The Tragic Fate of the USS Indianapolis

The Tragic Fate of the USS Indianapolis
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On July 28, 1945, Capt. Charles Butler McVay III stood on the bridge of the USS Indianapolis as it eased out of the harbor in Guam and headed east into the vast open water of the Pacific Ocean.

McVay’s ship was a 610-foot Portland class heavy cruiser weighing 9,800 tons. Along with the USS Houston, which had been sunk with great loss of life in early 1942, the Indianapolis had been one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s favorite ships. Commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1932, the Indy had been chosen as FDR’s “Ship of State”—a kind of pre-war version of Air Force One—on several important trips, including his “good neighbor” voyage to South America in 1936.

Three years earlier, following her shakedown cruise, the Indianapolis had picked up FDR at his Campobello Island summer home off the coast of Maine. The ship carried the president, himself a former secretary of the Navy, to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

In 1941, the Indianapolis was moved, along with much of the U.S. fleet, to Pearl Harbor. But the Indy was lucky. When the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, the ship had just arrived at Johnson Island, about 700 miles southwest of Hawaii, for a bombardment exercise.

When word reached the ship of the attack, all extraneous weight was burned or thrown overboard so the Indy could race back to Honolulu. Among the ballast jettisoned that day was President Roosevelt’s ornate bedroom suite.

In the next four years, the ship and its crew saw action in some of the most decisive battles in the Pacific theater. At Okinawa, she took a hit from a kamikaze pilot. Nine American sailors were killed and 26 wounded, but the ship steamed under her own power back to California for repairs. It was there, in July of 1945, that she was given her fateful last mission.

On July 12, 1945, Capt. McVay received mysterious orders. The Indianapolis was at Mare Island, about 30 miles north of San Francisco, undergoing repairs that had been expected to take months. Now, the captain was informed by his superiors that he had 96 hours to get his crew together for a top secret mission. Initially, he wasn’t even told where they were going, or why.

The “where” turned out to be the U.S. Army’s B-29 base at Tinian Island in the Marianas. This was a distance of 5,300 nautical miles, and the Indy was asked to cover it in 10 days. She was one of the fastest ships in the U.S. Navy, and under Capt. McVay’s guidance, she and the crew of 1,196 sailors and U.S. Marines made it in time.

The “why,” which the captain only learned on July 15, 1945, turned out to be the cargo loaded amid great secrecy that the Indianapolis was taking to Tinian. It included a 15-foot-long crate and two small and very heavy lead-lined containers. Painted black, the two containers were only 18 inches by 18 inches, but weighed more than 200 pounds. The crate contained a firing mechanism for a secret bomb code-named “Little Boy.” The black containers held the uranium-235 that made “Little Boy” the most devastating weapon the world had ever seen.

The combination of those components would produce a cataclysmic explosion over Hiroshima that would help bring World War II to an end. Although that event was only three weeks in the future, most of the men aboard the USS Indianapolis would not live to see it.

Part II: “We are going to Leyte.”

This week, Barack Obama returned from his goodwill trip to East Africa. The president visited two countries, Kenya and Ethiopia, in four days, returning overnight after a 16-hour flight that included a brief refueling stop in Germany.

Air Force One allows for that kind of travel. If anything, Obama was leisurely. A dozen years ago George W. Bush went on a trip that included Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia—in just six days. On the way home, after refueling in Hawaii, the president spent all of one day there before heading home.

Eight decades ago, when Franklin Roosevelt went on a goodwill tour to four South American countries, he was gone for 28 days and 27 nights. Most of those nights were spent aboard the Indianapolis.

The Indy had been away from Hawaii on exercises when the Japanese launched a sneak attack on the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and now, finally, 3½ years later, World War II was winding to its devastating and climactic end. The Indianapolis had done her part in that final drama by delivering key atomic bomb components to the B-29 base on Tinian Island.

Now, on the morning of July 29, 1945, she was leaving Guam on a course for Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. The plan was to rendezvous with the USS Idaho. It was a journey of 1,300 nautical miles on the open ocean. Capt. McVay had been informed only one day before departure that the Indy would be traveling without a destroyer escort.

A heavy cruiser, the Indianapolis was not equipped with sonar and didn’t normally carry depth charges. This was the job of the crews of the destroyers—certified submarine hunters—who would drop 55-gallon drums loaded with explosives overboard when they spotted subs. Those “ash cans,” as the sailors called them, occasionally hit a sub directly, blowing it to smithereens. More often, they’d miss the target, but the concussive effects of the explosion would disable the submarine, or even sink it. Even when they didn’t, the deterrent effect of destroyers was considerable.

