A PERSPECTIVE:THE USS INDIANAPOLIS
And the Case to Clear Our Captain's Name
In World War II the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis earned ten battle stars, including one for its participation in the bombardment of Okinawa in March of 1945 during which it was struck by a kamikaze (suicide plane), resulting in 38 casualties including 12 fatalities. Captain Charles Butler McVay III, a 1920 Naval Academy graduate and career naval officer who had taken command in November of 1944, returned the ship safely to Mare Island in California for repairs.
On July 16, 1945, the Indianapolis sailed from California with a top secret cargo to Hawaii for refueling, then to Tinian where it unloaded its cargo, the uranium and major components of the atom bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay on August 6. The Indianapolis was then routed to Guam enroute to Leyte.
Hostilities in this part of the Pacific had long ceased. The Japanese surface fleet no longer existed as a threat, and 1,000 miles to the north preparations were underway for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. These conditions resulted in a relaxed state of alert at Guam on the part of those who routed the Indianapolis across the Philippine Sea. Here is the evidence:
Although naval authorities at Guam knew that on July 24, four days before the Indianapolis departed for Leyte, the destroyer escort USS Underhill had been sunk by a submarine within range of the path of the our ship, McVay was not told. Further, although a code-breaking system called ULTRA had alerted naval intelligence that a Japanese submarine (the 1-58 by name which ultimately sank the Indianapolis) was operating in our path, McVay was not told. A Navy directive limited such data only to flag officers (i. e., above Captain McVay's rank). Classified as top secret until the early 1990s, this intelligence (and the fact that it was withheld from McVay before we sailed from Guam) was not disclosed during his court-martial.
No capital ships, such as Indianapolis, were equipped with anti-submarine detection devices, and none had made the transit between Guam and Leyte during WW II without a destroyer escort. Captain McVay requested such an escort, but, unaware of the ULTRA report, the routing officer indicated that an escort was not necessary. McVay's request was denied (and by the Surface Operations Officer at Guam who was aware of the ULTRA intelligence but who later testified at McVay's court-martial that the risk of submarine attack along the Indianapolis's route "was very slight. "!)
McVay's orders were to zigzag at his discretion. Before midnight on Sunday, July 29, with visibility severely limited due to cloud cover, McVay issued orders to cease zigzagging and to be notified if there were any changes in the weather, then retired to his
cabin. At midnight with clouds breaking on the eastern horizon, the Indianapolis was silhouetted as a blur, heading almost directly toward the 1-58 to the west. Once detected, our ship was easily tracked and hit by two torpedoes, sinking in about twelve minutes but leaving time for distress signals, several of which were later said to have been received. But they were each ignored.
Shortly afterwards a message was intercepted from the 1-58, claiming that it had sunk an American battleship. Although giving no location for the sinking, the message had been sent from the general area through which the Indianapolis was routed. And that message was ignored.
About 300 of the 1,197 men aboard went down with the ship, leaving almost 900 of us floating in shark-infested waters with no lifeboats, food or water. The Indianapolis was never missed. Quite by accident four days later on Thursday, August 2, a pilot on a routine mission spotted a long oil slick, dropped down, sighted men scattered across the sea, and radioed for help. When rescue arrived, only 317 of us were still alive.
Captain McVay was among the survivors and, denied his choice of counsel, was court-martialed in the fall of 1945. Although 700 U. S. Navy ships were lost during World War II, McVay became the only captain to be court-martialed following loss of his ship in combat. The Navy flew the captain of the 1-58 to testify at McVay's court-martial in Washington, and, brushing aside the Japanese submarine commander's testimony that he would have been able to sink the Indianapolis whether it had been zigzagging or not, McVay was convicted on that charge, ruining his naval career. Although his sentence was later remitted, the guilty verdict stands to this day. Captain McVay committed suicide in 1968.
The formal charge upon which McVay was convicted for "hazarding his vessel by failing to zigzag" also contained the phrase "in good visibility." According to the eyewitness accounts of those of us who survived, the visibility was very poor that night, but none of these accounts were allowed in testimony at the court-martial and remained classified until the 1990s. Moreover, no Navy directives in force at that time recommended, much less ordered, zigzagging at night in limited visibility.
In addition, the court-martial board ignored the fact that the CINCPAC commander, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, had reported that "in not maintaining a zigzag course Captain McVay at worst was guilty only of an error in judgment and not gross negligence." The board also ignored (because unbelievably it was never brought up by McVay's defense counsel) Admiral Nimitz's conclusion that the rule requiring zigzagging would not have applied in any event since McVay's orders gave him discretion on that matter and thus took precedence over all other orders. Both Admirals Nimitz and Raymond Spruance (for whom the Indianapolis served as Fifth Fleet flagship) opposed the court-martial.
Six books have been written about this tragedy, five of which come to the conclusion that McVay's court-martial was a miscarriage of justice, based on a "super-technicality" and held only to divert attention from (1) the failure to warn him of the dangers in his path and (2) the failure to notice the ship was missing, thus accounting for the tremendous loss of life amongst those who survived the actual sinking. It thus remains the greatest sea disaster in the history of the U. S. Navy.
The real blame for this tragedy was one for which the Navy quietly issued, then rescinded, reprimands to various port officials. It was the needless death of several hundred men mere days before the war's end who survived the sinking, only to die in the sea because their ship was never missed.
For many years the Survivors Organization has been united in the effort to clear Captain McVay's name. We are convinced his conviction was unjust and remains a stain upon our ship. We urge support for legislation which (1) will clear this unwarranted blemish from both our captain's name and from the gallant ship in which we served and (2) will award a Presidential Unit Citation to the USS Indianapolis, now buried at sea with 880 of our shipmates.