The Saga of the USS Indianapolis

When my cousin Bob, offered me a new book on the loss of the cruiser, USS Indianapolis, I groaned at the thought of reading another account of this tragedy. This cruiser’s sinking resulted in the greatest loss of life by a US Navy ship while at sea in the history of our Republic. Only the battleship Arizona suffered a greater loss of life while moored in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. One thousand, one hundred and seventy-seven, (1,177) men died when a high-altitude bomber dropped an armor piercing naval shell fitted with fins above the ship that scored a one in a million hit. The bomb penetrated several decks before it exploded in the number two main gun turret magazine. An incredible explosion followed that literary blew the battleship apart instantaneously.


When the Indianapolis was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine, I-58 in the early morning darkness of July 29, 1945, approximately, 900 crew members of the 1,195 on board managed to escape their dying ship that sank in twelve minutes. Some found rafts or other floating material to climb aboard, but most went into the fuel saturated water with only life vests. A series of stupid, sad and, yes, negligent events bordering on being criminal allowed the ship to become invisible to naval operations on its voyage from Guam to Leyte. Survivors of the sinking spent four to five days adrift before being rescued. Exposure, depleting body temperature, lack of food and fresh water, oil and salt water poisoning, the sun, dehydration and the greatest and most feared enemy, sharks, took their toll repeatedly.


The authors quoted Robert Shaw who played the shark hunter, Captain Quinn, in the movie, Jaws:


Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes…Very first light, Chief, the sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups …And the idea was, the shark goes to the nearest man, and then he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away…Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes.  Seem to be livin’ When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then…ah, then you hear that terrible high-screech screamin’, and the ocean turns red, and in spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.


Nine hundred went into the water and only 317 came out.


Despite my hesitation to take on Lynn Vincent’s and Sara Vladic’s new book simply called, Indianapolis, I came away with praise for their thorough re-telling of the saga and updating the final vindication of Charles B. McVay III, the persecuted captain of the Indianapolis.


In one of the most blatant acts of “Cover your own ass,” Admiral of the fleet, Ernest J. King, insisted on McVay being court marshalled for failing to zig-zag during a night passage and leaving hatches open at the time of being torpedoed. Curiously, Chester Nimitz, Commander of the Pacific Fleet and McVay’s boss, disagreed.


McVay lived an agonized life after his conviction. The survivors loved him culminating when he and his wife, Louise, attended the first reunion of the crew in the cruiser’s name-sake city in 1960 where he gave a moving and heart felled speech. Still, he suffered hate filled letters from those who lost family. In 1963, eighteen years after his command was lost, McVay walked out behind his Connecticut home and ended his torment with a bullet from his revolver.


The point MS Vincent and MS Vladic make in their book is King and co. chose to protect the Navy at McVay’s expense. King’s miscarriage of justice wasn’t exonerated until July 1999 when a compilation of evidence reached Senator Bob Smith of NH. (Read the book for the details.)


It proved that McVay was set up. Long story short, the evidence was a slam dunk in McVay’s favor, but John Warner, the committee chairman and former Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan was too loyal to the Navy, so he blocked publication of the findings by his committee. Finally,  late in 1999, Warner received a letter from Mochitsura Hasimoto, commander of Submarine I-58 who sank Indianapolis.


In 1947 when the expression “optics” that describes how something will be received by the public was unknown, the Navy flew Captain Hasimoto to Washington DC to testify against Captain McVay! Not only was McVay the only captain court marshalled, much less convicted for losing his ship in World War II, the Navy had the audacity to present the enemy submarine captain as their witness.)


In a turn around that struck Warner’s soul, Hasimoto wrote:

“I have met many of your brave men who survived the sinking of the Indianapolis. I would like to join them in urging that your national legislature clear their captain’s name. Our Peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences. Perhaps it is time your people forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction.”


Warner was blown away and released the committee’s findings to the Senate floor on October 12, 2000. Both houses passed the resolution and then Secretary of the Navy, Gordan England, formally and forcefully entered a two-paragraph addendum into McVay’s record totally exonerating him.  Finally, justice was served.