At McVay’s request, Lt. Joseph Waldron, the ranking routing officer at the port in Guam, got on the phone to see when the next convoy was heading to Leyte—or whether a destroyer was around that could shadow the Indianapolis. The answer he received is that no ships were available. The Indy would have to make the trip unescorted.

The captain took this news in stride. That was his way. A Naval Academy grad and the son and namesake of a well-known admiral, McVay trusted the U.S. Navy to give him the best equipment, men, and information at its disposal. This was war, with an enemy who was not yet defeated. McVay gathered his officers together. “We are going to Leyte,” he told them, “to prepare for the invasion of Kyushu.”

Kyushu was one of the Japanese home islands. What their skipper was telling them was that the “Indy Maru,” as her crew affectionately called her, was still in the thick of the fight. This would prove to be truer than anyone aboard that ship could possibly know.

They set their course for the Philippine Sea the following morning. On July 29, 1945, they had a long, uneventful sail. They were making 17 knots through moderately choppy seas with swells that ranged from four to six feet high. The sailors did their chores and pulled their duty. When not working, they played cards, read books and magazines, talked to the ship’s chaplain, wrote letters home. The sun set very late that day, and before midnight there was a shift change.

Sailor Edgar Harrell later described his last moments aboard the Indy Maru.

“Her large engines, combined with the sound of her wake, droned a familiar lullaby,” he wrote. “Tired and homesick, and missing my little brunette back home, I wrapped my blanket around me and curled up on the steel deck hoping for a few hours of rest. After thanking the Lord for His provision and protection thus far, I asked him to watch over my loved ones back in Kentucky. Then, using the arch of my shoe for a pillow, I drifted off to sleep.”

At that very moment, a Japanese submarine captain had the USS Indianapolis in his sights. He’d first spotted it by the faint light of a quarter-moon, a mere speck on the horizon some nine miles away. But as the big U.S. Navy cruiser seemed to come toward the enemy sub, Capt. Mochitsura Hashimoto submerged his craft and watched as it grew ever-larger in his periscope. He gave the order to load torpedoes into their tubes. The Indy was an easy target.   

Part III: Abandon Ship

At a few minutes after midnight on July 30, 1945, two torpedoes slammed into the hull of the USS Indianapolis. The first struck the starboard bow just below the waterline. The second hit closer to midship -- both with devastating effect. The first one detonated the ship’s powder magazine, recently replenished at Guam. The second blew up 3,500 gallons of aviation fuel. The ship’s diesel gasoline tanks ruptured, sending oil into the decks. It ignited, too.

Power was instantly lost, leaving Capt. Charles Butler McVay III unable to communicate with the engine room. A hurried distress signal was broadcast, but it could not be followed up. Men with their clothes afire rushed above decks. Some of those left below were trapped in a fiery furnace when sailors trying to prevent the ship from sinking began sealing hatches.

There was no saving the big boat that had been one of Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite cruisers in the U.S. Navy, and which her sailors called the “Indy Maru.”

But what about her officers and crew? When the Indianapolis sank 12 minutes after being hit, one-fourth of the men aboard her were already dead or dying. This still left some 900 men alive in the water.

“Suddenly the ship was gone and it was very quiet,” Dr. Lewis Haynes, the ship’s chief medical officer, recalled later. “We started to gather together. Being in the water wasn’t an unpleasant experience except that the black fuel oil got in your nose and eyes. Soon everyone had swallowed fuel oil and gotten sick.”

The heat that day had been stifling, but the ocean, they discovered, was cold. The sea was also choppy that night, and many of the men had been dumped into the water without life jackets. The macabre task of removing life jackets from the dead and giving them to the living was begun. It was only five hours until dawn, though, and the men figured they could hang on until the Navy sent ships and planes to rescue them.

What the 900 survivors did not know was that the appalling series of miscommunications that had put them in harm’s way in the first place was about to be reprised. Incredibly, no rescuer would reach them until 11 a.m. on their fourth day in the water. By then, only 317 men were still alive. All of them had witnessed the deadly effects of heat stroke, hypothermia, thirst, starvation, salt water poisoning, and—most terrifying of all—sharks.

