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Five days in 1945: Saga of the USS indianapolis

Writer

Bill Ward lives in Rowan County.

Bill Ward is a disabled Navy Veteran, a writer and historian living in Salisbury, NC. Contact him at wardwriters@carolina.rr.com

Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep,
 
Its own appointed limits keep.
Oh hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

 — The Navy Hymn by William Whiting,

Winchester, England, 1860

By: Bill Ward

Special to the Salisbury Post

On August 14, 1945, I was visiting my grandparents’ home in Greenville, SC. It was mid-afternoon when church bells began ringing and car horns were blowing everywhere. My grandmother turned on her radio to find out what was going on. A breathless announcer was saying, “We have just received this bulletin….”

The Empire of Japan had announced its intention to surrender. World War II, the war in the Pacific, was over. (The official date we commemorate Japan’s surrender is September 2, when surrender documents were signed on the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay.) Everyone was ecstatic. The boys—our friends and relatives—would be coming home from war. Little did we know that barely two weeks earlier, the greatest disaster in United States Naval History had struck—the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis CA-35.

Some 14 years later in August 1959, as a Navy Hospital Corpsman, I had finished work for the day, had chow and walked up to the bow of my ship, the U.S.S. Frontier, (AD-25). A destroyer-tender, the Frontier was the flagship for COMCRUDESPAC (Commander of Cruiser and Destroyer Forces Pacific). I lit my pipe and enjoyed the rush of cool air across the bow as we headed for Subic Bay, Philippines. Steaming under emergency orders, I knew that a battle drill could be called at any time. We had been running drills around the clock since we left Pearl Harbor.

At least we got to help Hawaii celebrate becoming the 50th State. I felt privileged to have stood and saluted the U.S.S. Arizona, as the Frontier rendered ceremonial honors. All Navy ships observe military courtesy when entering and leaving Pearl Harbor, where the Arizona, with most of her crew still aboard, lies at the bottom of the channel.

Now, looking out over the ocean, I see nothing but infinite sea. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like 16 or18 years ago, when heroes were made on these very waters. Somewhere ahead lies Guam, although we would never see the island. And 100 miles north of Guam was Tinian, which had figured heavily in the Indianapolis’ fate. Someplace slightly ahead of us was another island we wouldn’t see, Wake Island, “the island this side of tomorrow.” When we crossed the International Date Line while most of the ship’s company was sacked out tonight, then we hit the deck for reveille tomorrow morning, it would still be today. 

Preparing for launch

The U.S.S. Indianapolis’ keel was laid on 31 March 1930, by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation of Camden, New Jersey. When she was launched on 7 November 1931, Lucy Taggart, daughter of Senator Thomas Taggart and former Mayor of Indianapolis, broke a bottle of Champaign over her bow. A Navy band played “Anchors Away.”

The Navy accepted the Indianapolis following her final fitting-out, and she was commissioned on 15 November 1932 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Rear Admiral Lucius Bostwick, USN, Commandant, Fourth Naval District, read orders placing the ship in commission. As a commissioning gift, the State of Indiana presented the Indianapolis with the silver service from the battleship Indiana. The punch bowl from this service showed the mark of a Spanish shell fragment that hit the old Indiana during the Battle of Santiago in 1898.

From her beginning, the U.S.S. Indianapolis was the pride of the Navy. A little more than 610 feet long and 66 feet wide at the beam, the Indy was equipped with the latest technology of the day. Her design flank-speed was 32 knots (36.8 MPH). Power to drive the ship originated from eight White-Forster boilers located amidships, driving four Parsons geared-turbines that produced 107,000 HP delivered through four huge screws (Navy slang for propellers).

Armament included nine 8-inch guns in three turrets; four 5-inch guns; twenty-four 40mm anti-aircraft guns; and thirty-two 20mm guns installed during several overhauls and refits done during the war. The only place the Indianapolis was shorted, unlike the battleships, was in armor plating. The U.S. entered into a treaty after World War I that limited new warship’s displacement to 10,000 tons. To reduce weight, the Indianapolis’ armor was just inches thin, covering only her vital machinery spaces. But although she was more vulnerable, she also was capable of greater speed.

A ship of state

The new U.S.S. Indianapolis’ first Commanding Officer was Captain John M. Smeallie, USN. After commissioning, Captain Smeallie started her shakedown cruise, course set for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

She left Guantanamo Bay on 23 February 1932, escorted by the U.S.S. Babbitt, (DD-128), for the Panama Canal. After steaming and training in a circuitous route, the Indy returned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for post-shakedown repairs and modifications.

The Indianapolis steamed to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and on to Eastport and Bar Harbor, Maine to pick up President Franklin Roosevelt from his Campobello Island summer home. The Indy took the President to the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. After dignitaries were entertained on board, the ship returned to Philadelphia.
In September 1933, SECNAV (Secretary of the Navy) Claude A. Swanson, left on the Indianapolis for an inspection tour of Pacific bases. He visited the Canal Zone, Hawaii, and the fleet at San Pedro and San Diego, California. In November, the Indianapolis became Flagship of Scouting Force, U.S. Fleet, a position she would maintain throughout most of her peacetime service.

Following a period of maneuvers off the West Coast, the Indianapolis again headed for the Atlantic from Long Beach, CA. Arriving in New York, she took aboard President Roosevelt and other dignitaries for a Presidential Review of the U.S. Fleet in the Hudson River. She returned to Long Beach in November. Then, in June of 1936, she put in at the New York Navy Yard for a scheduled overhaul.
The highlight of the Indianapolis’ peacetime career was the Presidential cruise to South America when, in November, she picked up President Roosevelt at Charleston, SC, for a Good Neighbor Cruise to South America, including the Pan American Conference in Buenos Aires. This was the first time in history that a sitting President of the United States had visited outside of North America.

Ports of call also were made at Trinidad; Rio de Janeiro; and Montevideo, Uruguay. It was on this cruise that another historic event took place. It was the third crossing of the equator for the Indianapolis. Father Neptune visited the ship to initiate neophyte pollywogs (first-timers crossing the equator) into hardened shell-backs. Those lucky crewmen received their shell-back certificates signed by the President of The United States. The cruise ended when Roosevelt departed the ship at Charleston, SC, in 1937.

Roosevelt chose the U.S.S. Indianapolis as his “Ship of State,” using her as his personal transport for transatlantic and South American travel on several occasions. An ornate bedroom suite with a large four-poster bed was brought aboard, and a special stateroom was set up for the President. World leaders and royalty toured her decks as guests of the United States. The Indy became the symbol of a dynamic, young America.

