The circumstances surrounding the sinking of USS Indianapolis (CA-35) and its aftermath have fascinated and horrified the public for more than 70 years. This evolving saga has played out in the media through thousands of newspaper articles, hundreds of magazine features, almost 30 books, and a dozen documentaries. After all, the story consists of not one but a series of tragedies that went unredeemed for decades. The events would be unbelievable if they weren’t true, but attempts to dramatize the captivating story of the ship for mass audiences have struggled. Events in the near-future may soon help write the final chapter of the history of the Indianapolis and allow for the entire story to be told.
In the Shadow of War’s End
News of the sinking of the “Indy” in 1945 received little immediate attention from the public when the Navy announced the disastrous loss of the Portland-class heavy cruiser. The official 25-word statement was released on 14 August, two weeks after the ship had been torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-58. Even though the Indianapolis had suffered a casualty rate of 100 percent—every one of her 1,196 crewmen was dead, missing, or wounded—the news was overshadowed by President Harry S. Truman’s announcement that Japan had surrendered earlier that day. The nation was too busy celebrating to take much notice of the ordeal of the 317 surviving sailors who just a month prior had delivered crucial components of the atomic bomb that helped speed the end of the war.
When the euphoria of victory began to fade, the media as well as the families of the sailors forced the Navy to address questions about the Indianapolis. People demanded to know how a ship could possibly sink with such a great loss of life at the end of the war. The service had already secretly conducted a court of inquiry and issued letters of reprimand for negligence to Captain Charles Butler McVay III and two other officers. The court found that the captain’s failure to zigzag as he sailed the Indianapolis from Guam to the Philippines left the ship vulnerable to submarine attack. The court further cited him for not sending a distress message when the ship was sinking. The letter of reprimand probably should have been the end of McVay’s story, as far as the public was concerned.
But timing was not working in his favor. The end of the war meant the Navy could no longer use censorship to control media scrutiny. With reporters now dissecting the story of the Indianapolis and asking why sailors had been left adrift for days under horrific conditions before help arrived, the service needed to take action. None of the commanders of the hundreds of ships lost to enemy action during the war had been court-martialed because the Navy could not afford to lose experienced captains. However, peace meant that McVay was suddenly expendable. The Navy decided that he would be held responsible for losing the Indianapolis and court-martialed.
Not only did McVay have to face the humiliation of a court-martial that attracted national media coverage, he had to suffer the indignity of having the trial in the Washington Navy Yard, where his father had served as commandant decades earlier. Starting on 3 December 1945, the court began to hear evidence pertaining to the two charges for which he had already been reprimanded. In a surprise move, the commander of I-58, Mochitsura Hashimoto, testified at the proceedings. Whether the public believed McVay to be guilty or not, many were outraged that a Japanese officer who had so recently been an enemy was asked to testify against an American captain. Adding to the ignominy was that Hashimoto himself noted that he was being treated with more respect by the court than McVay was given. Despite the misgivings of the public, Hashimoto seemingly aided the captain by testifying that the Indianapolis was doomed whether she had zigzagged or not; the sub would have sunk the cruiser either way.
Favorable testimony from Hashimoto and the crew members of the Indianapolis was not enough to save McVay from conviction for negligence. The captain, who believed in the Navy’s principle of placing absolute accountability for a ship at sea on the commanding officer, quietly accepted the verdict. He could take a bit of solace in the court’s decision to remit all punishment. The end of the trial would cause the Indianapolis to fade both from newspapers and the public consciousness for a decade.
Reporters Revive Interest
In 1956 The Saturday Evening Post published an account of the sinking by Captain Lewis L. Haynes, the ship’s senior medical officer. Haynes gave an explicit account of the toll the harsh conditions took on the wounded sailors adrift at sea. He also described scenes of chaos as men became delusional and turned on one another. And, of course, there were the sharks. He recounted seeing dozens of bodies mutilated by them. The article shocked the magazine’s large readership and renewed interest in the tragedy.
