1945, Captain Charles McVay learned that his ship, the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), a veteran of numerous Pacific campaigns, would make a delivery. The heavy cruiser was chosen to deliver components for the atomic bomb “Little Boy” from San Francisco to Tinian. U.S. Army trucks pulled alongside the ship at Hunters Point on 15 July and loaded a large wooden crate into her port hangar. A metal canister was welded in the cabin spaces reserved for staff of 5th Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Raymond Spruance. The following morning, the Indianapolis was en route with her mysterious cargo.
She arrived at Tinian on 26 July, setting a speed record for the leg between San Francisco and Pearl Harbor. After a short overnight transit to Guam, McVay chose routing that would put his ship at Leyte in the early hours of 1 August. There she would join TF 95.7 for much-needed training before reassuming her role as Admiral Spruance’s flagship. The Indianapolis departed Guam the morning of 28 July, traveling through what was now the war’s backwater, where there seemed minimal risks along their assigned route, Convoy Route Peddie. The cruiser’s transit was routine. She used passing aircraft to simulate shooting drills and overtook a U.S. landing ship, tank (LST) after midday on 29 July. Around 2230, heavy cloud cover at moonrise led McVay to use the discretion given to him by navy tactical doctrine to cease zigzagging, and he increased his ship’s speed.
About 90 minutes later, Japanese submarine I-58 surfaced and, through binoculars, Captain Mochitsura Hashimoto spotted an enemy ship perfectly silhouetted by the moon. Hashimoto maneuvered his boat for an attack, armed six Type 95 torpedoes, and put two Kaiten manned torpedoes on standby. Completely undetected, with his target at a distance of 1,500 meters, he began firing his spread of six at 2356 with all on their way by 0002.
Two of the torpedoes struck the Indianapolis’ starboard side. Her initial list was three to five degrees. It rose to 12 degrees within five minutes. McVay’s executive officer reported his belief that they were finished at 0015, and McVay ordered the crew to abandon ship. With no lights or internal communication, he made his way toward Radio Room I to make sure a distress signal was going out on the air.
Meanwhile, the ship’s one functioning engine propelled the Indy forward, causing her to circle to port while she listed heavily to starboard. On his way from the navigation to signal bridge, the list steadily increased to 90 degrees, where it stayed for at least one minute. McVay climbed the rail and walked on the shell until his ship went out from under him at 0020. She plunged by the head, rolled completely over, assumed an up and down position, and slipped beneath the surface.
It is estimated that as many as 400 sailors and Marines went down with the ship, while up to 900 went into the water piecemeal, breaking into seven groups eventually as far apart as 20 miles. When they were spotted nearly 70 hours later on 2 August, just more than 300 survived.
How Did It Happen?
While McVay ultimately was held responsible, the timing of the sinking, unclear directives, personnel with inadequate Navy knowledge, poor communication, untested equipment, inadequate lifesaving equipment, and complacency all contributed to the disaster.
Designed to decrease radio traffic, and to ease the heavy burden on port officials, Pacific Fleet Directive 10CL-45 explicitly stated that the arrival of U.S. Navy combatant vessels did not need to be reported. The directive’s authors never suspected that readers would interpret it as they did—if arrivals did not need to be reported, neither did non-arrivals. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King commented after the war that the rapid wartime expansion of the Navy made it necessary to place individuals in important positions with an inadequate understanding of service culture and the absolute need to report a non-arrival.
Another point of contention in the story was whether the crew, despite their best efforts, were able to get a distress message off of the ship. The second torpedo hit in close proximity to the interior communication room, and the loss of electrical power coupled with damaged and grounded antennas likely prevented the transmitters from putting the keyed SOS with coordinates out onto the air. Radioman Joseph Moran keyed out the SOS in Radio I, but did not believe that a message got off the ship. Crew in Radio II thought there was a chance their message got off due to the meter jumping slightly on both the key and current plates. The Navy investigated the distress message question and determined, based on a lack of evidence of a received message, that, despite the crew’s courageous attempts, no message had gone out due to the “fortunes of war.” Numerous claims of received distress messages that came forth years after the sinking were investigated, but no corroborating contemporary evidence could be located.
Because the Indianapolis delivered the components for the atomic bomb, the relationship between the loss of the ship and atomic bomb delivery became conflated. The failure to report a non-arrival was falsely attributed to the top-secret delivery—nobody knew the Indianapolis was lost because her mission was so secret that nobody really knew where she was. While this adds drama, it is completely false. The Indianapolis had delivered her cargo; her top-secret mission was complete. She was sunk during the routine transit that followed. The bomb was not on board at the time, and neither the crew of the Indianapolis nor the crew of I-58 knew what she had delivered until convalescing afterward, when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped.