The Indianapolis took the remainder of 1937 going through routine peacetime exercises and war games, including a tour of the Hawaiian Islands. 1938 saw the Indianapolis repeating the same routine. Carrying the flag of Vice Admiral Adolphus Andrews, Commander, Scouting Force, she exercised off the West Coast, spending several days in gunnery practice off Clemente Island, as the threat of war loomed over Europe and the western Pacific.

The next two years followed similar patterns—with the Indianapolis spending more time operating out of Pearl Harbor as tensions rose across the Pacific. The Indy returned to Mare Island Navy Yard in San Francisco Bay late in 1939. Entering dry dock, her ship’s log showed that she had steamed 215,140 nautical miles since her commissioning in 1932.
As a deterrent to Japanese aggression, the Indianapolis and the U.S. Fleet moved from the West Coast to Pearl Harbor in April of 1940. Because of the dual threat posed by Germany and Japan, the U.S. Fleet in February 1941 re-formed into three Fleets; The Pacific, The Atlantic, and a smaller Asiatic Fleet. Under this new organization Vice Admiral Wilson Brown embarked on the Indianapolis as Commander Scouting Force and Commander Task Force III. The task force consisted of one aircraft carrier, eight heavy cruisers, including the Indianapolis, and 38 other ships.

 

A surprising order to get underway came on 5 December 1941. According to the eyewitness account of Seaman Second Class, Daniel E. Brady, a crewman of the Indianapolis’ Aviation Division: “The Indy was docked next to the submarine base across from ‘Battleship Row’ in Pearl Harbor. It was Friday afternoon. As per normal weekend routine in port, all the ship’s married men and liberty sections were ashore, leaving about a third of our crew on board. But then an announcement came: ‘The ship will get underway in one hour.’

“That was impossible with most of our crew ashore. They couldn’t be recalled on such short notice. Soon, however, fifty Marines in full battle gear came aboard, followed by forty civilian shipyard workers with their tool boxes. Then came the truck loads of food and vegetables, which were dumped on the teak-wood Quarter Deck. The Quarter Deck was usually reserved for Admirals, Captains, and special occasions. Crew members didn’t even walk across it with shoes on. What the hell was going on?

“We did get underway in one hour without our crew and steamed out of Pearl. We traveled Friday night and Saturday with no word of our destination. Sunday morning at 0730, we anchored at Johnson Island, 700-miles South-west of Hawaii. We began unloading Marines, civilians and supplies. Then the word was passed­: ‘The Japs are bombing Pearl! This is no drill. Prepare the ship for battle action.’ Everything that could burn was thrown overboard; lumber, paint, small boats, and President Roosevelt’s fancy bedroom suite.

“We started back to Hawaiian waters, joining the carrier Lexington. After seven days and three attempts to enter Pearl—Jap submarines wanted to sink the ‘Lex’ at the harbor’s entrance—we finally made it. And we couldn’t believe the devastation we saw. We picked up our crew and the survivors from the battleship Nevada and left the following morning. To this day, you cannot convince me that somebody didn’t know this attack would take place.
“Consider this: We were President Roosevelt’s favorite ship and the flagship of Admiral Brown of Scouting Force, whose job it was to scout out and detect the enemy. And we were conveniently out of port at the time of the Jap attack. Fate acts in funny ways at times. Being in the aviation unit, (the Indianapolis carried two reconnaissance seaplanes aboard), we usually unloaded our airplanes and their crews to Ford Island when in Pearl. This time our aircraft were kept aboard. They would have been destroyed had they been at Ford Island.
“Officially, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, the Indianapolis was out of her home port making a simulated bombardment of Johnson Island. All the carriers assigned to Pearl were conspicuously out to sea. The Indianapolis immediately formed up with Task Force 12 to search for the attacking Japanese carrier force. If the ships had returned to Pearl, they would likely have been destroyed.”

Combat

The Indianapolis first saw combat in early 1942 south of Rabal, New Britain. The American force was attacked by 18 Japanese bombers, of which 16 were shot down by planes from the carrier Lexington and antiaircraft fire from the screening ships. In March 1942, she went to California for a major overhaul and much needed refit with more firepower and new radar.

When she was ready for sea again, the Indy escorted a convoy to Australia, then was ordered to north Pacific waters. Attention was focused on the Aleutian Islands, where the Japanese were trying to misdirect attention from Midway Island. But the U.S. Navy had broken Japanese naval codes and knew this was a ruse. The Indianapolis soon encountered the Japanese cargo ship Akagane Maru during a February night. After several failed attempts to establish communications with the Akagane, the Indy opened fire with its 8-inch guns. The Akagane, likely loaded with ammunition, exploded in a giant fireball, leaving no survivors. By the fall of 1942, the Japanese advance in the Pacific was stopped. The famous invasion of Guadalcanal began in August and ended in February 1943.

Over the next two and a half years, US forces captured the Gilbert Islands, Tarawa, and Makin; the Marshall Islands, Kwajalein and Eniwetok; and the Mariana Islands of Saipan, Guam, and Tinian. Under different captains, the Indianapolis was present at these island invasions, providing supporting fire from offshore. With each island reclaimed from the Japanese, the U.S. moved closer to Japan. Growing superiority in sea and air power, and in the number of fighting men, gave the U.S. increasing advantages.

Admiral Spruance takes a new Flagship

The Indianapolis returned to Mare Island, CA, in the spring of 1943 for another major overhaul. Her bridge and flag deck were modified, and a modern CIC (Combat Information Center) was installed. Upon completion, she became the Flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance, Commanding 5th Fleet. It was Spruance who had guided the victory at Midway. Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey commanded the 3rd Fleet.

Other battles and other victories would follow under the able commands of Admirals Spruance and Halsey. And many U.S. Marines, U.S. Army soldiers and U.S. Navy men would pay a dear price for each. Wherever U.S. forces met Japanese defenders, the enemy fought long and hard, and exacted a high price before being defeated. Now two major battles remained to be fought: Iwo Jima and Okinawa, using the largest invasion forces ever in the Pacific theater.

Final Command

In November 1944, Navy Captain Charles Butler McVay, III, (Naval Academy Class of 1919), became the tenth and final commanding officer of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Prior to taking command of the Indianapolis, Captain McVay had been the Executive Officer of the U.S.S. Cleveland, a heavy cruiser similar to the Indy. His father, Admiral Charles Butler McVay, Jr., had commanded the Navy’s Asiatic Fleet in the early 1900s.

Fleet Admiral (five-star) Ernest J. King, (Naval Academy Class of 1901), was Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Widely respected for his military ability, King also was considered: “Perhaps the most disliked Allied leader of World War II, with the possible exception of British Field Marshall, Bernard Montgomery.”

