by Kent Ballard
Slowly pulling into a darkened San Francisco Navy Yard on a sweltering night in July, 1945, the deck crew of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis noticed something odd about the scene before them. Their dock looked unusually quiet. In fact, it appeared deserted. There was none of the usual hustle and around-the-clock work in sight. Two trucks pulled up alongside the cruiser. From one, a heavy crate was hoisted aboard and immediately secured in the ship's port hanger.
Crewmen saw several men get out of the other truck. From its rear, they withdrew a three foot square, four foot long metal canister that was carried up the gangplank by Army officers. Officers? Lugging cargo? What's going on here?
The USS Indianapolis had seen more combat in World War II than most ships, and had served as the flagship for the Fifth Fleet under Admiral Raymond Spruance. She'd fought the Imperial Japanese from the Aleutian Islands to Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and all across the Pacific. She was not a ship bound for glory, she was already covered in it, having been awarded ten combat stars for her valorous duty in the war. But she was about to embark on a mission unlike any other, for the few crewmen who could see what was taking place noted that canister which had been carried aboard the ship by Army officers was now being welded to the deck in Admiral Spruance's personal quarters. Not tied. Not strapped. Welded to the deck floor. In the Admiral's cabin, no less.
Captain Charles Butler McVay, in command of the Indianapolis, held a brief meeting with his senior officers. Truthfully, he told them even he didn't know what their cargo was, but they were going to be sailing at full speed. He had been notified, in no uncertain terms, that every day they could take off their voyage would shorten the war by a day. He also told them in the event of any emergency that canister was to go into a lifeboat before any crewman. He'd been ordered to tell them that. They were to get underway immediately. The Indianapolis slipped away from the San Francisco Navy Yard on July 16th and began steaming west into the Pacific Ocean.
They quickly refueled at Pearl Harbor, then set course for a bulldozed lump of coral atoll known as Tinian, setting a speed record from Pearl to the huge B-29 base on that island, the Indianapolis' engines thundering flawlessly all the way.
There was the usual shipboard scuttlebutt, rumors about this and that, but the fact remained no one aboard knew what they were carrying—or why. And they got no answers from the Army officers who boarded her in Tinian and removed the canister and the large crate, put them back in trucks, and drove away towards a secure area of the base.
Captain McVay himself was not even told. Instead, he received his new orders: report to Guam. As they pulled away from the Army Air Force Base on Tinian, not a single man aboard the Indianapolis realized they had just delivered the first atomic bomb, “Little Boy” to the airfield from which it would be released over the city of Hiroshima.
At Guam the USS Indianapolis was ordered to Leyte in the Philippines for two weeks of training, after which they would join Task Force 95 at Okinawa which was already preparing for the planned November 1st invasion of Kyushu. While in the meeting with his superiors on Guam, Capt. McVay had a few questions, received his orders, and much of what was said at that point would remain unknown to the U.S. public for almost the next half-century.
McVay was given orders to “zigzag at his discretion” enroute to Leyte. The Imperial Japanese Navy had been practically wiped out as a surface force, but there were still enemy submarines to consider. Although his course was considered a “rear area” and sailing unescorted had become commonplace in that part of the Pacific, the mighty Indianapolis was an older ship and lacked the newer, sophisticated submarine detection gear many of the younger ships in the fleet carried. Zigzagging was believed to be the best deterrent to a submarine's torpedo attack. Even if spotted by a lurking submarine, the ship's abrupt changes in course would make it harder to set up a successful shot.
On the night of Sunday, July 29th , 1945, a heavy cloud cover set in. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, late at night with no moon or stars above, visibility soon became terrible. Crewmen on watch that evening later testified they could not recognize each other from even a few feet away. It seemed an unlikely night to be seen through a tiny periscope. Using his discretion—and decades of wartime combat experience—Captain McVay gave the orders for straight-sailing to make the best possible time to Leyte.
