended, let alone ordered, zigzagging at night or in poor visibility.
Prosecutors flew I-58 commander Hashimoto in to testify at the court-martial, but he swore that zigzagging would have made no difference. The Japanese Commander even became part of a later effort to exonerate McVay, but to no avail. Charles Butler McVay III was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag”, his career ruined.
McVay had wide support among Indianapolis’ survivors, but opinion was by no means unanimous. Many family members held him personally responsible for the death of loved ones. Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays would come and go. There was almost always hate mail from some family member. One Christmas missive read “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son”.
As the years went by, McVay began to question himself. In time, he came to feel the weight of the Indianapolis’ dead, a soul crushing burden from which there was no escape. On November 6, 1968, Charles McVay took a seat on his front porch in Litchfield Connecticut, took out his Navy revolver, and killed himself. He was cremated, his ashes scattered at sea.
The ULTRA code-breaking system which revealed I-58’s presence on Indianapolis’ course, would not be declassified until the early 90s.
Hunter Alan Scott was 11 and living in Pensacola when he saw the movie “Jaws”, in 1996. He was fascinated by the movie’s brief mention of Indianapolis’ shark attacks. The next year, he created his 8th grade “National History Day” project on USS Indianapolis’ sinking.
The boy interviewed nearly 150 survivors and reviewed 800 documents. The more he read, the more he became convinced that Captain McVay was innocent of the charges for which he’d been convicted.
Scott’s National History Day project went up to the state finals, only to be rejected because he used the wrong type of notebook to organize the material.
He couldn’t let it end there. Scott began to attend Indianapolis survivors’ reunions, at their invitation, and helped to gain a commitment in 1997 from then-Representative Joe Scarborough that he would introduce a bill in Congress to exonerate McVay the following year.
Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire joined Scarborough in a joint resolution of Congress. Hunter Scott and several Indianapolis survivors were invited to testify before Senator John Warner and the Senate Armed Services committee on September 14, 1999.
Holding a dog tag in his hand, Scott testified “This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis”.
The United States Congress passed a resolution in 2000, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 30, exonerating Charles Butler McVay, III of the charges which had led to his court martial, humiliation and suicide.
The record cannot not be expunged – Congress has rules against even considering bills which alter military records. Yet Captain McVay had been exonerated, something that the Indianapolis survivors had tried for years to accomplish, without success. Until the intervention of a 12-year-old boy.
The last word on the whole episode belongs to Captain Hashimoto, who wrote the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1999 on behalf of Captain McVay. “Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences“, wrote the former submarine commander, now a Shinto Priest. “Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction“.