King was dictatorial to the point of being abusive to subordinates, and was disliked by most officers he commanded. He “seemed always to be angry or annoyed.” Roosevelt described King as a man who “shaves every morning with a blow torch.”

As a junior officer, King had served aboard a ship commanded by Captain McVay’s father. King and a few fellow officers were caught trying to smuggle women aboard their ship. The senior McVay wrote letters of reprimand for the officers, which became part of their service records. Admiral King would figure prominently in future events regarding Captain Charles McVay, III.

Operational airfields were valuable steps on the road leading to Tokyo. The American capture of the Marianas in mid-1944 brought the main Japanese home land within range of the new Boeing B-29 Superfortress of the Army Air Force. The Battle of the Philippine Sea—or “The Marianas Turkey Shoot,” was a battle of the carriers. In one day on 19 June, U.S. Navy planes shot down 346 Japanese carrier planes. The Indianapolis was credited with shooting down a torpedo bomber.

The next day 65 Japanese planes were shot down; two Japanese carriers were sunk by U.S. submarines; the Navy sustained one bomb strike on a battleship. The third day, 65 more Japanese planes were shot down, one carrier sunk and another severely damaged, with several smaller ships sunk. Task Force 58 lost 20 more aircraft in combat. Many had ditched that night, because of low fuel, and several had been picked up by the Indianapolis. American loses for the two-day battle was 130 planes and 76 airmen.

In August, Admiral Spruance passed forward-area responsibilities to Commander 3rd Fleet and returned to Pearl Harbor on the Indy.

The Indy returned to the western Pacific for another few weeks of bombardment operations, then it was ordered back to Mare Island, CA, for overhaul and refitting.

The Battle of Iwo Jima—Operation Detachment—started on 19 February 1945. B-29s based on Saipan and Tinian had begun striking targets in Japan in late 1944, but the strikes were not effective. The thorn in the side was Iwo Jima. The Indianapolis under Captain McVay’s command, steamed to join with the fleet and helped provide days of offshore and air bombardment.

Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s Fifth Fleet of over 450 ships, landed the 54th Amphibious Corps (comprised of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions). Iwo was a hard-fought battle with 74,000 U.S. Marines landing on and eventually capturing, the island from the 21,000 Japanese Imperial Army soldiers occupying it. The Japanese were dug in with a clear field of interlacing machine gun fire to the beaches, and they were positioned in tunnels carved out of Mt. Suribachi. They also had an able commander, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, highly skilled in the art of war.

American planners admitted that capturing Iwo Jima would be tough, but the operation should be over in a week or so. Five days after the battle began, on 23 February 1945, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took his famous photograph of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi.

Of the Japanese initially defending Iwo Jima, after five weeks of some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting in the Pacific, only 216 remained as prisoners. The Marines were hit hard as well: 24,053 casualties with more than 6,000 dead. Even after the heavy losses suffered during the battle, the strategic value of the island came under question. But, Navy Seabees rebuilt the three airfields, which were used as emergency landing strips for USAAF B-29s.

Medals of Honor were awarded to 27 U.S. Marines and U.S. sailors (14 posthumously), for the battle of Iwo Jima. Presented to Marines were 22 medals (12 posthumously), and 5 were presented to Navy men, 4 of whom were hospital corpsmen (2 posthumously) attached to Marine infantry units.

The invasion of Okinawa—Operation Iceberg—began four days after Iwo Jima fell. The Okinawa campaign ran from 1 April 1945 until 22 June 1945. It was the largest amphibious landing in the Pacific theater of World War II. The Invasion of Okinawa consisted of Admiral Raymond Spruance’s 5th Fleet, comprised of more than 40 aircraft carriers,18 battleships, 200 destroyers and over 1,000 support ships surrounding Okinawa.

American units made up of 287,000 troops of the 10th Army (7th, 77th, and 96th Infantry; and the 1st and 6th Marine divisions) commanded by Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, Jr., made amphibious landings to begin taking the island from the 130,000 soldiers of Japanese Lt. Gen. Ushijima Mitsuru’s 32nd Army defenders, who controlled the island. That campaign was equally as bloody and as savage as Iwo. The American ground-forces commander, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, was killed in action on Okinawa.

Possibly lying ahead were the assaults on the Japanese home islands themselves. The long, bloody road to Tokyo looked costlier than ever. At stake were air bases on Okinawa that were vital to the projected invasion of Japan. U.S. Navy ships around the island laid down covering fire to make way for the ground troops. The U.S.S. Indianapolis was in the thick of it. (Kamikaze attacks sank 34 ships and damaged hundreds of others during the war. At Okinawa they inflicted the greatest losses ever suffered by the U.S. Navy in a single battle, killing almost 5,000 men.)

The Japanese wanted to destroy or severely damage American aircraft carriers. Japanese Kamikaze—suicide—planes were buzzing around the sky like angry hornets, but they met their match from the deadly force of U.S. Navy firepower. The other U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers, were hell-bent to protect the carriers at any cost. The ships put up a nearly impenetrable curtain of fire. But as bad luck would have it, one Japanese pilot flew through the curtain. And though his aircraft was riddled with bullets and shrapnel from exploding naval artillery, he still managed to fly his aircraft into the port-side after-deck of the Indianapolis.

The plane slid off the Indy and disappeared into the sea, inflicting minimal damage to the ship. But the 800 kg bomb the pilot released in his final second of life was different. It penetrated the deck armor of the port quarter, tore its way down through the crew’s mess, a berthing compartment, and fuel tanks. Then it punched through the bottom of the ship and exploded under the hull, blowing out two holes and flooding several compartments before damage control parties could contain the water.

On its path through the Indianapolis, the Jap bomb killed nine crewmen and injured 26 others. The ship quickly took on a portside list, settling at the stern. But attesting to his seamanship and his crew’s training and motivation, Captain McVay pulled the Indianapolis off the line under her own power and steamed to a salvage ship. Further inspection showed that her propeller shafts were damaged, her water distilling plant was damaged and shut down, and several fuel tanks were ruptured. The end result of the battle of Okinawa was maximum casualties: More than 100,000 Japanese and 50,000 Americans.

After emergency repairs in late April of 1945, the Indy maneuvered under her own power screened by cargo vessels. She limped back to Mare Island, CA, to be dry-docked and undergo extensive repairs and up-fitting. While at Mare Island, Lt. (Rev.) Thomas M. Conway, the 37-year-old Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain from Buffalo, NY, made it a point to fly and visit with the parents of each of the nine men who had been killed in the Kamikaze attack on Okinawa.