Sharks play a significant role in the Indianapolis story, but casting the cruiser as the worst shark attack in history is an injustice to the crew’s commendable service. The majority of men who went into the water died from wounds sustained in the torpedo explosions and by drowning associated with severe dehydration. As men became increasingly dehydrated and the severity of injuries worsened, death tolls increased. Deaths associated with severe dehydration are the most common stories from survivors. Additionally, many men suffered from hallucinations. Some swam off alone toward mirages, exhausted themselves in attacks on shipmates whom they mistook for Japanese enemies, or succumbed to thirst and quickened their own deaths by drinking saltwater. Often hallucinations were contagious. One man in the largest group reported that he had found the stern of the Indianapolis just below the surface, entered it, and drank large amounts of fresh milk. This resulted in others forming a line for entrance and swimming below the surface to drink ocean water and drown.
Part of the reason sharks play such a prominent role in the Indianapolis story is likely found in reports of the rescue crews. When pilot Lieutenant Adrian Marks arrived on the scene he saw sharks swimming among survivors and feeding on remains. Nearly all of the rescue ships arriving to the search area reported picking up remains badly mutilated by sharks. The crew of the USS Helm (DE-367) had to fire at sharks with rifles to get them away from the dead before pulling them on deck for identification. Sharks certainly took the lives of men in the water, but historical records indicate that they fed on the dead more than the living.
Another persistent rumor in the telling of the Indianapolis story is the notion of an elaborate Navy cover-up. Part of the genesis for this came when news of the sinking was publicly released on VJ Day, giving the perception that the good news would overshadow the bad.
McVay addressed this in his correspondence with grieving families, stating that all the ship’s records were destroyed, including the muster rolls, and thus had to be recreated at Pearl Harbor following the rescue. Records were then cross checked with survivors in hospitals at Samar and Peleliu to determine who was missing, and the finalized list went to McVay for review. This process ended on 10 August, and the list arrived in Washington the night of 11 August, where the Navy casualty office spent the day of the 12th preparing more than 800 telegrams to send to families before publicly announcing the loss. The press release was delayed 48 hours after close of business on 12 August—and set for the public release on 15 August, VJ Day. This was another unfortunate circumstance and bad timing, not a cover-up effort.
Location of Wreck
Several reports filed shortly after the Indianapolis rescue mentioned that the had cruiser passed an unspecified LST approximately 11 hours before the attack. This vessel was reported by McVay to have been on the same track as the Indianapolis, but maneuvering northward at the time of the passing to conduct antiaircraft gunnery practice. The LST was never identified.
In 2017, new information offered by the son of a passenger in the LST, coupled with historical research in muster rolls and deck logs, revealed the identity of the mysterious ship as LST-779. She followed Route Peddie, just as the Indianapolis did during the same time. There was no specific mention of being passed by the Indianapolis in her logs, but they did include details of the gunnery practice at 1300 on 29 July, also recounted by McVay. The noon coordinate of LST-779 and the timing of her gunnery practice indicated that the Indianapolis was not exactly on the routing track as historically believed, but farther west. This new information helped locate the final resting place of the heavy cruiser by Microsoft cofounder and philanthropist Paul Allen, who located the Indianapolis on 19 August 2017. Allen’s press release specifically indicated that the shift west of a search box contributed to the Indy’s discovery.
Calculated Risk and Responsibility of Command
This is a case study to which the Navy should pay close attention. McVay was placed in a situation where he had to take calculated risks. Twenty-five percent of the Indianapolis crew turned over in Mare Island, with most new assignments filled by fresh recruits, and the Indianapolis’ transit was full of rushed drills and trainings. The routing decision that put the Indianapolis in the path of I-58 was based on the desire to arrive at Leyte in lighting that would maximize antiaircraft training, and McVay’s decision to cease zigzagging was made when visibility was poor enough for him to feel comfortable, picking up speed and making up lost time.
McVay’s own reporting of the incident helped shape Navy procedure for the future. Escorts became a requirement for all U.S. ships with a crew of 500 or more. It became a requirement for any U.S. ship five hours overdue to be immediately reported and procedures for better ship movement reports initiated. Life rafts on combatant ships were fitted with an emergency radio transmitter. McVay urged the Navy to provide parachute flares in emergency kits, to adopt a life preserver with a pocket containing fresh water, for dull colored life rafts to be replaced with bright yellow ones, and for wooden water breakers to be replaced with watertight metal ones—just to name a few.
The Navy’s treatment of McVay is another blemish in the story, but McVay’s character should be commended. It is not for us to speculate what led him to end his life in 1968, but the nearly 12-inch-tall stack of condolence letters he signed is somber evidence of the personal burden he must have carried.
Remembering the Indianapolis
Much has been published on the Indianapolis disaster, and much more is anticipated with her discovery. Only by telling an accurate story, devoid of the sensationalist distractions, can we properly commemorate the men who served on Indianapolis, tell the story of her final crew, and put the history of a decorated warship in its proper context. The Navy has a moral obligation to ensure that the sacrifices of all those who served are not forgotten: by telling the complete history—good and bad.
Since 2015, Dr. Hulver has been the lead historian on the USS Indianapolis Project at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C.