Around the same time this article was published, Associated Press features editor Richard Newcomb began placing ads in newspapers requesting help contacting survivors of the tragedy. He managed to track down several former crew members who agreed to be interviewed about their experiences. Until then, survivors rarely even spoke to their families about their ordeal, let alone publicly or to a perceived outsider like Newcomb. However, once the survivors learned that the editor had been wounded in a kamikaze attack while serving as a naval war correspondent, the special affinity that sailors have with each other allowed for them to have frank and emotional conversations. Newcomb had even been assigned to a ship berthed next to the Indianapolis in San Francisco and watched her head to sea on her fatal deployment.
Along with his extensive research, Newcomb used the interviews to write the 1958 book Abandon Ship! Death of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the first major comprehensive account of the events and trial. It was also one of the first publications to challenge the conviction of McVay. The book spent 18 weeks on the bestseller list before being syndicated as a serial to newspapers throughout the country, significantly raising public awareness of the plight of the ship and her now-disgraced captain.
The newfound curiosity about the Indianapolis quickly resulted in the story becoming a staple of sensational men’s adventure magazines. Within the pages of these pulp publications featuring articles such as “New York Jungle: Inside Teen-Age Terrorland,” “Wife Traders’ Island Paradise,” and “Russia Can Bomb Us from Space,” readers could find “The Lonely Midnight Death of the Cruiser Indianapolis,” “The Cruiser that Turned Coffin,” and “Terror at Sea—Did the Navy Crucify Captain McVay?”
A couple of survivors who had read Abandon Ship! were moved by it and wanted to reunite with their former shipmates to share their experiences. They realized that many of the men would likely be battling to suppress their memories, so perhaps it would be best to remember together what they could not forget individually. Some thought it was a bad idea to dredge up such a painful past, but more than 150 of them traveled to their ship’s namesake city for the first reunion in 1960. Among those who made the trip was McVay.
The captain had been reluctant to attend because he feared confrontation by someone who still faulted him for the loss of ship and life. Families of some of the sailors who did not return sent him hate mail, and it was weighing on him. However, members of his old crew warmly welcomed him when he arrived at the airport. His appearance drew reporters who probably hoped that he would address the circumstance of his court-martial. Instead, McVay steered clear of the controversy by speaking at the dinner about his perspectives on U.S.-Soviet relations. Overall, it seemed to be an exceptionally positive event for McVay and the other survivors. It also occurred to the men of the Indianapolis that there needed to be a concerted effort to restore their captain’s reputation. It was the beginning of a long campaign to appeal to Congress and the Navy to reexamine the case.
The Indianapolis again drifted from public consciousness for several years until she was thrust back into the newspapers by another tragedy. Already affected by years of bearing the blame for the deaths of hundreds of sailors, McVay had grown increasingly despondent over the passing of members of his own family. In 1968 he ended his torment using his service sidearm.
In 1974 more misfortune would bring the Indianapolis media attention. While sailing from Hiroshima to Los Angeles with a cargo of automobiles, the Japanese freighter Kikuko Maru collided with another ship and killed 24 Korean crewmen. The captain of the freighter was arrested for negligence at sea. It was not long before the media realized that Mochitsura Hashimoto of the Kikuko Maru was the same man who had commanded the submarine responsible for sinking the Indianapolis. Forced to resign in disgrace, Hashimoto became a Shinto priest.
While many people became familiar with the story of the Indianapolis through these sporadic news stories, a cultural phenomenon in 1975 brought a new level of notoriety that no one could have predicted. As the first summer blockbuster and history’s highest-grossing film at that time, Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws introduced the saga to a wide-eyed global audience.
The haunting (albeit error-filled) soliloquy given by Robert Shaw in the role of Quint became an iconic movie scene, forever associating the ship with shark attacks:
Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. We’d just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven-hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer. You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know, was that our bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’ by, so we formed ourselves into tight groups.
Spielberg later revealed that he was unfamiliar with the history of the Indianapolis until Tony Award–winning playwright Howard Sackler suggested that it would provide an intriguing backstory for the character of Quint. Sackler drafted a short version of the speech, which was expanded by screenwriter John Milius and then honed by Shaw.