Anticipating the invasion of Japan, the shipyard crew installed the latest equipment and communications gear that the Navy had available. Guns were changed out; single guns were exchanged for twin and quad mounts. Two new SC-2 Curtiss Seahawks replaced the old biplanes. After a few days of sea trials, the Indianapolis put into Hunter’s Point Navy Yard, San Francisco.

Top Secret: A deadly cargo

The Manhattan Project and the Indianapolis were about to meet. The Indianapolis was still in dry-dock when the War Department chose her to transport a special, top-secret cargo. Considering the ship’s proximity to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and with her availability and great speed, the U.S.S. Indianapolis became bound for history. “The Bomb” developed under the top-secret authority of the Manhattan Project would be transported—even before they were certain it would work—by the Indianapolis to a Pacific Island for final assembly.
In the early morning of 16 July 1945, cloaked in secrecy and maximum security, the Indianapolis had dropped anchor out in the San Francisco Bay area. Armed guards were posted around the ship, and anywhere necessary to keep away unwanted visitors and prying eyes. A large group of Admirals, Generals and technicians looked on. Atom-bomb components, everything but the outer shells, which were already on Tinian, were loaded aboard the Indianapolis. Several large wooden crates were stowed in one of the ship’s hangars.

The key part of the two bombs, Uranium-235, was sealed in a lead-lined container lashed to cleats that were welded to the deck in the Admiral’s Cabin. Orders were given that should the ship come under attack and find itself in extreme combat conditions, the lead container would be the first to be thrown overboard. Even with the odd sound of this order, the makeup of the cargo was kept secret from all aboard, even from Captain McVay. The U.S.S. Indianapolis sailed toward her last horizon later that morning.

26 July at Tinian

Under orders to maintain radio silence, the Indianapolis made a record run from San Francisco Bay to Pearl Harbor. Captain McVay ran a tight ship with discipline and military bearing maintained at all times. He pushed himself and his crew, especially those in the engine room. She stopped at Pearl for six hours to refuel and replenish stores. Next stop: drop anchor off the island of Tinian in the Western Pacific and off-load her top-secret cargo.

Coincidentally, on the same morning of the Indianapolis’ departure from San Francisco, one of the largest and most technologically advanced attack submarines of the Japanese Imperial Navy got underway.

Tinian Island was one of several American held islands that B-29 bombing raids were conducted from. It lies along the Marianas Trench, 100 nautical miles north of Guam. And somewhere, secluded on the island, was a B-29 bomber bearing the name Enola Gay.

New orders for the Indianapolis: Report to Leyte Gulf

From Tinian, the Indianapolis steamed south, making a brief stop at Guam. This was HQ for the Pacific Fleet, under command of CinCPAC—Commander In Chief Pacific, Admiral Chester A. Nimitz. The Indy would replenish here and receive new orders: Sail to Leyte Gulf on the East Coast of the Philippines, 1,500 nautical miles west of Guam; join the battleship Idaho for gunnery practice and refresher training. About 400 of Indy’s crew were green kids, 17 to 19 years old, fresh out of basic training. From Leyte, she would later rejoin the fleet off Okinawa for the expected invasion of Japan.

According to official records, a single coded message was sent from Guam to the Idaho advising her of Indianapolis’ expected arrival. Reportedly, the radio message was garbled at the receiving end. The Idaho’s communications techs didn’t ask for a repeat message, so no one knew that the Indianapolis was coming.

Although the routing officer, Captain Oliver Naquin, was aware of enemy submarine activity in the area, he failed to share this vital information with Captain McVay. In fact, on 24 July 1945, six days before the sinking of the Indianapolis, the destroyer Underhill had been attacked and sunk by a Japanese sub. There had been other incidents that Captain McVay should have been informed of, but never was, in particular incidents partly due to issues of classified intelligence. McVay was warned of the potential presence of Japanese subs, but not of actual, confirmed activity.

McVay requested a destroyer escort for the Indianapolis, but his request was denied. The priority for destroyers was escorting transports to Okinawa, and picking up downed pilots in B-29 raids on Japan. Naval command assumed McVay’s route would be safe at that point in the war. Many ships, especially most destroyers, were equipped with submarine detection gear, such as Sonar. But the Indianapolis, while well-equipped with surface Radar, was running blind underwater. The decision to deny McVay’s request for an escort was a tragic mistake.

Because she was now assumed to be in the backwaters of the war, the unescorted Indianapolis steamed out of Guam on 28 July 1945. The navigation officer plotted a course for a three-day voyage to Leyte at an average speed of 15 knots. She started on a zigzagging course, which, according to orders, was at the Captain’s discretion.

As night fell on 29 July, some of the men began to take the pillows and blankets from their bunks and go to the outside decks. Capt. McVay knew it got pretty warm and humid in the lower deck berthing spaces, and that the men would just lie in their racks sweating all night. For those who wanted to, he had given permission for the crew to go up on an outside deck and sleep.

Marines aboard the Indianapolis

One of those who chose to sleep outside was Marine Corporal Edgar Harrell (co-author with David Harrell of, “Out of the Depths”). Harrell wore a slightly rumpled uniform. He had a pillow and a couple of blankets. He was also looking forward to a good night of sleep with the cool air rippling over the bow.


The Indianapolis’ crew complement included a detachment of 39 marines. Marine detachments are usually aboard all capital ships, such as Cruisers, Battleships and Aircraft Carriers. They are the ship’s boarding party. If the need presents itself for boarding an enemy vessel, the Marines go first. Marines operated the Ship’s Brig and manned various weapons systems. They worked and lived side by side with the officers and sailors of the ship’s company, and they fought and died together. On the Indianapolis, Captain Edward L. Parke, USMC, was the Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment.

Commander: The Japanese Imperial Navy Submarine I-58

In May 1944, Kaigun Shōsa—Lieutenant Commander— Mochitsura Hashimoto had been given command of the I-58. His orders were simple: Patrol the waters east of the Philippines; find and sink, enemy shipping.
Hashimoto was the fifth son of a kannushiShinto priest. He had graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy. After graduation from the Naval Academy, Hashimoto volunteered for the submarine service. In 1937 and 1938, he served aboard destroyers and sub-chasers off the shores of the Republic of China.

 

Selected for submarine school in 1939, Hashimoto was assigned to the Yokosuka Naval District on 20 May 1939 and enrolled in a six-month torpedo course on 1 June. Next, he entered the naval submarine school on 1 December. His skills as a submarine officer were honed to a fine edge by the time Hashimoto was assigned command of the I-58.