In the summer of 1975, 30 years after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, a summer blockbuster hit theaters. The movie had the same title as the Peter Benchley novel it was based on: “Jaws.” It’s been reprised this summer, coincidentally, during a beach season with an unusually high number of shark attacks on the East Coast.

Filmmaking has changed in the last four decades, and the absurdly large great white shark in the movie now looks less realistic. But one scene in “Jaws” is as chilling today as it was in 1975.  It comes when Quint, the salty captain played by Robert Shaw, recounts being thrown overboard from the USS Indianapolis in 1945 and contending with predatory sharks for the better part of five days.

It is not known how many of the approximately 600 sailors and U.S. Marines from the Indianapolis were eaten by sharks. Many died from drowning, exposure, thirst, or salt water poisoning. What is known is that the first rescuer on the scene, Lt. Adrian Marks, arrived in a sea plane on Thursday, Aug. 2, 1945, and saw sharks attacking the men. After his crew tossed rubber rafts and supplies to the struggling men, Marks deemed the situation so dire that he disregarded standing orders and landed his sea plane to help the wounded.

His plane was able to pick up 56 wounded men. On his way to the scene, Marks had overflown a destroyer in the area, the USS Cecil Doyle, and radioed the emergency to the ship. When the Doyle arrived many hours later, its captain shined a beacon into the darkness. It was only then that the remaining survivors, some 250 very weary men, knew they had been saved.

It almost didn’t happen at all.

Lt. Marks was on the scene because another lieutenant, Wilbur Gwinn, was flying a routine mission in his twin-engine Ventura patrol bomber. He and his crew planned to test a new antenna. Flying at 3,000 feet, the new piece of equipment came loose, and Gwinn crawled back in the plane to tighten it. It was while he was looking down at it through the tail-gunner’s window that he saw an oil slick on the ocean below him.

Crawling back to the cockpit, Gwinn took his plane down to 900 feet. The oil slick was 25 miles long, so it wasn’t new. And there were men bobbing in the waves. He didn’t think they were Japanese, but his pre-flight briefing had mentioned nothing about a missing U.S. Navy vessel. Taking his plane even lower, he counted 30 men in the water, and radioed that information to the closest base at Palau Island.

At Palau they were skeptical, telling Lt. Gwinn that no ships or planes had been reported lost. By then, however, the pilot could see that the men were Americans and that there were many more than 30. He dropped rafts and life jackets and radioed the exact position. Lt. Marks, without waiting for orders, hopped into his larger plane on Palau and took off to help.

Of the 350 types of sharks that inhabit the world's oceans, only a dozen kill and eat human beings. Among them, bull sharks, tiger sharks, and great whites -- the shark in “Jaws” -- are known to sailors, surfers, and fishermen. Most of the sharks that preyed on the crew of the Indianapolis were probably oceanic whitetips.

Two years ago, the preeminent shark experts in the world petitioned Reuters and the Associated Press to refrain from using “shark attack.” That phrase, asserted Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., creates a perception of “premeditated crimes,” rather than rare acts of nature. Such terminology, he added, leads to unnecessary fear and hatred of sharks, which he described as vital predators needed for healthy ocean ecosystems.

Perhaps so, but it took a long while for the men who served aboard the USS Indianapolis to become philosophical about sharks again -- if they ever did. One such Indy sailor, Joseph Kiselica of East Hartford, Conn., told a local reporter before he died 15 years ago that for years after being rescued he’d go deep-sea fishing with a rifle, which he used to shoot sharks. 

“One day I said to myself, ‘Joe? What the hell are you doing? You gone nuts? In the South Pacific, you were in their territory, not your own.’”

Seaman Kiselica’s revelation about sea life raises another question, however, one that the government took decades to come to terms with: Why were those Americans in the Pacific Ocean for so long -- and who was to blame?

Part IV: Scapegoat

The U.S. Navy lost several hundred ships in World War II, including five aircraft carriers and seven heavy cruisers -- among them the Indianapolis and the USS Houston, President Roosevelt’s two favorite ships. Albert Rooks, the skipper of the Houston, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Capt. Charles B. McVay III, was court-martialed—the only captain of a sunken ship accorded such treatment.

McVay was an unlikely scapegoat. Movie-star handsome and well-connected, he’d attended the U.S. Naval Academy -- as had his father, a well-regarded admiral -- and he had an exemplary record as a naval officer. The Indianapolis skipper had been awarded the Silver Star for gallantry, and two weeks before his ship was sunk he had successfully executed one of the most sensitive naval tasks of the war: speedily ferrying atomic bomb components across the Pacific.