The popularity of the movie sparked a national fascination with sharks. Newspaper editors who learned that an Indianapolis survivor lived in their town rushed to interview him and get the “real” story of Jaws.
That summer, the survivors again gathered for their reunion at the height of Jaws mania. They and their families were even offered free tickets to watch the film but the survivors all declined, explaining they had already seen enough sharks up close. Curiosity would get the best of some, who eventually relented. At least one survivor was treated like a rock star and asked to sign autographs when other members of the audience learned that an actual “Quint” was in the theater.
The studio was eager to capitalize on the success by producing a sequel, even though it would happen without Spielberg. Sackler pitched the concept of a prequel that would depict Quint’s ordeal after the Indianapolis sank. The idea intrigued the studio, but they instead opted for a traditional sequel that continued the storyline of the first film.
Exoneration for McVay?
It was not the screen but the stage that would first dramatize the tragedy of the Indianapolis and court-martial of her captain. Premiering in March 1981 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, John B. Ferzacca’s full-length play The Failure to Zigzag mixed fictional scenes with dialogue taken from the trial’s transcripts. The play received favorable reviews.
For his 1982 book All the Drowned Sailors, former Marine Raymond B. Lech obtained dozens of previously classified documents that he used to outline his stance that the sinking of the Indianapolis was due to the incompetence of Navy leadership and that McVay had been the victim of a conspiracy to cover up the mistakes. Journalist Dan Kurzman conducted dozens of interviews and uncovered additional documents for his 1990 book, Fatal Voyage, to further the notion that McVay had been a scapegoat.
It was perhaps the combination of the evidence provided within the two books as well as their commercial success that gave traction to the decades-old campaign to vindicate McVay. The constant appeals to Congress by the survivors and their supporters finally resulted in a response in 1991. At the behest of the House Armed Services Committee, the Navy agreed to review the circumstances surrounding McVay’s court-martial to determine whether it should be officially reopened. The rising hopes for those wanting to see McVay’s record cleared were quickly deflated when the Navy dismissed the request.
Although the campaign to exonerate McVay was being rebuffed, Hollywood’s interest in bringing the story to a larger audience increased. Orion Pictures bought the rights to Fatal Voyage and hired maverick filmmaker John Sayles to write the script. Jonathan Demme, who had just completed the Academy Award–winning Silence of the Lambs, was attached to direct, but financial problems at the studio prevented the project from going into full production.
Television producer Richard Maynard thought the story of the Indianapolis crew’s struggle for survival could play out on the small screen, so he approached CBS with a screenplay. Executives at the network recognized the potential of the material but were slow to commit. They had been disappointed in the response to their big-budget miniseries War and Remembrance and were skeptical that another production about World War II could be successful. Maynard was finally able to sell them on the idea that the movie could be marketed as a shark story rather than a World War II story. The nonsensically titled Mission of the Shark, starring Stacy Keach and Richard Thomas, premiered in 1991 to mixed reviews but respectable ratings.
Public interest in the Indianapolis received a substantial boost in 1996 when sixth-grader Hunter Scott got involved in the campaign to exonerate McVay. Working on a project about the ship for National History Day had inspired Scott to learn the truth. After gathering materials and interviewing survivors, he began lobbying Congress to again reconsider the case. The 12-year-old wrote about his efforts in Naval History (“Timeline to Justice,” August 1998, pp. 47–49), and other media could not resist a story about a schoolboy joining a group of World War II veterans in a crusade for justice. The campaign began receiving national attention. Movie studios realized that the addition of Scott gave the narrative of the Indianapolis another compelling angle. The studios began to clamor for the rights to his story. MGM, which had inherited the script to Fatal Voyage when the studio bought Orion, made a bid for Scott. So did Disney, Fox, Paramount, and several other studios.
Good Will Hunting producer Chris Moore heard a segment about Scott on National Public Radio and was intrigued by it. When he learned through industry gossip that many studios were already jockeying to sign the middle-school student, he convinced Universal Pictures that it needed to get in front. Universal won the mad dash to get Scott and started to develop USS Indianapolis, which was eventually retitled The Good Sailor. A legal squabble sidetracked the project when Kurzman alleged that Universal was failing to credit him for the research that appeared in his book Fatal Voyage. According to Scott, the biggest factor affecting the project at Universal was “a series of rewrites that kept moving further and further away from the actual events.”