First sighting, attack

On the Philippine Sea, 250 miles north of Palau, at sunset, the Indianapolis was on a zigzag course cruising at 17 knots in overcast weather. Captain McVay had ordered the zigzag stopped because of poor visibility. A straight course was resumed. Again, according to orders, this was at the Captain’s discretion.

At 23:00 (11:00 PM) on 29 July 1945, following a quick radar check, the I-58 surfaced 250 miles north of Palau and headed south while charging her batteries. Her navigation officer, Lt. Tanaka, spotted a ship approaching from the east, 90-degrees off the port beam, at a little more than 11,000 yards. Lt. Cdr. Hashimoto mis-identified the target as an Idaho-class battleship. She was, however, the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis (CA-35).

Captain Hashimoto ordered the I-58 crew to dive and level-off at 100 feet. He then ordered his crew to prepare for attack by loading all six forward torpedo tubes with conventional Type 95 torpedoes. The contact depth was set at 4 meters.

When the distance between the two vessels reached a little more than 4,400 yards, the Indianapolis started a slow turn to port (left). Hashimoto realizes that the Indy will pass by too close for his torpedoes to have time to arm. He ordered right-rudder and began a long circle to increase the range.

In one of the greatest “what ifs” of this saga is what if the Indianapolis had been pinging the I-58 with sonar? Or, better still, what if a U.S. Navy Destroyer escorting the Indy, equipped with depth charges, could have been tracking the I-58 with sonar? And with the sub surfaced, why wasn’t the Indianapolis seeing it on surface radar? At this late date, these are merely academic questions.

After maneuvering into position, Hashimoto ordered his torpedo crew to fire a spread of six torpedoes; two fish, as all sailors called them, at 2-second intervals for each pair. When the word “fire one and two” was given, the first two were fired. Then the other two pairs were fired in sequence.

It was a few minutes after midnight, 12:14, when the first torpedo struck the Indianapolis at the starboard bow, blasting away 45 feet off the front of the ship. Deck and bulkhead plates ripped loose. A 3500 gallon tank of aviation fuel exploded, sending a column of fire hundreds of feet into the air. The Indianapolis’ powerful engines kept her plowing through the sea at 17 knots as she took in tons of seawater.

Hashimoto observed two more equally spaced hits on the cruiser’s starboard side less than two seconds later. The second torpedo stuck Indy’s side even with the forward gun turret. Quickly following, the third torpedo struck even with the bridge at the machinery spaces. This was near a powder magazine and one of her fuel-oil bunkers, which exploded in more flames, effectively ripping the ship in two. Still moving ahead, the Indianapolis began rapidly slowing, taking on massive amounts of water.

At the first sound of an explosion on the ship, Marine Captain Parke was out of his bunk. Hearing the cry “abandon ship” from some of the other men, he was able to get hold of several Kapok life vests to give out where he positioned himself next to a good jumping-off point. Parke helped many of his shipmates get into the life vests, off the ship and into the water.

Marine Corporal Harrell had just settled in for the night under the forward gun turret when the first torpedo hit. The blast jarred him wide awake. He rolled over and sat up quickly. It took a few seconds to process what he saw. Flames were shooting up, and, instead of being 50 feet from the ship’s bow, his feet were only five feet from the front of the ship. He started running aft to find a jumping-off point. On the way back, he grabbed a Kapok life vest from where they were stowed. Slipping on the vest, in short order, he was in the black, oily water.

The watch crew on the bridge had almost no time to react. During the first explosion, the Indy probably lurched for a moment, like hitting a large speed bump. Only three entities on the bridge knew exactly what took place that night: The five or six enlisted men performing routine duties, such as manning the helm, the Officer of the Deck, and God. The explosions had knocked out all electric power throughout the ship, which totally disabled her. Each man was taking his cue from others around him: They all scrambled like their shipmates were doing, trying to get into what they thought would be the relative safety of the ocean.

No one could call down to the engine room to “stop all engines,” a useless gesture now. And no one could initiate a general call to “abandon ship.”

In the radio shack, desperate attempts were made by three radiomen to get out an SOS. The radio crew of the Indianapolis sent a distress call before the power went completely out, but a Navy commander who received the call thought it was a Japanese trick—a ruse to draw out other ships—and refused to respond. Of others who received the call, one Commander was actually drunk; others failed to respond because they just didn’t want to be bothered. Due to this Cluster F/// of sloppy decisions and screwed-up policies, no one was aware that the Indianapolis was missing, and no help would be coming.

Abandon ship

As soon as the explosion tore through her side, the Indianapolis began to list to port (left). All hell erupted, and shear pandemonium broke loose. Some officers and enlisted crewmen were in a deep sleep. Captain Lewis Haynes, the ship’s doctor, was wakened when his heavy, metal porthole cover was blown loose and barely missed his head as it flew by.

The men who had been relieved from watch began dragging their shipmates from their bunks. Officers shouted, ordering all hands to abandon ship. Some men were badly burned from the explosions. Others, officers and enlisted, came stumbling from berthing spaces in their underwear covered black from head to foot with fuel oil, including their eyes. Adding to the confusion, men were getting disoriented in the darkened spaces as decks and bulkheads began to tilt with the ship’s list.

The ship had stopped now, and the deck was tilting a little more with each step the men took. She was also beginning to angle hard toward the bow. Captain Parke was near a hatchway where men were stumbling out. He was giving out life jackets, and when a man needed it, was helping him overboard.

One other man who was wakened from a sound sleep was Fr. (Lieutenant) Thomas Conway, the ship’s Chaplain. Fr. Conway had swung out of his bunk, and his feet hit a deck covered in water and fuel oil. He slipped on his pants and grabbed his life jacket. Feeling the water around his feet, he doubted that he would need any shoes. He went out to find men who needed help.

Below decks, the Marine berthing space was in flames. A few were struggling to get out. Fortunately, some were saved because of the watch change. But, the last explosion had killed about two-thirds of the Marine detachment.

It was dark inside the hatch where he had stationed himself, but Captain Parke was aware of movement. He began to call for men to follow the sound of his voice. As a man approached, Parke reached for him and helped him put on a life jacket. Many were practically blind and deaf from the blast concussion and had to be helped to a jumping-off point. Others had almost disabling injuries of the effects from the blasts. By the hundreds they jumped into the dark, midnight sea, taking their burned and wounded shipmates with them. The tilt of the ship had become much more pronounced, as the men in the water tried to get as far away from the big cruiser as they could.

