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The controversy surrounding USS Indianapolis tragedy

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USS INDIANAPOLIS, a 9,800-ton PORTLAND class heavy cruiser, was built at Camden, New Jersey. Commissioned in November 1932, she operated in the Atlantic and Pacific during the peacetime years. During the 1930s, she hosted President Franklin D. Roosevelt on several occasions, among them a voyage to South America in November and December 1936.

Following the U.S. entry into World War II, the Indianapolis operated with carrier task forces in the southwestern Pacific until Spring 1942, when she took up station in the Alaska area. She served there for over a year, sinking a Japanese transport in February 1943. Later in 1943, Indianapolis became Fifth Fleet flagship. In that roll, into mid-1944, she took part in operations to capture the Gilberts, Marshalls, and Marianas, plus strikes on Japanese positions elsewhere in the central Pacific. She also participated in the Peleliu invasion in September 1944.

In February and March 1945, Indianapolis, again flagship of the Fifth Fleet, joined in attacks on Iwo Jima, the Japanese home islands and the Ryukyus. During the latter operation, on 31 March 1945, she was damaged by a Kamikaze plane. In late July, following repairs, Indianapolis made a high speed transit from California to Tinian to deliver atomic bomb components of "LITTLE BOY", which would be dropped on Hiroshima , the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis was torpedoed in the South Pacific by the Japanese submarine I-58 and sank quickly.

An estimated 300 men were killed upon impact; close to 900 sailors were cast into the Pacific Ocean, where they remained, undetected by the Navy, for nearly five days. Battered by a savage sea, they struggled to survive, fighting off hyperthermia, sharks, physical and mental exhaustion, and, finally, hallucinatory dementia. By the time rescue-which was purely accidental-arrived, all but 321 men had lost their lives; 4 more would die in military hospitals shortly thereafter.

The captain's subsequent and highly unusual court-martial left many questions unanswered: How did the Navy fail to realize the Indianapolis was missing? Why was the cruiser traveling unescorted in enemy waters? And perhaps most amazing of all, how did these 317 men manage to survive?


I-58, a 2140-ton "B(3) Type" submarine, was built at Yokosuka, Japan. Completed in September 1944, she was modified in 1945 to carry the "KAITEN" manned torpedo. On 30 July 1945, while operating between the Marianas and the Philippines, she encountered the U.S. heavy cruiser INDIANAPOLIS and sank her with conventional torpedoes. I-58 was surrendered at the end of World War II, and was scuttled off GOTO, Japan, on 1 April 1946.



The following is the personal opinion of the writer and presents his view of what happened in the USS Indianapolis tragedy.

The 1945 sinking of the armored cruiser USS Indianapolis by the Imperial Japanese Submarine I-58 has been called the last great Naval tragedy of World War II.

Captain Charles McVay took command of the Indianapolis in November of 1944. It was the realization of a long-cherished dream. He graduated from Annapolis with the class of 1920, and was promoted to Captain on 18 June 1942. No stranger to attacks the ship was kept in the heat of battle until crashed by a Kamikaze in the Okinawa campaign. It was repaired at the Mare Island Navy Yard and was almost completed in July of 1945. McVay received an unexpected order to be ready for sea in four days. An air of secrecy surrounded the ship and there was no shortage of rumors. McVay was told he would receive two top secret pieces of cargo. The larger one was to be stowed on the quarterdeck and continually guarded. The smaller one would be guarded by two Army officers and kept in their quarters. All McVay knew was he would deliver the two boxes as soon as possible to Tinian. Everyone was guessing exactly what the boxes contained, but secrecy was extremely tight anywhere near them. The Atomic Bomb was the best kept secret of the war. Arriving at Tinian, the ship was met by a swarm of boats carrying Admirals, Generals, with everyone asking questions. The cargo was transferred to an LCT and delivered to a top secret area on Tinian, and by morning the Indianapolis was off Guam. After loading with fuel and ammo she was off to Leyte.

McVay was advised that three subs had been reported within 200 miles of the ships plotted course. He asked for an escort but was told none was available. Her top secret mission had also left her name deleted from arrival and departure boards. Due to the enemy sub activity McVay had orders to follow a zig zag course. At some point McVay decided his ship was not in danger of the reported subs and gave the order to cease the zig zag course. This decision played a big part in the Navy decision to press charges against him. It was definitely the biggest mistake he ever made. Violation of an order so important surely would not be overlooked, especially since it put the safety of the ship and the lives of the crew in danger. Shortly after midnight on 30 July 1945 the Indianapolis was torpedoed by the Japanese Sub I-58, and sank quickly. Due to the communication problem their radio SOS was apparently not sent. Her loss went unnoticed until spotted by accident by a passing aircraft on 2 August. So the controversy began as to what really happened on that fateful night, which put 1196 men in the water with only 317 surviving. The worst nightmare of anyones dreams happened the next five days. Survivors tales of terrifying shark attacks , horror, death, and despair have all been reported through the years. The crew endured unbelievable conditions, almost too incredible to report. Another matter of concern, exactly when did McVay give the "abandon ship" order, if indeed he ever did. The time difference becomes important when the question arises as to "when" it was given. The Navy immediately took a look at his delayed performance in issuing the order. Disobeying the order to zig zag definitely placed responsibility for the total loss of his ship and death to so many of his crew.

Another point which although not illegal was disturbing to the Navy. While hundreds of men were drowning, some without life preservers, most covered with oil, many being devoured by sharks, McVay was not seen among the crew. There were desperate men killing each other, some killing themselves. Suffering from hallucinations the group one of mass hysteria. How was it possible that so many men met such a horrible death while McVay was floating safely in a life raft?

