On 12 August 1945, Charles and Ruth Donnor got the worst news a parent can receive. A Navy telegram arrived at their home in Big Rapids, Michigan, informing them that their son, Clarence William Donnor, radio technician second class, was missing in action.1 No further information was given, but they were told more would follow. With World War II still ongoing, they were asked not to speak about the situation to avoid divulging information to the enemy. The news became more confounding when they learned Clarence was feared lost on the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35).
The Indianapolis, frequent flagship of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, sank on 30 July 1945 in the Philippine Sea after being struck by a pair of Japanese torpedoes. Two long-standing mysteries surrounding the loss were the number of men who sailed on the ship’s final voyage and how many survived her sinking. Competing numbers arose: one from the Navy’s original 1945 tabulations and another from the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization. Between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2018, Sara Vladic, an Indianapolis historian and filmmaker, and Dr. Richard Hulver, a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) with subject-matter expertise on the loss of the Indianapolis, sorted through hundreds of documents and cross-checked nearly 1,200 names in an effort to reconcile the different totals. Their research unearthed a recordkeeping error that, nearly three-quarters of a century later, confirmed what the Donnors knew in 1945. Clarence was alive and well. He had never sailed with the Indianapolis.
Clarence had been listed on the Indianapolis’s final sailing list as a passenger, but as various other lists appeared over the years, the passenger distinction vanished. On the final sailing list, now in the custody of the National Archives, he was shown as lost at sea. That same list tallied the total number of survivors as 316. In several books, however, including Only 317 Survived published by the Indianapolis Survivors Organization, he was listed as a survivor. After searching available public records, Vladic discovered Donnor was not lost on the Indianapolis. According to the muster roll of the ocean tug USS Chimariko (ATF-154), his Navy career continued until the summer of 1946.2
While this new research clearly showed Donnor had lived, it raised two other questions:
- How had the Navy overlooked a survivor of one of the most publicized disasters in its history?
- If the Navy had not overlooked Clarence Donnor, was he on the Indianapolis when she went down?
To answer these questions, Curator of the Navy and NHHC Director retired Navy Rear Admiral Samuel Cox asked Dr. Hulver to lead a deep dive into the survivor discrepancy. The NHHC team obtained the complete personnel record for Clarence Donnor from the National Archives’ National Personnel Records Center and went to work.
Unraveling the Mystery
When the Japanese submarine I-58 hit her with two torpedoes, the Indianapolis sank within 15 minutes, and all paper records went down with the ship. Among the lost documents was the detailed crew roster, including documentation of any crew changes that took place between 16 July and 28 July 1945 during transits from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, Pearl Harbor to Tinian, Tinian to Guam, and finally Guam to Leyte.3 At the conclusion of rescue operations on 3 August, the Navy hurried to reconstruct the ship’s final sailing list and account for the missing. Seven different lists were compiled. They differentiated between officers and enlisted, sailors and Marines, and regular crew and special details and included rosters of all survivors convalescing at two Navy hospitals. The final tabulation and collation of all these lists were included in a memorandum and signed off by Indianapolis skipper Captain Charles B. McVay III on 8 August 1945. That list showed 316 survivors of the 1,196 personnel on board at the time of the sinking.4
Image from the Paul Allen-led expedition that found the wreck of USS Indianapolis.
The seven lists and the cover memo collectively provide the final list of survivors and ultimately establish the correct number of survivors—316 men. The same documents, however, incorrectly identify the total number on board and the total number killed in the tragedy.
Key among the historical lists were rosters from the two hospitals where Indianapolis survivors were taken, Fleet Hospital #114 at Samar and Base Hospital #20 at Peleliu.5 There is no record of any survivor coming from the water and not requiring hospitalization. Dr. Hulver therefore determined that lists from the two Navy hospitals represented a complete tally of survivors. After cross-checking these lists with rescue ship records and accounting for the four individuals who died shortly after rescue, the final accounting shows 149 patients receiving treatment at Hospital #114 and 167 survivors at Hospital #20, totaling 316 survivors. All discrepancies in the lists can be accounted for by cross-checking the hospital rosters, sailing list, deck logs for the rescue ship, USS Bassett (APD-73), and the Survivors Organization list—except for Donnor. Dr. Hulver’s conclusions, reviewed by several NHHC historians, were shared with Sara Vladic, who did an additional review and reached the same conclusion.