The Indy was now dead in the water, continuing its list to port. She was slowly rolling to her port side and going further down by the bow. Some of the men already in the water said later they could see the screws turning. Others claimed to have seen men who were abandoning ship jump into the spinning screws. Within 12 minutes, according to the survivors, the unescorted U.S.S. Indianapolis rolled completely over to port and capsized. The valiant ship began her rapid descent to the bottom with about 300 men still on board, headed for their final resting place more than 20,000 feet down. The Pride of the Navy was gone forever.

Hashimoto decided to attack again and dived to 100 feet to open the range and reload torpedo tubes. While the submarine was submerged, at 12:30 AM on 30 July, the Indianapolis had capsized and sunk. When Hashimoto made a periscope check, the target was gone. The submarine surfaced, and after a quick look around, left the area at full speed, headed north while still recharging its batteries.

At 0300, Hashimoto reported to the Imperial Sixth Fleet HQ that he had sunk an “Idaho-class battleship.”

Survivors—first day

Of the 1,197 officers and men of the Indianapolis’ crew, survivors were estimated at 880 men. Many badly burned, maimed or wounded, made it alive into the sea in the early minutes of 30 July 1945.
The remaining crew was scattered and stranded over thousands of yards of open sea—880 men—stranded with no drinkable water and no food. Some had on kapok life jackets, many did not. Life rafts, which were supposed to be deployed and float free of the ship, had failed to work, so life rafts were precious few. Men were clinging to some of them turned upside down. Fuel oil from the ship’s ruptured tanks coated the sea and the men, making many violently ill.

When the sun rose on that first day, some of the men were optimistic. After all, the crew knew they were due to join up with U.S.S. Idaho the next day for gunnery practice. No doubt they would be missed, and search missions would be mounted.

However, that was not the case, and for the next four and a half days, the men of the Indianapolis knew terror, thirst, hunger and despair on a massive scale. Many would give up the struggle and slip quietly beneath the sea, never to be seen again by their shipmates.

Prayer constantly floated up to Heaven. Some cursed the navy. It was a classic struggle of man against nature. Because the ship was without an escort, the Indianapolis would not be reported missing until four days later. About 300 crewmen had gone down with the ship, while the rest faced exposure, dehydration, saltwater poisoning and shark attacks, waiting for assistance.

Fr. Tom Conway, always the ship’s Chaplain, saw what his job, in fact, his duty was. He began to make his rounds, from one group to the other, praying with a man or a group of men. Doing the best he could under the circumstances, when a man appeared beyond the meager help available here, Fr. Conway provided last rites. The men were scattered over such a wide area.

Fr. Conway had been well-liked by all the men, and he ministered and offered counsel equally to all, Catholic and Protestant alike. Every man on the ship remembered when the Father was holding Sunday morning services on one of the mess decks. The crowd was so large they actually filled two mess decks. Then the alarm was sounded: “All hands man your battle stations.” The Indy was under enemy air attack. The crew started to scramble for their stations, when Fr. Thomas held up both of his hands. They paused momentarily as Father shouted out, “Bless us all, boys! And give them hell!” Several laughed, but no one on the ship ever forgot that. The Chaplain was an alright guy.
Shark attacks began with the coming of daylight on Monday 31 July 1945. One by one sharks began to pick-off the men on the outer perimeter of the clustered groups. Agonizing screams filled the air day and night. Blood began to mix with the fuel oil. The survivors said the sharks were always there by the hundreds, swimming just below their dangling feet.

It was an ordeal filled with terror—never knowing if you’d be the next victim. By the third day, lack of water and food, combined with the unrelenting terror that roamed beneath them, began to take its effect on the mental stability of the men. Many began to hallucinate. Some, many who had taken in quantities of sea water, had severe diarrhea and became badly dehydrated. They slowly went mad.

Fights broke out. Hope faded. The stronger men held up the weaker, until the stronger no longer had the strength. By Wednesday evening, the third day, survivors estimate that only 400 or so were still alive. The dead littered the surface of the sea.
Dr. Lewis Haynes, the ship’s physician said later: “All thoughts of rescue were gone, and our twisted reasoning came to accept that as our life, until the end was reached. But the crew had found one comfort, that God seemed very close. Much of our feeling was strengthened by the Chaplain, who moved from one group to the other to pray with the men…. The chaplain, a priest, was not a strong man physically, yet his courage and goodness seemed to have no limit. I wondered about him, for the night is particularly difficult and most of us suffered from chills, fever and delirium.”

 

“The moon had been up for some time when I heard a cry for help. It was Mac, a husky young sailor who had given so much to so many. When I swam to him, Mac was supporting the Chaplain, who was delirious. ‘Doctor – you’ll just have to relieve me for awhile.’ Mac gasps. ‘I can’t hold him any longer.’ I took the chaplain from him; thrust my arm through the chaplain’s life jacket so I could hold him securely through his wild thrashing.

“Then I looked around for Mac, for I knew he needed help. He was completely exhausted, his head forward, his nose in the water. ‘Mac!’ I called. There was no answer—and the last I saw of Mac was his head sinking lower and lower as he drifted away in the moonlight.

“The chaplain’s delirium mounts, and his struggles are almost too much for me. He cried a strange gibberish – some of the words were Latin – but in a little while he sank into a coma. The only sound was the slap of water against us as I waited for the end. When it came, the moon was high, golden overhead. I said a prayer and let him drift away, along the path to follow Mac.

“He is remembered by all of the survivors for all of his work while on board the Indy and especially his three days in the ocean.”
Of the 39 Marines aboard, only nine survived. Captain McVay recommended the Navy Cross, (posthumously), for Captain Edward L. Parke, USMC, CO of the Marine detachment. Marine Corporal Harrell was one of the nine Marine survivors.

Accidental sighting; imminent rescue
It had been almost five days in the water for the Indianapolis survivors. At 10:25, Thursday morning, 24 year old Lieutenant Chuck Gwinn, was on routine antisubmarine patrol. Flying a Navy Lockheed Ventura PV-1 bomber, based on the island of Palau, about 300 miles south of the location where the Indianapolis went down, it was his second flight of the day. On the earlier flight while attempting to reel out his radio antenna, it broke away. He returned to base at Palau, installed a new antenna, and took off again to resume his ASW patrol.

 

On that second patrol, Gwinn had gone to the rear of the plane to work with his crew on a binding problem with the antenna winch. He leaned out of the plane, guiding the wire, when he happened to glance down at the ocean, and unknowingly changed the fate of 317 men. Gwinn spotted a huge oil slick. Thinking the oil slick indicated that an enemy sub had just submerged under his plane, he dropped down several hundred feet for a depth charge run. He opened the bomb bay doors, and was ready to drop depth charges on the suspected enemy sub.