The war was over, and the big news in all the newspapers was the sinking of the warship, and most blamed the Captain for putting the ship " in harms way". But someone had to take the blame, and McVay seemed to be the likely one. The Navy saw it was obvious the public at large would never give up, so an announcement was made that Captain McVay would face a court martial. The notice appeared on the front page of most newspapers. The Navy was convinced that McVay was to blame, and announced that it would bring the enemy Sub Commander who had actually sunk the Indianapolis to Washington to testify. This was an unprecedented procedure.


The trial began in December 1945. McVay was confronted with two charges: hazarding his ships safety through failure to follow his orders to zig zag, and failing to issue timely orders to abandon ship. Commander Hashimoto, who was brought to the trial by the U.S. Navy to testify, offered testimony that the Indianapolis had disobeyed orders and was not zig zagging at the time he launched his torpedoes. Hashimoto left many questions unanswered. Did he actually fire two or three torpedoes, and were they conventional as he stated? Should we have taken his word as being factual ? The I-58 carried six Kaiten suicide pilots to control the torpedoes. The question still lingers as to what type of torpedoes were fired. After an apparent pleasant stay in the U.S. Hashimoto returned to Japan where he lived until 25 October 2000. Before his death he wrote a letter to Senator John Warner suggesting that McVay had been unjustly convicted because in his opinion he had done nothing wrong. He did not understand why the Court Martial even took place. It is difficult to understand why his opinion was ever considered.


In the end the court found Captain McVay guilty of the charge "Through Negligence Suffering A Vessel Of The Navy To Be Hazarded". Since all communications were inoperative he was not found guilty of the "Abandon Ship" command. It is still not known if or to whom the order was given.The hearings continued and charges and counter charges were filed. McVay admitted that he was 100 % responsible for the tragedy. The argument was strong that a Commander should be court martialed for a failing that results in members of his crew being injured or killed. Captain McVay was the son of an Admiral, a second generation Naval Academy graduate, and he knew very well his responsibilities. He said, "I was in command of the ship and I am responsible for it's fate."In his Court Martial he testified," I know I cannot shirk the responsibility of command." The jury gave McVay a light sentence. He did not get demoted as commonly thought he would be. He was merely set back in line for promotion. However his career was sufficiently tarnished that he felt compelled to retire in 1949, with a promotion to Rear Admiral, consistent with the practice of the day. He never stopped receiving hate mail from relatives of sailors killed in the sinking. His conviction rendered him not only legally culpable for their deaths, but a felon as well. His wife died of cancer, leaving him a lonely defeated man. He was never the same again. On 6 November 1968 he dressed in his best Navy uniform, walked onto his front porch, put the barrel of a handgun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. His service record would continue to list him as a felon.


The story finally comes to an end. When the above headlines appeared in all the newspapers there were many who felt, and still feel that an injustice had been done and that McVay was guilty and had a fair trial. Others considered that he was absolutely not guilty of anything. As the years pass I am sure that none of these people will change their mind, so his guilt or innocence will remain a matter of personal opinion. This latest newspaper article will serve as the final word on the subject, and like the entire story this article too will become an extension to the controversy.

Captain Charles Butler McVay III, who was court-martialed decades ago for failing to evade the Japanese submarine that sank the Indianapolis, committed suicide 33 years ago. His son, Kimo Eilder McVay, fought for years to clear his father's record. The younger McVay died two weeks ago.

A directive from Navy Secretary Gordon England orders a document exonerating the elder McVay to be placed in his file, Cmdr. Greg Smith. Director of the Navy's media operations in Washington, said Thursday.

"This comes as a complete surprise to all the survivors and me, though I think there was always the hope that it would happen," said Doug Stanton, who spent 18 months interviewing dozens of survivors and researching Navy documents and trial records for his book, "In Harms Way." "it's the right thing to do and should have been done."

The order follows a congressional resolution signed into law last fall by President Clinton that changes McVay's record to show he is exonerated to award the ship and crew a Navy Unit Commendation.

The Navy had refused to lift the conviction from McVay's record, saying he got a fair trial.

Survivors were grateful for the news. " I was overjoyed" Giles McCoy said Thursday. "I've been working on trying to get him exonerated since 1964. He was not guilty of anything except the misfortune of war."

The heavy cruiser sank after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in July 1945, near the close of World War II. The ship had just delivered atomic bomb parts at the island of Tinian, where the Enola Gay would later take off for its run over Hiroshima.

Only 315 of the 1,196 men aboard survived the attack and subsequent five-day ordeal adrift at sea, making for the worst sea disaster in U.S. Naval history. Many died from dehydration, drowning or shark attacks. The ships radio was knocked out and the sinking went unnoticed for four days and five nights.

McVay was convicted in February 1946 of "suffering a vessel to be hazarded through negligence," but he remained on active duty until his mandatory retirement in June 1949. He used his Navy pistol to commit suicide in November 1968 at his home in Litchfield, Conn.

Survivor Giles McCoy, 76, of Palm Coast, Florida, said he first broached the idea of an exoneration to McVay at the survivor's first reunion in Indianapolis in 1960 but the captain told him not to pursue it. McVay gave the go-ahead four years later but said he doubted the Navy would agree. He was right, the Navy never did agree. It was the Congressional Resolution that President Clinton signed into law that exonerated McVay.

More USS Indianapolis pictures here

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