A Navy casualty card with a category of “missing” from Indianapolis was filled out for passenger Clarence Donnor on 11 August when he failed to materialize among survivors at either hospital. The Navy telegram to his parents informing them of the terrible news was sent on 12 August. The next day, Clarence’s mother, Ruth, typed a letter to Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Admiral Randall Jacobs: “We are pleased to inform you that we have talked with our son since that date [when he was declared missing on 30 July] and also had a postal card and letter. He is now en route to a naval school in New York.” Mrs. Donnor went on to explain that she thought the mistake was the result of a change in Clarence’s plans at Shoemaker, California. RT2c Donnor was “taken to Treasure Island [California] and from there ferried to the Cruiser Indianapolis to be a passenger to some island base in the Pacific. He had been on the ship but a half hour when the call came through for him to take his gear and go back to Shoemaker.” She was happy to report to Vice Admiral Jacobs that her son was “safe and well” and hoped her letter would “help to keep your records straight."6
It did, but imperfectly. The Navy immediately launched an investigation to verify Mrs. Donnor’s claim, and on 23 August, the original casualty card for her son was amended from “missing” to “survivor,” the change coded with an infrequently used number indicating it was made as a result of family correspondence.7 Commander H. B. Atkinson, the officer in charge of the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS) Casualty Section wrote Mrs. Donner that he was “pleased to confirm the information contained in your letter of 13 August 1945 concerning the welfare of your son. . . . Any anxiety you may have been caused by the telegram stating that your son was missing is deeply regretted.”8
Donnor’s file indicates that within hours of his arrival on the Indianapolis, his notice of acceptance into an officer training program arrived, with orders to report to Fort Schuyler, New York. His deployment to the Pacific was canceled. As Donnor began planning to make his way across the United States, the crew of the Indianapolis finalized preparations for their fateful voyage back to war.9 Within a day of his departure, components for the atomic bomb Little Boy were loaded on the Indianapolis, and she departed with her top-secret cargo the morning of 16 July. Amid the chaos of the ship’s hurried redeployment, Donnor’s arrival on board apparently was recorded, but his hasty departure was overlooked. Thus, when the paper records were reconstructed, he remained on the final crew list, resulting in a complement of 1,196—one man too many.
While the Navy almost immediately knew Donnor had lived, the initial clerical error remained in the historical Navy lists with no explanation, and what became the official numbers were flawed. Knowledge of Donnor’s survival crept into updated lists as early as 1963.10 Sources that began including Donnor as a survivor of the ordeal indicated he was rescued by the Bassett.11 If correct, this meant he would have traveled to Hospital #114, which had no record of his admittance.
Sara Vladic’s research into the personal stories of the survivors buttresses the evidence from Donnor’s personnel file. Over the past 17 years, she has met with and interviewed more than 107 survivors, collecting the memories of nearly all crew still available. She also interviewed members of the various rescue crews. When all the survivors were at last gathered in one place, at Base Hospital #18, Guam, they came to understand the scope of what they had endured. Desperate to know the fate of their friends, they sought out and created crew lists, compared notes with their buddies and division members, and tried to account for all the men on the ship. It stands to reason that had Clarence Donnor been on board, he would have made some connections among the crew, especially with radiomen and radio technicians, 11 of whom were among the survivors. Yet, in nearly two decades of discussions and 170 hours of taped conversations, Clarence Donnor was not mentioned in any of Vladic’s volumes of research—neither as a lost-at-sea crewmember nor as a survivor.