The October 1999 Proceedings article “The Sinking of the Indy & Responsibility of Command” by Commander William J. Toti brought further scrutiny to the Navy’s handling of McVay. Toti, the former commander of the attack submarine USS Indianapolis (SSN-697), outlined the weaknesses in the charges against McVay and criticized the Navy for falling back on feeble arguments in subsequent investigations. He contended that the conviction may have been legally correct but was not just.
In 2000 the dogged determination of the survivors, Kurzman, Scott, and a host of others was rewarded when Congress passed a resolution attached to a defense authorization bill that exonerated McVay and recommended that the crew of the Indianapolis be awarded a Navy Unit Commendation. However, it was a nonbinding “sense of Congress” resolution that did not expunge the conviction from McVay’s record. The Navy still held fast to its position that the conviction was final and there was no legal authority to overturn it. The service also maintained that it decided who earned Unit Commendations, not Congress. In 2001 the Navy reversed its decision and announced McVay’s record would indeed be modified to exonerate him and that the crew would receive the Unit Commendation.
These events coincided with the release of Doug Stanton’s In Harm’s Way, a critically acclaimed bestseller that delivered perhaps the most vivid account of the crew’s fight for survival in existence. Warner Brothers snapped up the rights to the book for a film to be directed by Barry Levinson tentatively titled The Captain and The Shark. Mel Gibson, who had also been pursued by Universal for the The Good Sailor, was set to star as McVay. Levinson’s vision for the film was ambitious—perhaps too ambitious—and the studio balked at the enormous proposed budget.
In 2001, the Discovery Channel broadcast In Search of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which documented undersea explorer Curt Newport’s expedition to find the wreck during the previous year. He had found and successfully recovered the Liberty Bell 7 space capsule in 1999 but had no such luck with the Indy, much to the disappoint of the several survivors who accompanied him on the voyage. A second expedition was featured in the 2005 National Geographic program Finding of the USS Indianapolis. Despite the ambitious title, the wreck was not found, though a few tantalizing scraps of metal were recovered in the vicinity.
Universal attempted to breathe new life into its movie adaptation of Scott’s story by bringing aboard J. J. Abrams. As the creator of Alias and Lost, Abrams had emerged as a hot property. However, delays in the project caused him to jump ship to direct Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III. Meanwhile, another screenplay about the tragedy penned by Richard Kelly of Donnie Darko started to make the rounds. Kelly’s Optimistic was reported to contain gruesome scenes of shark attacks.
The Indy Continues to Captivate
In 2007 the Discovery Channel broadcast a docudrama about the Indianapolis crew’s struggle in the open water titled Ocean of Fear. The program aired during the channel’s annual Shark Week, which was appropriate since the crew had spent the better part of a week among the sharks.
Hollywood began buzzing again when the production company that Robert Downey Jr. operates with his wife acquired the rights to Hunter Scott’s story in 2011, after Universal had given up on the project. In 2015 the wheels started to turn on the project when Tate Taylor of The Help was signed to direct. There has been speculation but no confirmation that Downey will take the role of McVay.
The drama surrounding the Indianapolis and her captain returned to the stage in the 2015 off-off-Broadway production In the Soundless Awe. Described as “Kafkaesque,” it depicted the last days of McVay as he struggles with the memories of his lost ship and crew members, being lured by the dead to join them. The production was positively received by critics.
After the disappointment of many aborted projects, one finally went into production in 2015 when Hannibal Classics started filming U.S.S. Indianapolis: Men of Courage in Alabama. Directed by Mario Van Peebles and starring Nicolas Cage and Tom Sizemore, the movie is scheduled for release in 2016. Richard Rionda Del Castro produced the film “to pay homage to the final crew of the USS Indianapolis, to acknowledge and honor them along with their families . . . to make sure that new generations, worldwide, will learn and know about their story, forever.”
