September 14, 1999
A Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on S.J. Res. 26, legislation expressing the sense of Congress that Captain McVay's court martial was morally unsustainable and his conviction a miscarriage of justice, was held in Washington on Tuesday, September 14.
Those who testified in support of the resolution were young Hunter Scott, survivors Paul Murphy, Harlan Twible, and Giles McCoy, and Dan Kurzman, author of "Fatal Voyage". Navy Department officials testifying in opposition included Vice Admiral Donald Pilling, vice Chief of Naval Operations, and Rear Admiral John Hutson the Navy's Judge Advocate General.
Not to keep you in suspense, the Navy sent in their big guns, but, when the day ended, we were still afloat and the admirals looked a bit battered.
Before the hearing began Senator John Warner (R-VA) who's chairman of the Committee came down and asked to be introduced to all the survivors who were sitting together at the back of the room. They were Jim Belcher, Woodie James, Mike Kuryla, Bob McGuiggan, Paul McGinnis, Jack Miner, and Dick Paroubeck. (Needless to say, it was helpful to have Jim and Dick there, both of whom are constituents of Senator Warner's.)
Our word was that Warner, as a former Secretary of the Navy, would not be friendly. We thought he would gavel the hearing to order, make a short statement, then leave, asking Senator bob Smith (R-NH), the sponsor of S.J. Res. 26 to chair the rest of the day. Amazingly, Warner stayed for almost the whole four-hour hearing.
Our witnesses led off, and there's no question that their testimony got Warner's attention. Hunter Scott belted out his statement like a pro and snapped back several good answers to questions. Paul Murphy was to come next, but in a very generous move Senator Warner first asked him to introduce all the survivors in the back of the room as well as Captain McVay's son, Charles IV. Then Senator Warner asked them to all come forward and sit at the front.
Paul's ensuing statement was excellent, and he gave it choking with emotion at times. Harlan Twible followed, also choking with emotion at times. Harlan testified that the visibility was severely limited on that fateful night (as did all other survivor witnesses), giving the lie to the wording of the court-martial charge that the visibility was good.
Gil McCoy's statement was very good, but he really got his licks in later when Senator Warner in an unprecedented move gave our witnesses an opportunity to rebut the Navy's testimony. Dan Kurzman gave a hard-hitting and very well delivered statement, bringing up facts which he had uncovered in the research for his book.
During the hearing Representative Julia Carson (D-IN) arrived and, as a matter of Congressional couresty, was permitted to make a statement. Ms. Carson described how she had joined with other members of the House to introduce a companion (identical) joint resolution in the House of Representatives (H. J. Res. 48), then gave arguments in favor of the two resolutions with an eloquent plea for the Senate to pass S. J. Res. 26.
When the Navy witnesses were called up, they had an opportunity to conceded that a mistake had been made 54 years ago and admit that the court-martial was not justified. They did not, and things went bad to worse for Admirals Pilling and Hutson. Not only did Senator Smith begin to challenge their defense of the court-martial and conviction, but so did Senator Warner who at one point said that he'd arrived feeling one way (obviously in the Navy's favor) but was now moving in the other direction.
The admirals took a hard-line position that Captain McVay was the captain, he did not zigzag, and thus he was guilty, denying at the same time that he was court-martialed for the loss of his ship. When asked if Captain McVay would have been court-martialed on the same charge if he had failed to zigzag that night and yet the Indianapolis had not been lost, the admirals ran onto the shoals. They couldn't say yes.
Senator Smith emphasized several times that the joint resolution does not ask to remove the conviction from Captain McVay's record. It only expresses the sense of Congress, among other things, that his court-martial was morally unsustainable. When asked if willing to concede that point, Admiral Pilling said no, and Senator Smith's frustration was apparent.
Following the testimony of the Navy witnesses, Senator Warner did an extraordinary thing. He asked the pro-McVay witnesses and any of the survivors in the audience if they would like to make any statements in response, giving them, in effect, a chance for rebuttal. Perhaps the most telling points of the hearing were then made when Gil McCoy and Jack Miner spoke.
Gil described how in 1945 Captain Ryan, the Navy prosecutor at the court-martial, gave him a statement to read. Gil testified that he read it, then said to Captain Ryan, "I can't read this. It's against the skipper and it's not true." When reminded that he was only a Marine private, Gil replied, "I'm sorry, Captain, you'll just have to have another court-martial on you hands because I won't do it." Senator Warner seemed appalled at this alleged report of coercion by the Navy from a survivor who was a witness at the court-martial.
Next Jack Miner testified, that despite Navy claims that the Indianapolis sank too quickly to send out a distress signal, he had had time before the ship went down to watch the "needle jump" in the antenna meter on a transmitter in Radio Shack Two as a warrant officer tapped out a distress signal. That meant the signal had in fact been transmitted, adding weight to Hunter Scott's testimony that he had evidence the distress signal was received at more than one location but was never acted upon by responsible parties.
To analyze the hearing, there is no question that we won a major battle against somewhat formidable odds and through the heroic efforts of Senator Smith with surprising apparent support from Senator Warner. But we have not won the war. The next step will be to convince Senator Warner to bring S. J. Res. 26 to the Senate floor for a vote. Letters urging him to do so are very much in order. With his support (which should NOT yet be assumed) it would very likely pass. Then, of course, we still must get H. J. Res. 48 passed by the House. Suffice it to say that House action will be much less difficult if the Senate has already passed S. J. 26.
After having waited so long and gotten so far, it would be a shame to assume a victory we have not yet achieved. We must keep up the pressure on the Congress, both House and Senate.
Courtesy of Michael Monroney