 

But just as he was about to release the depth charges, Gwinn glanced out the window. Spread out over the ocean, were hundreds of delirious men, waving to get his attention. Immediately Gwinn regained altitude and radioed his base at Palau; “Many men in the water,” and he gave his position coordinates. He flew around the location answering questions from Palau. After some hours were wasted in getting through the bureaucracy—they refused to believe him, some thought it was a practical joke— they finally agreed to send some help.

Three hours after Gwinn’s first report, a Catalina PBY flying boat was dispatched, flown by 28 year old Navy pilot, Adrian Marks. On his way to the location reported by Gwinn, Lt. Marks overflew the destroyer U.S.S. Cecil Doyle. The Doyle’s skipper, Graham Claytor, Jr., and Marks, were good friends. Marks informed the skipper of his mission. On his own initiative, the Doyle’s captain diverted from his orders, which called for proceeding to Leyte Gulf, where his ship was to take part in the invasion of Japan. Instead, he set a course to lend assistance to the Indianapolis survivors.

 

Arriving at the survivors’ location, Marks descended to 100 feet above the surface of the sea while his crew began dropping rafts, and supplies. While this was happening, his crew informed him they could see men being attacked and eaten alive by sharks.

On seeing these men under shark attack, the crew voted to breech standing orders prohibiting landing in open seas. Waves were cresting from a low of five feet to a high of 15 feet. This act of humanity is all the more remarkable when you realize Marks and his crew had no idea who these sailors might be, English, Aussies, Japanese or American.

 

Demonstrating one hell of a flying skill, he landed between swells in a power-on stall, tail-low, nose-high attitude. Marks landed the PBY. Many of his hull rivets popped from the landing force, but his PBY made it. He taxied his plane as close as he could to the first large group of men and immediately began taking survivors aboard. Some nearby survivors were so weakened by their ordeal, when they slipped out of their kapok life jackets to swim to the plane, they drowned.

 

At this point, his fuel load near critical, Gwinn headed for his home base, knowing little of the part that pure luck had played in his life or the lives of 317 American sailors and marines.
Upon learning that the men were from the Indianapolis, a badly shaken Marks frantically, and in plain English, repeatedly radioed for help. The Cecil Doyle replied she was on the way. When the PBY’s fuselage was full of exhausted men, the plane crew carried men onto the wings.

 

Approaching at night, Captain Graham Claytor ordered the Doyle’s searchlights turned on the water and pointed straight up on low clouds, lighting up the night and exposing his ship to possible attack by Japanese submarines. Captain Claytor ordered his Communications Officer, Lieutenant James Fite, Jr., to inform command that they were rescuing the crew of the Indianapolis. This was the first clear message that outlined the fate of the Indianapolis’. Soon, six more ships arrived to offer assistance.

 

All night long, Marks and his crew fought to get as many men as possible out of the shark-infested sea. The wings’ fabric covering was soon filled with holes, and covered with survivors, tied in place with parachute cord.
Adrian Marks and his courageous flight crew saved 56 men that day, a record that has never been equaled for a sea plane of that size since.

By morning Lieutenant Mark’s PB-Y was a floating hulk, full of holes and incapable of flight. The Cecil Doyle came along side and transferred the rescued survivors over to the ship. Marks stripped the plane of all instruments and any secret gear, and moved himself and his crew to the Doyle. He asked Captain Claytor to destroy his plane by gunfire to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.

 

The PBY Marks used that day, as he put it, “was the duty PBY,” one of those built toward the end of the war in which an experimental, self-sealing gas tank had been fitted in the starboard wing. The port wing tank was the standard non-sealing type. The Doyle trained her guns on the PB-Y’s port side. The fuel tank burst into flame, and the gunners were successful in destroying the plane.

 

Much later, bureaucracy being what it is the world over, some low level Navy clerk or junior officer with too much time on his hands in the Pacific, actually began the paperwork to prepare for a court marshal for Lt. Marks. It was channeled up the chain of command until somebody realized who Lt. Marks was and what he had accomplished by violating the order not to land on the open sea. The paperwork was quickly deep-sixed.

6 August 1945; high over Hiroshima, Japan
A lone B-29 Bomber, The Enola Gay, carrying a single bomb—one of the atomic bombs delivered by the Indianapolis—in its bomb-bay, headed for Hiroshima, Japan. Also aboard, were several of the “brass” the Indianapolis had transported from Mare Island, CA. to Tinian. These men armed the bomb en-route to Hiroshima. This would signal the end of conventional warfare as we then understood it.
The rescue continues

The Doyle rescued 93 survivors and gave last rites to 21 found already dead. Remaining in the area searching until 8 August, the Cecil J. Doyle was the last to leave the scene. While only 316 men were rescued out of the crew of 1,196 aboard the Indianapolis, Captain Claytor’s actions were widely credited by survivors with preventing an even greater loss of life.
The aftermath—Hiding the Navy’s embarrassment 

Although 380 ships of the U.S. Navy were lost in combat in World War II, Captain Carl McVay, III was the only ship’s captain to be court-martialed for the loss of his ship.

The Indianapolis had been sunk on 30 July 1945. But, the Navy purposely did not release the news to the press until 2 September, the day Japan formally surrendered. News of the surrender all but overshadowed the loss of the Indianapolis.

McVay was wounded but survived and was among those rescued. He repeatedly asked the Navy why it took five days to rescue his men, and he never received an answer. The Navy long claimed that SOS messages were never received because the ship was operating under a policy of radio silence. However, in later years, declassified records showed that three SOS messages were received separately, but none was acted upon, because one commander thought it was a Japanese ruse, another had given orders not to be disturbed, and the third was drunk. A Navy chief radioman commented, actually swore, that he had seen the needle peg on one of the transmitter’s meters as an SOS message went out.

 

The Indianapolis had been a high-profile ship; “Pride of the Navy,” and President Roosevelt’s “Ship of State.” Her pre-war fame and her wartime service as the Flagship of Admirals Spruance and Halsey, not only made her the center of attention in the Pacific, she was a highly desirable duty station. The radio and print media all tried to get reporters aboard the Indy. Midshipmen fresh out of Annapolis and the various NROTC programs, all wanted to be assigned to the Indy. That’s where the “action” was, and that included greater chances for recognition and promotion. Politically influential fathers pulled strings to get their sons assigned to the Indianapolis.