Japanese Submarine I-58 - the sub that torpedoed the Indianapolis
Cruising on the surface roughly a mile away, Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese submarine I-58, was scanning the ocean's surface. He thought he saw something, then it was gone. Then he got another glimpse. A huge warship, and certainly not a Japanese one. He'd found—he thought—a lone American battleship. He dove to periscope depth and maneuvered his sub for an attack. At fourteen minutes after midnight, on July 30th, and from 1,500 yards the I-58 fired a fan-shaped salvo of six deadly “Long Lance” torpedoes into the dark object. Looking anxiously through his periscope, Hashimoto counted three hits. Many Indianapolis crewmen said they were hit only twice, but a rapid series of secondary explosions inside the ship may have clouded this forever. The first torpedo literally tore the bow off the Indianapolis. The second took out all electrical power, detonating between a powder magazine and an aviation fuel tank. Both exploded immediately. The doomed ship was broken open to the sea amidships on the starboard side all the way down to the keel, her engines still turning at seventeen knots, about 20 miles per hour. It began listing and going down by the bow even before the thunder of the explosions died away. The Japanese submarine crew later reported hearing more explosions, each louder than the original torpedo hits. The dying Indianapolis was tearing itself apart.
Torpedo Room of the Submarine I-58
The crew of the Indianapolis numbered 1,196 men. No order was given to abandon ship, save for that passed by word of mouth. None was possible anyway without electrical power, and none was needed. Those who survived the attack knew the ship was going down, and fast. Some grabbed their lifejackets and lowered themselves with ropes to the waterline, only to find themselves being dragged and tangled by the forward motion of the ship, her engines still shoving the vessel forward. Others donned their kapok-filled lifejackets and simply jumped where the sinking ship had lowered the distance from the deck to the ocean and began swimming away like mad. Many went overboard with no lifejackets at all. Only a few life rafts were deployed. There was simply not enough time. As the ship sank lower men began to jump off the fantail. Those in the water saw several caught and mangled by the number three screw which was still turning.
Those already afloat and still living found themselves in a sea of fuel oil, blinding some, causing others to retch uncontrollably. Men continued to jump until she went under, and survivors swore they could still hear screaming from inside the hull as the ship finally went down, just twelve minutes after the first torpedo struck. The USS Indianapolis was gone. Left in her wake for over a mile were burned, injured, dazed, and drowning men.
Celebrating their great victory, the I-58 slipped away into the night, silent and unseen.
No one is certain how many men made it off the Indianapolis alive. Some sources say 850, others claim as many as 900. At least 300 Americans never left the ship. And the rest were just beginning their journey into hell, what is still on several “worst-of” lists: the worst disaster in the annals of the U.S. Navy being one of them, and darker still—the worst mass shark attack in known human history. For the dark waters beneath the thrashing men were teeming with hungry man eaters, and given the explosions, the grinding, the now-constant slapping in the water, and blood leaking from scores of wounds, untold numbers more would be drawn to the scene.
In the first pre-dawn light, the officers and men saw they'd been scattered widely by the ship's motion as they abandoned her. Some were in large groups, others were single, or maybe with just one or two shipmates. Over fifty badly injured men died before sunrise. By morning the ocean current had pulled the swimmers one way and blown those few lucky enough to find rafts in another, soon they were hopelessly separated, beyond shouting or listening, beyond even the horizon. One small group said the first shark victim was taken under exactly at sunrise. Other groups were unmolested until the afternoon of the first day. Most of the men spent their first morning vomiting fuel oil and warning each other in clearer areas of the ocean not to drink the seawater, no matter how thirsty they got. The Pacific sun beat on them unmercifully, and eventually even those groups of floating survivors who had not yet experienced a shark attack began to hear screaming from other groups bobbing some distance away. Many knew that their kapok-filled lifejackets would eventually become waterlogged and worse than useless, but surely—they believed—they'd be rescued before that came to pass.
There were attempts at organization. And heroism. Groups with officers or chiefs in them had men without lifejackets weave their arms under the jackets of men on either side of them. Scraps of clothing were torn off and used to bandage some of the worst-burned or injured men. But by nightfall and the coming of a cold wind, the screams continued around them incessantly.
The second day bought more scorching sun, far greater thirst, and bolder shark attacks. Some sharks would simply dart straight up out of the unseen depths and take a leg, or a whole man, and vanish before that particular group was even aware of them. Others would surface in packs and slowly circle a group of men screaming and slapping at the water to drive them off. It didn't work. Now and then, one or more would glide over and grab a man by the arm, leg, or torso and take him away. Sometimes underwater, sometimes eating him on the surface in plain view of his helpless shipmates. Some of the men took mouthfuls of seawater to wet their throats, rinsed, and spat it out. A few took small drinks against orders and common sense. They were becoming desperately thirsty now.