To an outside observer, this small casualty discrepancy might seem insignificant. To survivors, descendants, friends, and the Navy, it is not. As historians and friends of the USS Indianapolis family, we are committed to commemorating the sacrifices of those who served by telling their story accurately—the good and the bad. This entire event shows the inherent difficulties in accounting for casualties in the fog of war and in verifying those figures years after the fact—particularly with an episode as chaotic as the loss of the Indianapolis. We can now confirm, 73 years later, that the Navy’s number of survivors in 1945 was correct at 316, and that the final crew list for that tragic voyage has been corrected to show 1,195 men were on board and 879 lives were lost.
Thank you, Mrs. Ruth Donnor, for helping to keep our records straight.
1. “Telegram from Chief of Naval Personnel to Mr. and Mrs. Donnor,” 12 August 1945, Navy Personnel File of Clarence William Donnor, NARA, St. Louis, Missouri.
2. In the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936–2007, Clarence Donnor’s death date is listed as 1 February 2002. His birthday and names of his parents also match the information for this Social Security number.
3. Despite its top-secret delivery mission, the Indianapolis carried a large number of passengers from the transit stateside to the Pacific theater. Many passengers offloaded at Pearl Harbor and likely at the other stops on the voyage. Clarence Donnor’s listing as a “passenger” on an early list makes the information in these lost records all the more important.
4. The original total for the number on board was 1,198. McVay scratched through this, wrote 1,196, and initialed it. It is not known on what date McVay’s edit to the 8 August document took place. McVay also changed the number of officers on board from 84 to 82, the number of officers missing from 69 to 67, and the total number of missing from 878 to 876 [with 4 additional confirmed dead listed, bringing the total lost to 880]. He made no corrections to the survivor figures.
5. The only ship to take survivors to Hospital #114 in Samar was the Bassett (APD-73). All other men pulled from the water were taken to the closer hospital, #20 at Peleliu by the Cecil J. Doyle (DE-368), Ringness (APD-100), and Register (APD-92). See Peter Wren, Those in Peril on the Sea: USS Bassett Rescues 152 Survivors of the USS Indianapolis (Richmond, VA, 1999).
6. “Mrs. Ruth Donnor to VADM Randall Jacobs, Chief of Naval Personnel,” 13 August 1945, Navy Personnel File of Clarence William Donnor, NARA, St. Louis, Missouri.
7. See “Reports of Casualty,” 23 August 1945, in Navy Personnel File of Clarence William Donnor, NARA, St. Louis, Missouri. The coding of this change is important to note because in the final IBM WWII casualty tabulations, Clarence Donnor’s name is struck through with casualty explanatory code “6902,” which is not listed in the key for this list. There is an explanatory note on one of the pages in Donnor’s personnel file that 6902 means a special letter was submitted by next of kin.
8.“H. B. Atkinson to Mrs. Charles Donnor,” 24 August 1945, Navy Personnel File of Clarence William Donnor, NARA, St. Louis, Missouri.
9. “Orders from Commander U.S. Naval Training and Distribution Center Shoemaker, California, to Commanding Officer Receiving Station, Navy 128,” 29 July 1945/31 July 1945, Navy Personnel File of Clarence William Donnor, NARA, St. Louis, Missouri.
10. Thomas Helm in Ordeal by Sea: The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1963) includes Donnor on the roster as “wounded.” Donnor is not listed among the survivors in a book that precedes Helm’s, Richard Newcomb’s Abandon Ship: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy’s Greatest Disaster (New York: Harper Collins, 1958).
11. Murphy, Only 317 Survived, 123.
DR. HULVER is a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command. He previously has worked as a historian for U.S. Southern Command, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and the U.S. Army Chief of Staff’s Iraq War Study Group. He has written extensively on U.S. World War I and II military commemorations. He is the author of the forthcoming documentary history covering the loss of the Indianapolis, “A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis Tragedy” (GPO, 2018).
MS. VLADIC is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and has appeared as a subject-matter expert for National Geographic and the Smithsonian Channel. She is coauthor, with Lynn Vincent, of INDIANAPOLIS: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man (Simon and Schuster, July 2018).