A few minutes past midnight on 30 July 1945, the Japanese submarine I-58 fired a spread of six torpedoes at the US heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) hitting her twice on the starboard side. The first impact blew off forty feet of bow, and the second struck under the bridge, detonating a 5″ magazine and breaking the vessel’s keel. The torpedoes killed some 300 to 350 of the 1,196 crewmen aboard Indianapolis. The ship settled quickly by the bow, rolled to starboard, and sank in twelve minutes.
The three and a half days of agony endured by the crew of Indianapolis, and the monumental mistakes made by the United States Navy in not discovering the loss of the ship, followed by the unseemly court martial of Captain Charles B. McVay III, make the tale of the sinking of this gallant ship one of the most compelling and disturbing of the entire of the Second World War.
Indianapolis was a 10,000-ton Portland-class “treaty cruiser” built under the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty. The limits on displacement meant that the entire of the three classes of “treaty cruisers” were very lightly protected for their size, earning them the derisive nickname of “tinclads”. Laid down in 1930 and commissioned in 1932, Indianapolis nevertheless participated in most of the major naval campaigns of the Pacific War, earning ten battle stars and lending her 8″ main battery to bombardments in the Gilberts and the Marshalls, including Tarawa and Kwajalein. She had served as the flagship for Admiral Spruance and the 5th Fleet, present in the Marianas, Palau, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Indianapolis would earn ten battle stars for her service.
Newly repaired from a kamikaze hit that blew holes in her stern and damaged both shafts, beginning on 16 July Indianapolis had raced from Pearl Harbor to Tinian on a highly secret mission carrying components of the atomic bombs that would end the war. Following delivery of her secret cargo on Tinian, Indianapolis was proceeding to Guam at 17 knots when she had her fatal rendezvous with I-58.
When the ship did not appear on 31 July, she was not reported overdue. Nobody searched for her or her crew. In the eighty-four hours between the sinking of their ship and the beginning of rescue operations, more than five hundred sailors died in the waters. Thirst and dehydration, wounds, exposure, exhaustion, despair, all played a part in the story. But it was the sharks who did the real killing. The unspeakable ordeal thinned the ranks of floating men over the three nights and four days until salvation came on 2 August in the form of a PBY which had been alerted by a PV-1 Ventura flying anti-submarine patrols. The PBY pilot landed (against orders) and began gathering the most in danger into the hull and onto the floats of the aircraft. The PBY also dropped rafts and flotation devices for those in what were by then soggy kapoks. The PBY also overflew and alerted Cecil J. Doyle (DE-368), skippered by a future Secretary of the Navy, who (without orders) immediately diverted to begin rescuing the survivors of Indianapolis.
In the end, only 316 men of the nearly 900 who abandoned the sinking Indianapolis survived the sharks. More than 800 crewmen were lost with the ship, one of the largest losses of life for a single US Navy ship in the entire war.
A great injustice was added to terrible tragedy when the US Navy brought Captain McVay (who had been awarded a Silver Star previously for heroism under fire) in front of a Court of Inquiry. The result was recommendation for a General Court Martial on the charges of failing to order abandon ship, and hazarding his vessel with a failure to zig-zag.
The Court Martial convened on 3 December 1945, over the objections of both Chester Nimitz and Ray Spruance. The resulting proceeding is a dark stain on the honor of the US Navy and both Navy Secretary Forrestal and CNO Admiral King. Seemingly ignored by the court were Captain McVay’s request for an escorting destroyer, which was denied, as well as the failure of the staff at Guam to inform Captain McVay properly of Japanese submarine activity. The thoroughly-botched Movement Reporting System, which never listed Indianapolis as overdue, received scant attention. Worse, despite testimony from ship’s crew that visibility on that fateful night was fair to poor, despite the order to zig-zag being at the Captain’s discretion, and in the face of the opinion of the Japanese captain of I-58 that zig-zagging was ineffective and would not have made a difference, Captain McVey was found guilty of hazarding his vessel for failing to zig-zag.
Despite Nimitz’ success in having Forrestal restore Captain McVey to duty, and McVey’s promotion upon retirement to Rear Admiral, Charles Butler McVay III lived a troubled two decades following his retirement from the Navy in 1949. Following the death of his wife from cancer, Rear Admiral McVey died by his own hand at his Litchfield, Connecticut home in November, 1968. In 2001, a bi-partisan effort in Congress officially exonerated Rear Admiral McVay in the sinking of USS Indianapolis. It was, while good news, thirty three years late.
We know the name Indianapolis from some excellent works such as the movie Mission of the Shark, and Dan Kurtzman’s magnificent book Fatal Voyage. But our generation was first re-introduced to the tragedy of the tale from the 1975 movie Jaws, when Quint tells Hooper and Brody of his experience as a sailor who endured the sinking of Indianapolis and the sharks which killed so many. For my money, perhaps the best eight seconds of acting in memory is done by Richard Dreyfus (Hooper), when, in the midst of the laughter and comraderie, his expression and demeanor change so dramatically as the significance of Quint’s missing tattoo hits home.
Sixty-six years on, let us remember those Sailors and Marines of Indianapolis whose lives were lost in the warm Marianas waters, and pray for those whose grief and anguish would not subside. Shipmates, loved ones, and Rear Admiral Charles B. McVay. And let us vow never again allow the US Navy to stain the honor and reputation of brave men whose efforts and courage could not alter the grim equation of war at sea.