A war story of survival in shark-infested waters, told vividly by the character Quint in the movie Jaws, inspired a seventh-grade student to restore honor to the captain and crew of the USS Indianapolis.
With perhaps greater reverence than many of my 12-year-old peers, I appreciate this opportunity to write about what has grown from a school history project into a mission. My quest has allowed me to be associated with individuals who fought so that all Americans could live in the greatest democracy the world has ever known. Throughout this journey, I have learned the great price of freedom, the meaning of honor, valor, and supreme sacrifice in the line of duty, and the fact that democracy is a treasure so valued that men and women are willing to give their lives in its pursuit.
For that reason, I have urged the introduction of a bill before Congress (H.R. 3710) to correct an injustice done 53 years ago. I pray that the men and women who gave their lives are looking down on what I am doing, knowing their sacrifice was not in vain. I am proud and honored to bring to the attention of Naval History readers again the case of Captain Charles B. McVay III and the crew of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35).
President Abraham Lincoln once said: "The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just." I began such a "struggle" when I was 11 years old, for the "just cause" of restoring honor to Captain McVay and gaining a Presidential Unit Citation for the Indianapolis and her crew.
My dad tells me that "the true test of your character is what it takes to make you quit." The men of the Indianapolis and their captain did not quit in their quest to bring a hasty end to World War II. After making a record-setting run to the island of Tinian for delivery of components for the first atomic bomb, the ship was torpedoed, sinking in just 12 minutes. Of her 1,196 men, 850 to 950 made it off the ship and into the water, where they spent five nights and four days surrounded by sharks and death, while those responsible for their safety did not notice that the ship was missing. An accidental spotting of the survivors saved the lives of 316 crew members, 150 of whom are still with us today. Now, more than a half-century after this tragedy, we must not forget these men, and we must not quit in our effort to set the historical record straight.
Based on my research, the following timeline tells the story of the final days of the Indianapolis.
- 16 July 1945—Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves choose to load components for the first atomic bomb on board the Indianapolis. Captain McVay receives orders to proceed "with all possible haste" to Tinian.
- 21 July—The USS Underhill (DD-682) is sunk by a Japanese submarine in the same area where the Indianapolis will go down. Captain McVay never is given this information nor any notification that the Japanese submarines I-58 and I-367 are operating in the area. A directive from the Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, prevents Captain McVay from receiving this intelligence.
- 26 July—The Indianapolis arrives in Tinian; atomic bomb components are unloaded. Captain McVay receives orders to proceed to Guam, then to Leyte for gunnery practice with the USS Idaho (BB-42) on 2 August. The Idaho receives a garbled message about the arrival of the Indianapolis. No request is made for retransmission. The Idaho is unaware that the Indianapolis is en route. (This is the first in a series of blunders that led the Indianapolis to cruise into a bureaucratic void.)
- 28 July—In Guam, Captain McVay is denied requests for an escort. His orders give him discretion concerning whether or not to zigzag while under way. The Indianapolis makes the trip from Guam to Leyte unescorted—the first heavy warship to do so during the war—without capabilities to detect enemy submarines.
- 31 July—At sunset, Captain McVay comes on the bridge to discuss weather conditions. The night is overcast and cloudy. He believes he is cruising in waters free of enemy submarines, because of intelligence given to him prior to his departure from Guam. The Indianapolis is doing 17 knots, and Captain McVay gives orders to cease zigzagging because of poor visibility. He gives orders to be awakened if weather changes occur.
- 1 August—At 0004, the ship is struck by two of six torpedoes fired by the I-58. The first torpedo takes off 60 feet of her bow, and the second hits amidships, igniting the powder magazine and shutting off most electrical power. Chief Radio Electrician L. T. Woods, observed by Radio Technician 2nd Class Herbert J. Minor, sends SOS and position of the Indianapolis on 500 kilocycles from Radio Room II, which maintains power. According to Minor, at least three signals are transmitted. Former Yeoman 2nd Class Clair B. Young stated in a letter received by Commander T. E. Quillman, Jr., "while stationed at U.S. Navy 3964 Naval Shore Facilities Tacloban, Philippine Islands, that he personally delivered the SOS message to Commodore Jacob H. Jacobson, U.S. Navy."
Young awakens Commodore Jacobson and notices a strong odor of alcohol in the room. Commodore Jacobson reads the message, which identifies the ship, her location, and her condition. Mr. Young asks Commodore Jacobson: "Do you have a reply, sir?" The answer comes: "No reply at this time. If any further messages are received, notify me at once." The SOS is received and ignored. Meanwhile, Commander Hashimoto of the I-58 radios Japan and indicates that he has just sunk a battleship and gives the location. The message is decoded by the U.S. Navy. Still, no one checks on the whereabouts of the Indianapolis.
