The U.S.S. Indianapolis: A Date With History

At 08:00 on Monday, July 16, 1945, the USS Indianapolis pulled away from the dock at Hunter’s Point in San Francisco and headed for the Golden Gate Strait, bound for a brief stop at Pearl Harbor, then on to Tinian in the Marshall Islands.

Even Captain Charles B. McVay III, in command since November 1944, did not know the contents of his mysterious shipment. He had been assured, however, that every hour he cut from travel time would shorten the war. Captain McVay took this admonition seriously, and the vessel made the five-thousand-mile voyage in only ten days.

The Mission: Deliver a top-secret cargo that was placed aboard the ship the day before. A 1920 US Naval Academy graduate and former Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C. prior to taking command of the Indianapolis, Captain Charles Butler McVay, III was under orders that if something happened to the ship that would keep it from reaching its destination he was to protect the cargo at all cost even if it meant placing it in a lifeboat at the expense of drowning sailors.

Capt. Lewis L. Haynes, senior medical officer on board the Indianapolis, recalls: “On July 15th we were ordered to go to San Francisco to take on some cargo. I was amazed to notice that there was a quiet, almost dead Navy yard. We tied up at the dock there and two big trucks came alongside. The big crate on one truck was put in the port hanger. The other truck had a bunch of men aboard including two army officers, Captain James Nolan and Major Robert Furman. I found out later that Nolan was a medical officer. I don’t know what his job was – probably to monitor radiation. The two men carried a canister about 3 feet by 4 feet tall up to Admiral Spruance’s cabin, where they welded it to the deck. Later on, I found out that this held the nuclear ingredients for the bomb and the large box in the hanger contained the device for firing the bomb. And I had that thing welded to the deck above me for ten days.”

The mission to deliver the Atomic Bomb components was in full swing before the first atomic bomb was ever tested. Just three and a half hours earlier, at 04:29:45 PST on July 16th, the world’s first nuclear weapon was successfully tested at the Trinity site in the White Sands Missile Range located in New Mexico.

“Scuttlebutt”, or ship’s gossip, concerning the contents
of the box ran rampant. One such story was that it was a big box of scented toilet paper for General McArthur.

The bomb was an implosion-type device utilizing Plutonium as the fissionable element. Components for a bomb of a different design, named Little Boy, were untested to date but utilized U-235 as the fissionable material. This was the mysterious package that went aboard the Indianapolis.

Time was of the essence and so Capt. McVay made a record setting run across the Pacific Ocean, arriving at Tinian on the morning of Thursday July 26. The mysterious cargo was unloaded and Capt. McVay was ordered to leave immediately and proceed to Guam, where he arrived at 10:00 the next day and replenished fuel and supplies.

The following day, Saturday the 28th, the Indianapolis was ordered to proceed to Leyte (Phillipine Islands) with an SOA (speed over-all) of 15.7 knots and to arrive at Leyte at 11:00 Tuesday, July 31. It is at this point that the story of the Indianapolis takes a turn for the worse.

In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

No capital ship—defined as, unequipped with antisubmarine detection devices—such as the Indianapolis had made the transit between Guam and the Philippines without a destroyer escort throughout World War II, and McVay’s request for such an escort was denied. In fact, on July 24th the USS Underhill had been sunk by a Japanese submarine within the range of the path of the Indianapolis. McVay was not told of this event.

Although a code-breaking system called ULTRA had alerted naval intelligence that a Japanese submarine (the I-58 by name which ultimately sank the Indianapolis) was operating in his path, McVay was not told. (Classified as top secret until the early 1990s, this intelligence — and the fact it was withheld from McVay before he sailed from Guam — was not disclosed during his subsequent court-martial).

USS Indianapolis CA-35

USS Indianapolis CA-35 (Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)

Captain McVay’s orders were to “zigzag at his discretion.” Zigzagging is a naval maneuver used to avoid torpedo attack, generally considered most effective once the torpedoes have been launched. No Navy directives in force at that time or since recommended, much less ordered, zigzagging at night in poor visibility. By 2300 hours on the night of Sunday, July 29th, a heavy cloud cover had severely limited visibility and Capt. McVay gave orders to cease zigzagging and retired to his cabin.

Captain Charles Butler McVay, III turned 47 years of age one hour later, on Monday July 30th, and instead of a birthday cake he was greeted by two explosions at approximately 00:05 on his celebrated day. Out of six torpedoes fired at the Indianapolis from the submarine I-58, two torpedoes found their mark and the 610 foot-long ship sunk in 12 minutes.

Thrown from his bunk, Capt. McVay immediately returned to the ship’s bridge and ordered a “Mayday” distress signal to be sent. The ship took a 60 degree list to the Starboard side and began sinking. The order to “Abandon Ship” was given as the crew was in the process of abandoning the ship.

It is estimated that 300 men died on board the ship during the initial attack, with the remainder of the crew plunged into a mixture of saltwater and fuel oil. It was the fuel oil that caused much of the distress and some of the relief. The men were covered with the black oil and apparently that gave them protection from the sun’s rays burning their skin during the 107 hour ordeal. The fuel oil also filled their eyes and affected their vision.

Later that night there was this bright light shining – it was like a light from heaven. One of the rescue vessels had turned on their flood lights to give us hope. —L.D. Cox, Seaman First Class, USS Indianapolis

Most of the survivors in the water died from injuries sustained aboard the ship, dehydration, exhaustion, and the result of drinking salt water. There were those men who were attacked by sharks, but they did not make up the majority of the dead. Many men were the victims of mass hallucinations, believing that help was nearby and breaking away from the main group only to die from exhaustion trying to reach an island that wasn’t there.