The captain went on trial at the Washington Navy Yard on Dec. 3, 1945, on two charges. The first was failing to give an order to abandon ship. On this charge he was acquitted. The second charge centered on his failure to order the bridge to “zigzag” as a maneuver to avoid enemy torpedoes.

Legendary Adm. Chester Nimitz scoffed at the idea of court-martialing McVay on those grounds, but Nimitz was overruled by the brass, specifically Navy Secretary James Forrestal and Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King. Looking back on it, the trial results seem pre-ordained: McVay was only informed of the specific charges against him a few days before the trial, he was denied his choice of attorney, and the lawyer handpicked for him—apparently by Adm. King—had no trial experience.

Even then, the evidence didn’t support a conviction. A highly decorated U.S. submarine captain testified that he could easily sink a zigzagging ship. Mochitura Hashimoto, the Japanese submariner who did sink the Indianapolis, was brought to Washington and gave similar testimony. Moreover, Capt. Hashimoto revealed that he had kept torpedoes—sea-going kamikazes called “Kaiten”—at the ready.

In other words, when the Japanese submarine came across the unescorted Indianapolis, the ship’s fate was essentially sealed. McVay was convicted on the zigzagging count anyway. The court sentenced him to a reduction in rank, essentially ending his Navy career.

The following year, after becoming chief of naval operations, Adm. Nimitz countermanded this result by setting aside the sentence and promoting McVay to rear admiral upon his retirement.

But why was his career ruined at all? One explanation is that the officers who engineered the court-martial -- some of whom testified at the trial -- were covering up their own mistakes. McVay had asked for, and been denied, a destroyer escort. He had also been told by other officers that there was a low probability of running into a Japanese submarine. Actually, the Navy knew an enemy sub was lurking in the area because the Americans had broken the Japanese code. But this was a closely held secret. Too closely, for the good of the Indianapolis and its crew.

Moreover, the Indy’s entire mission had been so top secret that normal protocols do not seem to have been followed. There were breakdowns after she was torpedoed, too. The Indy had managed to send out one distress signal before it sank, but this SOS had been inexplicably ignored by three other U.S. vessels. In other words, there was plenty of basis for pointing fingers of blame, just not at Capt. McVay.

A common suspicion among the ship’s survivors is that their skipper’s court-martial was an exercise in public relations-type damage control. For one thing, the Navy didn’t even announce the sinking of the ship for two weeks, and did so the day Japan surrendered.

Every Christmas from 1945 until the end of his life, Charles McVay would receive vicious hate mail from a small group of relatives of men who hadn’t survived the Indy’s sinking. They subscribed to the mythology that a captain who doesn’t go down with his ship is somehow a coward. As William J. Toti, the captain of a U.S. submarine named after the Indianapolis later noted, a skipper who goes down with his ship after he’s done all he can do to secure it or help others is committing suicide, not following protocol.

But old mythologies die hard, even among those who should know better. Even years later, a Navy report on the incident noted that McVay’s account of being swept overboard that night was uncorroborated.

“The implication here,” Toti wrote, “is that it was McVay’s duty to go down with his ship, a notion that is steeped in folklore but has no foundation in regulation or naval tradition.”

But if a handful of relatives of sailors who perished were bitter, the survivors themselves were not. The problem, however, was that for years, they couldn’t talk about what they’d been through, even to their families. This began to change in 1958 with the publication of a book called “Abandon Ship!”

Then men of the USS Indianapolis began talking about what they’d been through; a reunion was organized in 1960. McVay’s second wife, Louise, urged him to go. McVay showed up and was asked to speak. He told the surviving crewmen he would always consider himself “Captain McVay of the Indianapolis.”

One of his former crewmen, Joe Kiselica, approached him. “Skipper,” he said, “if the war had continued, all of us would have been proud to serve under you again. Not one of us ever blamed you for a second.”

It was the last reunion McVay attended. Eight years later, he dressed in his Navy uniform, clutched the tiny toy sailor he always carried for good luck—and had carried the night his ship went down—and took his own life with his sidearm.

The men of the Indianapolis never stopped trying to clear their captain’s name, even after he died. Eventually, they succeeded, but that is another story. This summer, 14 of the remaining 31 survivors held their reunion again. Soon they will all be gone, but not yet. Another reunion is planned for next summer.

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