- 2 August—The Indianapolis is due to arrive in Leyte that morning. Upon non-arrival, the ship is taken off the plotting board, and no effort is made to determine where she is. Admiral King had standing orders that combatant ships' arrivals in port were not to be reported, which implied that non-arrivals also were not to be reported.
- 3 August—Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn, flying a Ventura bomber, accidentally spots Indianapolis survivors and radios Palau for rescue operations to commence. Lieutenant Adrian Marks lands a PBY in heavy seas and picks up 56 survivors. Tom Brophy defies orders and tries to swim to the plane; he does not survive.
- 4 August—Rescue operations start in a 50-mile radius.
- 6 August—First atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima.
- 15 August—Japan surrenders. Navy releases information about the sinking of the Indianapolis. The press begins to ask the Navy why the ship was never missed.
NOTE: The father of the aforementioned Tom Brophy goes to Washington after the war to arrange a meeting with Captain McVay. According to Mr. D. J. Blum, Brophy tries to call on Captain McVay the day he arrives in Washington and is told to arrange the meeting for the following week because of Captain McVay's prior commitments.
Brophy follows Captain McVay, who attends a party. Furious, Brophy meets with his friend, President Harry S. Truman, and convinces him to court-martial Captain McVay. President Truman pressures Admiral King to convene a court-martial. Admiral King himself appoints the members of the court, who know Admiral King wants Captain McVay found guilty and who also are depending upon Admiral King for promotions.
- 3 December—Court-martial begins. Captain McVay requests Lieutenant Commander Donald Van Koughnet, Chief Legal Officer of the U.S. Navy Military Government for the Marianas Islands, to represent him. Admiral King denies the request. The charges are "failure to follow a zigzag course" and "failure to sound an abandon ship."
NOTE: Since 1991, several Navy documents have been declassified, showing that Captain McVay was not given intelligence that could have prevented this disaster (see "Ultra and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis," a paper given to the Eleventh Naval History Symposium, 1993). This same information—which could have been useful in Captain McVay's defense, showing that the "super technical" charges were unfounded—was considered Top Secret in 1945 and was not used in the court-martial. The question as to why the men of the Indianapolis spent five nights and four days in the water without anyone noticing that the ship was missing was not considered in the trial.
- 13 December—Admiral King brings in Hashimoto, commander of the I-58 to testify against Captain McVay. Hashimoto states that zigzagging would have made no difference, that he would have sunk the Indianapolis anyway. The I-58 had several kaiten on board, had the six-torpedo spread missed its target. The Indianapolis was doomed.
- 19 December—Captain McVay found guilty of failure to follow a zigzag course, therefore hazarding his ship. His sentence, loss of 100 promotion numbers, is later remitted. His conviction is not. The guilty verdict stands to this day. Out of more than 700 ships lost in World War II, the Indianapolis is the only one to have her captain court-martialed.
- 6 November 1968—Captain McVay commits suicide.
NOTE: In a 10 August 1990 letter to Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), Captain Russell E. Sullivan stated that he was on board the USS General R. L. Howze (AP-134), which traveled the same course as the Indianapolis and cruised through her wreckage. Bodies and debris were observed. Captain Sullivan stated: "We had not received orders to zigzag. We had 4,000 troops on board. We had not been notified that an enemy submarine was in the area. The foregoing can be confirmed by referring to the official log of the USS General R. L. Howze for August of 1945."
In a letter dated 10 February 1998, Dr. Lewis Haynes, the chief medical officer on board the Indianapolis, stated that, as he was treating Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz at the Chelsea Naval Hospital, Admiral Nimitz told him that Captain McVay "should not have been court-martialed."
After two years of research and interviews with almost all remaining Indianapolis survivors, I have amassed what one naval historian has called "the greatest collection of information on the USS Indianapolis in the world." On 22 April 1998, accompanied by Congressman Joe Scarborough (R-FL), Congresswoman Julia Carson (D-IL), and 11 Indianapolis survivors, I personally dropped H.R. 3710 into the hopper on the floor of Congress. This bill will erase all mention of the court-martial and conviction from the record of Captain Charles B. McVay III and award a Presidential Unit Citation to the USS Indianapolis and her crew.
In 1806, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Political interest can never be separated in the long run from the moral right." Now, 53 years after the politically motivated court-martial of an innocent ship captain, we are in the "long run," and we have the opportunity to do what is "morally right." I write this near the beginning of my life, making a request for many men who are toward the end of theirs. Please do not forget about the captain and crew of the Indianapolis for the second time in 53 years. Write to your congressmen and senators, asking them to support H.R. 3710.
Mr. Scott is a seventh-grade honor student at Ransom Middle School in Cantonment, Florida. He holds a Black Belt in tae kwon do, is on the swimming and basketball teams, plays saxophone in both the symphonic and jazz bands, and recently won a bronze medal for snow skiing in Colorado. Mr. Scott aspires to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, where he intends to pursue a career in naval aviation.