The Pay-no-mind List

No search was instituted to find the long-overdue Indianapolis. When the ship failed to arrive at Leyte on Tuesday morning, a series of blunders ensued. First, there was confusion as to which area the Indianapolis was to report when it arrived. Second, there was no directive to report the non-arrival of a combatant ship. And, third, there was no request to retransmit a garbled message which would have clarified the Indianapolis’ arrival time. As a result, the surviving crew of the Indianapolis was left floating in shark-infested waters until 11am on Thursday, August 2, when Lt. Wilbur C. Gwinn, the pilot of a Ventura scout-bomber, lost the weight from his navigational antenna trailing behind the plane, a loss which was to save the lives of 316 men.

Survivor, Harlan Twible, gives us this extraordinary account:

“…In the fourth day we saw the planes come in, a plane come in, piloted by Chuck Gwinn. He made a pass over us and went around and came back in again. We later found that he was coming in for a bombing run when all of a sudden his men noticed that there were people in the water. This was not a Japanese submarine. He wiggled his flaps and let us know that he had seen us. He didn’t know whether we were friend or foe. He just knew that we were in trouble.

It was at that time I’m sure that he notified the base that the 17-mile long oil slick was in the water and in the slick were men in trouble. The Navy reacted immediately. They sent out a Catalina flying boat, which was a godsend to us. It came over and flashed a message to us. And I read the message — having studied Morse code at the Naval Academy, I could read it very well. Then along came another four-engine plane, and it dropped a lifeboat. And in the lifeboat there was communication gear.

Unfortunately it didn’t work, so I had the gunner who was now in the boat hand me the mirror and I flashed the messages to the Catalina. Answering the question that they asked prior to that time. I told them that we were the USS Indianapolis and I told them we had been in the water in excess of four days.

The captain of the Catalina flew around and decided that he couldn’t let us stay in the water with those sharks eating our people up. So Adrian Marks and his crew decided they’d try to land the Catalina, which was a very precarious thing to do — to land a Catalina in open sea was almost a disaster in itself. By the grace of God he was able to land the plane and his crew members started taking in anybody that they could reach. As I recall they were able to eventually take about 55 or 60 people on board by punching holes in the fabrics of the wing — or both of the wings — and giving men something to grab onto…”

Out of a crew of 1,196 on the Indianapolis, 320 men survived the worst disaster at sea during the entire war for the US Navy. 4 enlisted men died after reaching land bringing the final number of survivors to 316 officers and enlisted crew.

The Rush To Judgement

Captain Charles McVay, commander of the Indianapolis, was hastily court-martialed in December 1945, charged with dereliction of duty in the sinking. The evidence against him was flimsy and many thought that the charges were brought to obscure the role of the higher command in allowing the ship to enter a dangerous area unescorted and for the negligence shown after the ship’s sinking. One of Captain McVay’s defenders was Mochitsura Hashimoto, commander of the Japanese submarine that attacked the Indianapolis. He testified at the court-martial that the torpedoes would have found their mark even if the Indianapolis had been zigzagging.

Nonetheless, the captain was convicted.

700 ships of the US Navy were lost in combat in World War II and Capt. McVay was the only captain to be court-martialed.

Despite being promoted to Rear Admiral when he retired in 1949, the court-martial effectively ended the career of Captain Charles B. McVay, III. He spent the rest of his life battling depression and loneliness, especially after losing his wife to cancer.

On November 6, 1968 the body of Charles Butler McVay,III was found outside his home in Litchfield, Connecticut— McVay had committed suicide with his service revolver. In one hand he was holding a keyring that had a toy sailor attached to it, a gift from his father. At age 70, McVay no longer had to deal with the vicious letters and phone calls he periodically received from grief-stricken relatives of dead crewmen aboard the Indianapolis.

The Eyes of a Child

This story might well have ended there but for the interest of a 11 year-old schoolboy who would not be born for another 17 years.Jaws movie poster In 1996 Hunter Scott had to do a National History Day project and chose the USS Indianapolis because he saw the film, Jaws. With the aid of his father, an assistant school principal, young Hunter went to a university library and did his research. He made it to the State finals, but his project was rejected.

Hunter Scott was convinced that a terrible wrong had been done to Captain McVay and he gathered a list of survivors, now down to 135 men, and started a campaign to clear the name of Charles Butler McVay, III. This resulted in an October 2000 Congressional Resolution, signed by President Clinton, that exonerated the captain for the loss of the Indianapolis. In July 2001 the Secretary of the Navy ordered McVay’s record cleared of all wrongdoing.

If Time is a river, then History must be its banks. Captain McVay’s ordeal at the hands of the US Navy has served those who have followed him: “…Following the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in the Red Sea harbor on October 12, 2001, the Navy decided not to court-martial her captain. It gave as reasons that the captain of the Cole (1) had taken all reasonable precautions to prevent such an attack and (2) had not been adequately warned of the danger to his ship in the harbor. The same reasons were used in the successful effort to exonerate Captain McVay. It might be concluded that the Navy did not want another controversy on their hands.”


Many sources were used in making this post, among them the following:

I leave you with the the monologue that inspired this post: Robert Shaw as Capt. Quint in Jaws. [Note: The date uttered in the movie is June 29, 1945 – not July 30. The story I heard is that either the June date was the birthday of a friend of Shaw’s, or he was still drunk from the day before and missed it by a month.]

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