In many groups, some men tried to take short naps while their buddies watched for sharks. They took turns at this. But for the men floating alone, there was no one to watch over them. The second night in the water came, and after eons, ended. By the third day, some of the men began to hallucinate. There were nonsensical arguments, fist-fights, even sailors attacking each other with knives. Still the sharks picked them off at leisure. They were floating lower in the water now, their heads barely above it. The kapok in their lifejackets was soaking up the seawater, the salt-encrusted straps that held the men in them cut burning and furiously itching welts across their sunburned skin. Some looked as if they'd been horsewhipped. Several noted with half-hysterical humor that at least the sharks were eating the dead too. And when a man died, his lifejacket was immediately untied and given to a man who had none. Then he was pushed out of the group to sink slowly as his lungs filled, or to disappear in a huge splash and the flash of a fin.
By heroic effort, some of the smaller groups had managed to join together. The largest was somewhere over three hundred men. Together, they supported the weakest and wounded, moving them towards the center. But even they were losing their grip on humanity. More men were drinking seawater, more were hallucinating, claiming the ship never really sank. “Look! It's right there! Let's go back aboard!” At times a man would begin swimming towards the imaginary ship, often followed by several others. Occasionally a shark would take one who was certain salvation was just yards away. There seemed no limit to their horror. Some no longer responded when spoken to. Madly fixated on their thirst and sunburns, half-blinded, some went hysterical and stayed that way. Later one survivor clearly recalled counting twenty-five fatal shark attacks in his group alone. Others recorded more—up to eighty-eight in another group. At times men would shake a sleeping buddy, only to have him upend in the water, his legs and torso missing.
And the screaming. It never stopped. Scream after scream. All day. All night. All the next day.
Those who drank their fill of seawater became mad and convulsive, then went comatose and died. Men saw islands and began swimming towards them. Others swore they saw more ships nearby and aircraft overhead. Some went totally mad and began tearing off the lifejackets that were tormenting them so badly. They were mostly treading water now, the majority of their kapok jackets sogged beyond use. This made them weaker and burned desperately-needed energy. They had reached the limit of human endurance. It was just a matter of a few hours now. They had been in the water four and a half days. Hundreds had died already, and more were dying by the minute.
Above them, just a few miles away, a Navy lieutenant pilot was trying to untangle the trailing radio antenna from his PV-1 Ventura, a small twin-engined Navy patrol plane. The Ventura was equipped with a window that gave a good view aft and down—it had originally been designed for a gunner's position. Looking down, the lieutenant saw a few men in the water. Then more. Then vast numbers of them. He dashed back up to the controls, took over from his copilot, and wheeled the plane around in a circle, dropping low over the ocean. His crew found themselves flying over hundreds of men in the water, some in groups, some alone, several apparently fighting sharks.
Indianapolis survivors being taken on board. Safe ast last!
They made several low passes over the survivors, waggling their wings to signal the men had been sighted. Hoarse cheers went up and hundreds of hands and arms waved at them. The Ventura's radio operator began sending the first SOS, giving their position and calling for any and all help to rush to the scene. While he did that, the rest of the crew opened a hatch and dropped a life raft, rations, cans of water, even their own life jackets to the howling men below.
A Navy PBY Catalina seaplane heard the Ventura's call and reported it was enroute. While flying to the scene, it flew over the Navy destroyer USS Cecil Doyle. The captain of that ship, after getting the relayed radio report from the PBY, on his own authority, diverted to the area. The greatest rescue mission in U.S. Navy history began—four days late.
The PBY arrived hours before the Doyle. That crew also saw men fighting sharks. Disobeying wartime orders, the pilot landed near a small group and slowly taxied his plane across the water, his crew dragging in single men and small bands, assuming they were at the greatest risk from the sharks. Soon the fuselage was full and they began tying naked and delirious men to the wings of the aircraft with parachute cord while others in the water grabbed at the floats and clambered aboard them, often with sharks circling just feet away. Under normal operating conditions a PBY held a crew of eight. Soon the PBY had their full crew—plus fifty-six other men aboard. So much weight bent and damaged the aircraft so badly it never flew again and it had to be sunk by gunfire. Although in danger of sinking itself, the radio operator stayed on the air with his more powerful wireless and kept calling for more help. He also gave the first identification of the people they'd found. They were from the missing Indianapolis. They were all that was left. More Navy aircraft began flying over the rescue area, dropping rafts, water, and survival gear.
