July 26 1945 USS Indianapolis

The United States Navy lost over 350 ships to combat operations during WW2.  Not one  resulted in court martial but, on this occasion, someone was going to pay. 

The Portland class 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.

Indianapolis SubThe 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, the 584-ft, 9,950-ton vessel had rolled over, gone straight up by the stern, and sunk beneath the waves.

Approximately 300 of Indianapolis’ 1,196-member crew were killed outright, leaving nearly 900 treading water. Many had no life jackets.  There had been no time, and there were few life boats.

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Caribbean Reef sharks circling the sailors in reenactment scene after USS Indianapolis had been sunk by Japanese submarine. As seen on OCEAN OF FEAR: WORST SHARK ATTACK EVER. H/T photographer: Tim Calver

The ordeal faced by the survivors, is beyond description.  Alone and stranded in open ocean, these guys treaded water for four days, hoping and praying for the rescue that did not come.

Shark attacks began on the first day, and never let up. Kapok-filled life vests became waterlogged and sank after 48 hours, becoming worse than useless. Exhaustion, hypothermia, and severe sunburn took their toll as the hours turned into days. Some men went insane and began to attack their shipmates, while others found the thirst so unbearable that they drank seawater, setting off a biological chain reaction which killed them within a few hours. Some simply swam away, following some spectral vision that only he could see. Through it all, random individuals would suddenly rise up screaming from the ocean, then to disappear forever, as the sharks claimed another victim.

Navy Command had not the slightest idea of what happened to Indianapolis, nor why she didn’t show up on the 31st.  A random patrol aircraft passing the area that Thursday afternoon, that finally discovered men floating in open ocean. The last Indianapolis survivor was plucked from the ocean Friday afternoon, well past half-dead after nearly five days in the water. Of the 900 or so who survived the sinking, only 316 remained alive at the end of the ordeal.

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Mochitsura Hashimoto

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 there were at least two Japanese submarines, operating in the area.

No captain in the history of the United States Navy was subjected to court-martial for losing a ship sunk by an act of war.  The United States Navy lost over 350 ships to combat operations during WW2.  It didn’t matter.  On this occasion, someone was going to pay.

A hastily convened court of inquiry was held in Guam on August 13, leading to McVay’s court-martial. There was evidence that the Navy itself had put the ship in harm’s way.  When prosecutors flew the I-58 commander in to testify, Hashimoto 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.

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Charles Butler McVay, III

McVay had wide support among Indianapolis’ survivors, but opinion was by no means unanimous. Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays would come and go and there was always some piece of hate mail, blaming him for the death of a loved one. One Christmas missive read “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son”.

McVay began to doubt himself.  By 1968 he must have felt the weight of Indianapolis’ dead, like a great stone upon his shoulders.

On November 6, 1968, Charles Butler McVay III sat down on his front porch in Litchfield Connecticut, took out his Navy revolver, and killed himself.  He was cremated, his ashes scattered at sea.

It would take more than 20 years, for the evidence which exonerated him to be declassified.

Afterward:
Hunter Alan Scott was eleven and living in Pensacola when he saw the movie “Jaws”, in 1996. He was fascinated by the movie’s brief mention of the Indianapolis’ shark attacks, the next year, he created his 8th grade “National History Day” project on the 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, but it was rejected because he had used the wrong type of notebook to organize the material.

artbHe 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 NH joined Scarborough in a joint resolution.  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.

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Some of Indianapolis’ crew, before her sinking.

The record cannot not be expunged.  Congress has rules against even considering bills altering military records, and there is no means by which to reverse a court-martial.  It’s never happened.  Yet Captain McVay had exonerated, something that the Indianapolis survivors had tried to accomplish without success.  Until the intervention of a 12-year-old boy.  Who said one person can’t make a difference?

Today, only 22 of  Indianapolis’ survivors remain alive.  The wreck of the “Indy” was discovered in August 2017, in 18,000-feet of water.  Leader of the civilian expedition which located the wreck, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, said”To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling”.

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June 5, 1899 – The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus affair has been called “a modern and universal symbol of injustice”.

Europe was embarked on yet another of its depressingly regular paroxysms of anti-Semitism in the late 19th century, when Alfred Dreyfus was arrested for espionage.

alfred dreyfus
Alfred Dreyfus

A French Captain of Jewish-Alsatian background, the “evidence” against him was almost non-existent, limited to an on-the-spot handwriting analysis of a tissue paper missive written to the German Embassy. “Expert” testimony came from Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of the modern ‘mug shot’ and an enthusiastic proponent of anthropometry in law enforcement, the collection of body measurements and proportions for purposes of identification, later phased out by the use of fingerprints. Though no handwriting expert, Bertillon opined that Dreyfus’ handwriting was similar to that of the sample, explaining the differences with a cockamamie theory he called “autoforgery”.

Chief Inspector Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Armand Auguste Ferdinand Mercier du Paty de Clam, himself no handwriting expert, agreed with Bertillon. With no file and only the flimsiest of evidence, de Clam summoned Dreyfus for interrogation on October 13, 1894. Dreyfus maintained his innocence during the interrogation, with his inquisitor going so far as to slide a revolver across the table, silently suggesting that Dreyfus kill himself. Du Paty arrested Dreyfus two days later, informing the captain that he would be brought before a Court Martial.Dreyfus-Affair

Despite the paucity of evidence, the young artillery officer was convicted of handing over State Secrets in November 1894.  The insignia was torn from his uniform and his sword broken, and then he was paraded before a crowd that shouted, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.”  Dreyfus was sentenced to life, and sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he spent almost five years.

A simple miscarriage of justice elevated to a national scandal two years later, when evidence came to light identifying French Army major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real culprit. Esterhazy was brought to trial in 1896, but high ranking military officials suppressed evidence, and he was acquitted on the second day of trial. The military dug in, accusing Dreyfus of additional crimes based on false documents. Indignation at the obvious frame-up began to spread.

i-accuseMost of the political and military establishment lined up against Dreyfus, but the public outcry became furious after writer Émile Zola published his vehement open letter “J’accuse” (I accuse) in the Paris press in January 1898.

Zola himself was tried and convicted for libel, and fled to England.

Liberal and academic activists put pressure on the government to reopen the case. On June 5 1899, Alfred Dreyfus learned of the Supreme Court decision to revisit the judgment of 1894, and to return him to France for a new trial.french-prison-ile-st-joseph-in-french-guiana-devils-island--29946

What followed nearly tore the country apart.  “Dreyfusards” such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and future Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau were pitted against anti-Dreyfusards such as Edouard Drumont, publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole.  To his supporters, the “Dreyfus affair” was a grotesque miscarriage of justice.  A clear and obvious frame-up.  To his detractors, Dreyfus came to symbolize the supposed disloyalty of French Jews, the attempt to reopen the case an attack on the nation and an attempt to weaken the army in order to place it under parliamentary control.

The new trial was a circus. The political and military establishments stonewalled. One of Dreyfus’ two attorneys was shot in the back on the way to court. The judge dismissed Esterhazy’s testimony, even though the man had confessed to the crime by that time. The new trial resulted in another conviction, this time with a ten-year sentence. Dreyfus would probably not have survived another 10 years in the Guiana penal colony. This time, he was pardoned and set free.

Alfred Dreyfus was finally exonerated of all charges in 1906, and reinstated as a Major in the French Army, where he served with honor for the duration of World War I, honorably ending his service at the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

The Dreyfus affair has been called “a modern and universal symbol of injustice”.  The divisions and animosities left in the world of French politics, would remain for years.  The French army would not publicly declare the man’s innocence, until 1995.