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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Real Tragedies of the USS Indianapolis

By Tom Morrow

Among the many tragic stories of World War II, the sinking of the USS Indianapolis resulted in a miscarriage of justice that sent its skipper to his doom.

Capt. Charles B. McVay III was the commanding officer of the heavy cruisier USS Indianapolis (CA-35) when it was lost in July 1945, after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, I-58.

The Indianapolis departed Tinian after delivering the two atomic weapons to the U.S. Army Air Corps destined for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ship’s mission was top secret and had no escort destroyers protecting it. Because of the secrecy, none of the surrounding fleet knew of the ship’s mission or whereabouts even after delivering its cargo. As the ship was going down, SOS calls for help went unheeded because ships in the area thought the signals might be a Japanese trap trying to lure U.S. ships.

The submarine attack on the Indianapolis resulted in a massive loss of life. More than 300 of the ship’s 1,100-man crew were lost, primarily to sharks as well as wounds sustained in the torpedo attack. It took five days before a Navy scout plane finally spotted the survivors.

While the surviving crew was lauded as heroes, the Navy, not wanting to admit to the tragic mistake of not protecting one of its capital ships, decided someone had to take the blame. Of all the captains in the history of the United States Navy, McVay is the only one court-martial for losing a ship sunk by an act of war. The fact he was on a top-secret mission maintaining radio silence fell on deaf ears in Washington. Even Japanese Commander Mochitsura HashimotoI, who sunk the Indianapolis, testified in McVay’s behalf. He told the court there was no way the American skipper could have avoided the attack.

The surviving Indianapolis crew members knew their captain was being sacrificed. Nonetheless, for years the captain was deluged with hate mail and harassing phone calls from family members of those lost at sea.

McVay’s record up until the sinking was superb. He guided the Indianapolis through the invasion of Iwo Jima, then the bombardment of Okinawa in the spring of 1945.

For years the Navy claimed the Indianapolis’ SOS messages were never received because the ship was operating under a policy of radio silence. However, declassified records now show that three SOS messages were received separately, but none were acted upon because one the officers thought it was a Japanese ruse, another had given orders not to be disturbed, and a third was drunk.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, issued McVay a letter of reprimand to McVay for not using the “zig-zag” maneuver. However, in Washington, D.C., Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King overturned Nimitz’s decision and recommended a court-martial.

In his book Abandon Ship, author Richard F. Newcomb suggests one possible motive for Admiral King’s ordering McVay’s court-martial. According to Captain McVay’s father, Admiral Charles B McVay Jr: “‘King never forgot a grudge,” he replied in anger. King had been a junior officer under the old man’s command when King and other junior officers sneaked some women aboard a ship. Admiral McVay had letter of reprimand placed in King’s record. “Now,” he raged to his son, “King’s used you to get back at me.'”

American submarine experts testified that “zigzagging” was a technique of negligible value in eluding enemy submarines. Sub Commander Hashimoto also testified in agreement. Despite that testimony, the official ruling was that visibility was good, and the court held McVay responsible for failing to zigzag.

On Nov. 6, 1968, Captain McVay committed suicide by shooting himself at his Litchfield, Conn., home. USS Indianapolis survivors organized, and many spent years attempting to clear their skipper’s name. Ironically, more than 50 years after the incident, a 12-year-old Pensacola, Fla., student, Hunter Scott, was instrumental in raising awareness of the miscarriage of justice carried out at the captain’s court-martial. As part of a school project for the National History Day program, the young man interviewed nearly 150 survivors of the Indianapolis sinking and reviewed 800 documents. His testimony before Congress brought national attention to the McVay case.

In October 2000, the United States Congress passed a resolution that McVay’s record should reflect that “he is exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis.” President Clinton also signed the resolution. Commander Hashimoto died Oct. 25, five days before McVay’s exoneration.

In July 2001, Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England ordered McVay’s official Navy record purged of all wrong-doing.


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