The destroyer Doyle didn't arrive until after nightfall, using radio location gear to home in on the PBY's signals. Breaking strict regulations, the captain ordered his spotlights turned on and pointed straight up as a signal to other approaching rescue ships, then called for “all stop” on his engines to prevent running over men in the water. Lifeboats were launched and began picking up half-dead sailors, and through the night and next morning more Navy ships arrived to finish the work while aircraft circled the area looking for stragglers. Seven Navy ships eventually took part in the rescue, along with a great number of aircraft. The search was finally called off on August 8th.
As many as 900 men successfully got off the torpedoed Indianapolis. Rescuers pulled 321 from the water alive. Five of them died later from the ordeal. 316 ultimately survived—a loss of 880 souls from the ship's total compliment. It remains the greatest single loss of life from a single ship in U.S. Navy history.
The different ships began taking men to various island hospitals to save overloading the facilities of just one or two. Amazingly, among the survivors was Captain Charles McVay, one of the last men off the Indianapolis.
A tragic story indeed. But it wasn't over yet. The Navy quickly realized these men would begin talking, talking to fellow sailors, writing home to loved ones, and with the war almost over they'd be returned to civilian life where the Navy no longer had any control over whom they spoke with or what they said. People would start asking questions and demanding answers. And the Navy had few good ones, because a quick followup investigation indicated hideous mistakes had been made. Also, word of the disaster spread like wildfire throughout the Navy, and many a sailor wondered if the same fate could befall him. Somebody would have to take responsibility for this disaster, and an enraged public would demand heads to roll. Something had to be done—and quickly.
|Survivors on board the USS Bassett
It would not only be grossly inaccurate, it would be outrageously unfair to blame the entire Navy for what happened next. But several officers involved with the affair had made unforgivable mistakes, and several others simply hadn't performed their duty. Others were guilty of simple wartime SNAFUs. And to cover themselves, to draw attention away from their moments of terrible fault, it was decided to make Captain Charles McVay the scapegoat for the entire disaster. This is a matter of public record, as we shall discover. There are those who say the events that followed remain a black stain on the shining record of the U.S. Navy. That's not true. But it's a black mark against certain officers that can never be erased.
News of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis was withheld from the public until August 15th, the day President Truman announced the Japanese surrender and the long-awaited end of World War II. The information about the sinking was swallowed up in the delirium of joy and celebration by the U.S. public. But that wouldn't last forever, and the die had been cast against an unwitting—and innocent—Captain McVay.
McVay was summoned to a hastily-gathered court of inquiry at Guam, where the real seeds of the Indianapolis disaster had been sown. An astonishing amount of information which should have ended the proceedings then and there were not brought forth. Some was still classified, and worse, some men simply lied. No one dared have the finger of blame pointed towards them. The court of inquiry recommended that Capt. McVay be court-martialed on the vague charges of inefficiency in the performance of his duties and negligent endangerment of the lives of others. He was ordered to report to the Washington Navy Yard just days before the court-martial was to begin. His first choice of defense counsel was turned down and he was assigned a rookie Navy attorney with no prior trial experience. His request for a delay in order to prepare his defense was denied. They were already stacking the deck against him.
Captain McVay, made the scapegoat. He was later completely exonerated. He was not at fault.
Incredibly, during the already emotionally charged court-martial, the prosecution brought in an astonishing witness—Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, the former commander of the I-58 which had torpedoed McVay's ship and who had survived the war. Speaking in Japanese through interpreters, Hashimoto was asked to recall the events of that terrible night. Surprisingly, he testified that even if the Indianapolis had been zigzagging it would have made no difference. The I-58's position relative to the U.S. cruiser would have given him the capability of fatal shots either way.
Unknown to most, Hashimoto could speak a little English. Many years later, he told a Japanese reporter that he had the feeling the outcome of the court-martial had been decided in advance. He also noted that, “I could see at the time I testified the translator did not tell fully what I said. I mean it was not because of the capacity of the translator, I would say the Navy side did not accept some testimony that was inconvenient to them.” The elderly man—who had become a Shinto priest after the war—paused for a moment, then added, “I was then an officer of the beaten country, you know, and alone, how could I complain strong enough?”
Not satisfied with this the prosecutors then swore in a highly decorated U.S. Navy submarine commander and asked his opinion. He flatly told them the same thing: given the same set of circumstances, he too could have sunk the Indianapolis with no problem. Zigzagging would have made no difference. During all this, McVay's defense counsel remained silent on the fact that the Captain had zigzagged until the dark night sat in, and there were no Navy directives in force, then or now, that recommended or ordered zigzagging at night in poor visibility. And the order stating “at his discretion” was seemingly never mentioned during the proceedings.