But when the ship was lost, these same influential families began to pressure the Navy about the loss of their sons. The navy reacted badly. Admiral Earnest King, Chief of Naval Operations, ordered a Court Marshal for the Indianapolis’ captain, Charles B. McVay, III.
After a Navy Court of Inquiry recommended that McVay be court-martialed for the loss of the Indianapolis, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz disagreed and instead issued the Captain a letter of reprimand. Fleet Admiral Ernest King overturned Nimitz’s decision and recommended a court-martial, which Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal later convened.

 

McVay had selected a JAG lawyer he knew to represent him. But somewhere up the chain of command, the JAG lawyer was excused, and of all people, Captain Oliver Naquin, a line officer with no legal training, was assigned as Captain McVay’s trial council. Naquin was the same officer who knew of submarine activity along McVay’s route, but failed to pass-on that tidbit of information. He also denied McVay’s request for a destroyer escort. Needless to say, Naquin did not present any strong arguments on behalf of his “client.”

 

The Navy, aka Admiral Ernest J. King, was so anxious to be proven correct, that an unprecedented action was taken. A radio message was sent to Japan for Navy officials to find Lt. Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, former captain of the I-58, now a Shinto Priest, and fly him back to the states as a witness against McVay. A Navy Captain at the airport in Japan even gave Hashimoto $100 to buy presents for his family while in Washington.

 

In his book “Abandon Ship,” author Richard F. Newcomb examines the history behind Admiral Ernest J. King’s ordering Captain McVay’s court-martial. According to the father of Captain McVay, III, Admiral Charles B McVay, Jr., said: “King never forgot a grudge,” he exploded. King had been a junior officer under the old man’s command when King and other officers sneaked some women aboard his ship. Admiral McVay had a letter of reprimand placed in King’s service record. “Now,” he raged, “King’s used you to get back at me.”

 

What the Court Marshall Board expected, indeed, wanted, to hear from Hashimoto is that it would have been more difficult to hit a ship with torpedoes if it was zigzagging. But the former Japanese sub Captain, speaking through an interpreter, said the opposite. It would have made no difference. His torpedoes would have struck the Indianapolis, anyway.

 

American submarine experts also testified that “zigzagging” was a technique of negligible value in eluding enemy subs. Despite that testimony, the official ruling was that visibility was good, and the court held McVay responsible for failing to zigzag. Captain McVay himself tried unsuccessfully to argue on his own behalf that zigzagging, as stated in his deployment orders, was at the commanding officer’s discretion.

 

Following McVay’s conviction for hazarding the Indianapolis by failing to zigzag, Admiral Nimitz stepped in and tried to get the verdict overturned. His argument was that zigzagging, according to the CO’s orders, was at the Captain’s discretion. He exercised his discretion, therefore no regulation was breeched.

 

On 19 December 1945 Charles Butler McVay, III, was found guilty of the specification of the first charge: Hazarding his vessel by failing to zigzag. He was found innocent of the second specification: Failing to sound a timely order to abandon ship. McVay’s punishment was for him to be dropped 100 point numbers on the promotions list, essentially ending what had been a brilliant naval career.

Following the proceedings, something else highly unusual, if not unorthodox, happened. Most of the officers sitting in judgment signed a petition asking the court to set aside the verdict in light of McVay’s record. As Admiral King had retired in the interim, the petition went to Admiral Chester Nimitz, and he set aside the punishment. He could not set aside the conviction. Admiral Nimitz restored Captain McVay to duty and posted him as Commandant of the New Orleans Naval district, where he was promoted to Rear Admiral (lower half; one star). There he finished his career and retired.
An additional point of controversy is evidence that the admirals in the United States Navy were primarily responsible for placing the ship in harm’s way. For instance, McVay requested a destroyer escort for the Indianapolis, but his request was denied because the priority for destroyers at the time was escorting transports to Okinawa, and picking up downed pilots in B-29 raids on Japan. Also, naval command assumed McVay’s route would be safe at that point in the war. Many ships, including most destroyers, were equipped with submarine detection equipment, but the Indianapolis was not, which shows the decision to deny McVay’s request for an escort a tragic mistake.

 

On 24 July 1945, just six days prior to the sinking of the Indianapolis, the destroyer Underhill had been attacked and sunk in the area by Japanese submarines. Yet McVay was never informed of this event, and several others, in part due to issues of classified intelligence. McVay was warned of the potential presence of Japanese subs, but not of the actual confirmed activity. After the torpedo attack, no rescue was initiated because the Navy did not track the Indianapolis.

 

It was widely felt that McVay had been a fall guy for the Navy. Despite McVay’s promotion to rear admiral (two stars) when he retired in 1949, the conviction, effectively, ended his career.
Tragedy continued to stalk McVay, even in retirement. His wife contracted cancer and passed away within a few years of their move home to Litchfield, Connecticut. He also struggled in his post-Indianapolis life with vicious letters and phone calls he received from grief-stricken relatives and friends of dead crewmen aboard the Indianapolis. Eventually the burden of loneliness and nasty, even threatening, phone calls and mail took its toll on the man.

 

On 6 November 1968, Rear Admiral Carl McVay walked out on his back porch, and just to the edge of his yard. In one hand, he held a toy sailor that his father had given to him when he was a little boy. In his other hand, he held his service .45, given to him by the Navy. The Admiral put the gun to his head and fired one round. His gardener found him just outside his back porch. The U.S.S. Indianapolis had claimed her last victim. A note was not left, but McVay was known by those close to him to have suffered from loneliness, particularly after losing his wife to cancer.

 

To close the curtain, after the Japanese signed surrender documents, the I-58 was taken to a bay off one of the Japanese islands. All of its operational gear was stripped and the submarine was scuttled. It is likely still on the bottom of the bay.

 

Much of this information was edited and rewritten from notes containing copious detail by Patrick J. Finneran, and other sources.

 

Bill Ward is a disabled Navy Veteran, a writer and historian living in Salisbury, NC. Contact him at wardwriters@carolina.rr.com

 

This is to the memory of service men I have admired:

James William Wilkerson, a retired Army officer who witnessed first-hand the horrors of Nazi concentration camps in World War II. He also endured the bitter cold at Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War, and the hardships of two-tours of duty in Vietnam. He now enjoys a peaceful rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Lloyd Garrison, an old friend and Navy Corpsman I served with at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia, who hit the beach with the Marines on Iwo Jima in 1945. On his way up Mt. Suribachi, a Japanese bullet struck his steel helmet front-center. The bullet penetrated the helmet, circled Lloyd’s head, making a groove in the helmet while it burned his head completely around to the back, where it exploded through the helmet, making a larger exit hole. He was knocked out. Marines carried him back to an aid station. After treatment and two hours of rest, he was ordered back to his unit.

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