National Geographic is organizing another expedition to find the wreck with noted oceanographer Robert Ballard, who famously found the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic in 1985. Ballard believes that advancements in technology will help this expedition succeed where previous attempts have failed. He said they have “greatly narrowed the search box and will be using a ‘wolf pack’ of multiple AUVs [autonomous underwater vehicles] to scour to the ocean floor.” In addition to this endeavor, the National Geographic Channel announced that it is resurrecting Stanton’s In Harm’s Way as a miniseries starring Kevin Bacon.
While the exoneration of McVay may have finally brought the redemption to tragedy that filmmakers need to tell the complete story of the Indianapolis, the discovery of the wreck will certainly serve as the coda. One can hope that both will happen soon.
Raymond B. Lech, All the Drowned Sailors (New York: Stein and Day, 1982).
Doug Stanton, In Harm’s Way (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001).
Richard F. Newcomb, Abandon Ship! (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1958).
Dan Kurzman, Fatal Voyage (New York: Atheneum, 1990).
Pete Nelson, Left for Dead (New York: Delacorte, 2002).
Dave McNary, “WB acquires USS Indianapolis tale,” Variety, 7 August 2011, http://variety.com/2011/film/news/wb-acquires-uss-indianapolis-tale-1118041462.
Variety Staff, “Pair will raise the USS Indianapolis cover-up,” Variety, 13 August 1998, http://variety.com/1998/voices/columns/pair-will-raise-the-uss-indianapolis-cover-up-1117479452.
Deron Mikal, “Local man tells of his survival in U.S. Navy’s worst sea tragedy,” Zanesville Times Recorder, 27 July 1975.
Fred Nuccio, “Local man survived real ‘Jaws,’” The (Chicago) News Journal, 20 August 1975.
Lewis L. Haynes and George W. Campbell, “We prayed while 883 died,” Saturday Evening Post, 6 August 1955.
Jill Young Miller, “Survivors recount ordeal of Indianapolis tragedy,” Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, 28 September 1991.
Walter Kaylin, “108-hour mid-ocean ordeal…500 dead…300 still afloat,” Stag, May 1963.
Cynthia Littleton “Kevin Bacon, Nat Geo Channel Developing Miniseries ‘In Harm’s Way,’” Variety, 30 September 2015, http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/kevin-bacon-in-harms-way-nat-geo-channel-mark-gordon-1201606406.
Sailors Live On Through Photo Trove
In 2014 the U.S. Naval Institute received a donation of photographs taken by Alfred J. Sedivi, a U.S. Navy photographer’s mate who died in the sinking of USS Indianapolis in 1945 (see “Photographer at War,” August 2014, pp. 16–23). He had used his camera to document many aspects of life on board the ship, including daily duties, official ceremonies, and combat. He also went ashore to capture images of the aftermath of many of the most crucial battles of the war in the Pacific such as Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Saipan, Peleliu, and Okinawa. The photos survived the war because Sedivi had routinely sent them to his home in Nashville where his family preserved them for 70 years.
Shortly after Sedivi was featured on cover of the August issue of Naval History, the Naval Institute launched a fundraising campaign to digitize and restore the entire collection of 1,650 photos. The success of campaign, due in large part to the support of Captain William Toti, U.S. Navy (Retired), allowed for the development of a traveling exhibit. The exhibit, which consists of two dozen enlarged prints of Sedivi’s most compelling photographs, will premiere on 6 May at the Frankfort Community Public Library in Frankfort, Indiana.
“The USS Indianapolis is dear to the hearts of Frankfort residents and we are looking forward to sharing this exhibit with our community, the state of Indiana, and the survivors of the USS Indianapolis,” said Mindy Emswiller of Frankfort Community Public Library. “Our own Adrian Marks was the Navy seaplane pilot who first responded to the sighting of survivors. Adrian and his crew disobeyed orders to make a heroic open-sea rescue of 56 sailors.”
Located in the shadow of the Indianapolis’ namesake city, the Frankfort library will host the exhibit through the end of June.