Some facts that could have cleared McVay immediately were classified. One of these was the still-secret information that we had broken the Japanese Naval code and could read their messages. Officers who had read some of those messages knew that not one, but two Japanese submarines were patrolling the waters the Indianapolis had to sail through. When Captain McVay was given his orders to sail to Leyte in Guam, it was known then. It was also known that a U. S. destroyer escort, the USS Underhill, had been torpedoed and sunk in the area not long before the Indianapolis' departure. The Captain was told none of this before departing for Leyte. Nor was it disclosed that Captain McVay had requested a destroyer escort, and was denied it.
Not everyone present at the court-martial was dead-set against McVay's chances at a fair hearing, but enough were that it tipped the scales. The worst of these were the men who knew the truth but were in some way responsible themselves for the disaster. The greatest tragedy of all is that some of these men gave misleading or false statements to the court-martial—in other words, they simply lied to hide their culpability. This has been proven and documented before Congress itself after the declassification of formerly secret documents in the 1990's.
Captain Charles Butler McVay was found guilty of hazarding his ship by failure to zigzag, forever humiliating him and wrecking his career.
Remembering . . . the USS Indianapolis
But Fleet Admiral Nimitz himself restored McVay to active service and remitted his sentence, although the dastardly conviction remained on his official record. McVay served honorably until his retirement in 1949. His surviving crewmen formed an association and fought to clear his name for years. But many of the families of the dead could find no forgiveness, nor any fault with the findings of the court-martial and continued to blame McVay for the loss of their loved ones. He carried the guilt that was falsely laid on him until 1968, when he committed suicide with his Navy-issued revolver. Found in his free hand was the tiny toy figurine of a sailor.
The organization of USS Indianapolis survivors and their families, known as “The Second Watch,” valiantly carried on through the years, trying to undo the wrong and clear their Captain's name. One of their prayers was answered by a very unlikely source. An eleven year old boy in Pensacola. Florida, Hunter Scott, saw the movie “Jaws” and was mesmerized by the tale told about the fate of the Indianapolis. This led the youth to begin researching the story (which later became an award-winning school report) by interviewing survivors, making contact with “The Second Watch,” and together they began combing recently declassified Naval documents. What they found shocked and angered all. Young Hunter Scott contacted his Congressman and the press.
The drumbeat for justice grew louder as more of the press and additional members of Congress took interest in McVay's conviction. From the declassified documents it was clear that McVay had been railroaded. These were passed with increasing publicity through the halls of Congress and overseas it led that Japanese journalist to interview former Lt. Commander—now priest—Mochitsura Hashimoto. The elderly Shinto priest, living in Kyoto in 1999, anxiously took up the cause himself, writing a brief but impassioned letter to Senator John Warner, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, asking for mercy on his old wartime enemy.
When the House and Senate resolutions were merged, a bill was passed in October the following year. President Bill Clinton signed it on October 30th, 2000. This gave clear, undisputed, and documented proof that both the Executive branch and the Legislative branch of the U.S. Government held Captain McVay innocent of any wrongdoing throughout his exemplary military career.
Kent Ballard, A Master Storyteller and Wordsmith
But ... his conviction in the court-martial still stands to this day. Amazingly, no finding of any U.S. military court-martial has ever been overturned. There is simply no process, precedent, or even a procedure for doing so.
But now the world knows. Capt. Charles McVay was an honorable man, and carried out his duties in the best traditions of the expectations of his countrymen and the U.S. Navy. He was a highly capable commanding officer, a good and honorable man. And his crew? Heroes all, without exception. We should be proud of them all.
About the Author: Kent Ballard is a masterful writer who lives near Brazil, Indiana. While he made his living as a Journeyman Machinist for many years, he also fascinated a small group of writer friends with his tales of history, adventure, and of the military.
There will be more adventure stories from Kent Ballard. He has two assignments he’s working on presently. We can’t wait to read them . . . and we know you’ll enjoy his work as much as we do.
He lives on a large, wooded estate with his beautiful wife, Tess, a pack of dogs, a fishing pond, and trees. Lots of trees.
A prolific writer, you’ll be reading much more of Mr. Ballard. Soon. It’s guaranteed he’ll bring out your emotions. Enjoy!