“Suppose we go down and we can’t get a message off? What will happen then?”
-Captain Charles Butler McVay, USS Indianapolis
A speedy ship and stellar captain
It was due to the superior speed of the USS Indianapolis and the stellar record of her captain, Charles Butler McVay, that she was chosen for the top-secret mission that preceded her demise. She had 10 battle stars on her bridge and Captain McVay already had a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart. He was a man who actually cared about his crew, and when she went down, he was devastated. The importance of the Indianapolis’ mission cannot be discounted: when she left Mare Island, California, on July 16, 1945, she was loaded with secret cargo. Not even McVay was told what the cargo was, and specially-assigned guards were stationed around it during the journey to its destination: the island of Tinian. But there were sailors on board with enough experience and knowledge to suspect what cargo they carried, and their suspicions were verified later. It wasn’t much to look at, just a steel box welded securely to the deck of an officer’s quarters. A second, heavy lead container was suspended in a sling from the ceiling above. McVay was ordered to protect the cargo at all costs; he was even ordered to load both pieces into lifeboats before even considering saving his men, and it was a tense voyage to Tinian.
“Captain McVay was like a father to our group. He kept us calm. He kept saying, ‘We are going to be rescued.’” John Spinelli, ship’s cook, second class, USS Indianapolis
We now know the secret cargo was of the utmost importance to ending the war; without it, there is no way to know what might have happened. The sling cradled a flask containing 137 pounds of Uranium 235. The steel box contained the hardware components for Little Boy and Fat Man. Fat Man’s uranium was delivered to Tinian separately by plane.
The USS Indianapolis returns to her fleet
The Indianapolis successfully delivered her precious cargo to Tinian before turning back to rejoin her fleet, which is when she was sunk. And on August 6, 1945, four days after rescue began, the 9,700 pound atomic bomb Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. Little Boy was dropped by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Junior. And on August 9, 1945, one day after rescue efforts ended, 10,300 pound Fat Man was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. Fat Man was dropped from a Boeing B-29 Superfortress named Bocksar, after its usual pilot, although for that particular mission the plane was piloted by Major Charles W. Sweeney.
On the morning of July 16, 1945, as the Indianapolis left port, she had been ordered to pause on her way out to sea and await final confirmation to go ahead with her delivery to Tinian. As she waited, in the New Mexico desert, 120 miles south of Santa Fe, the Manhattan Project detonated its test atomic bomb, watching from 10,000 yards away as the first mushroom cloud blossomed 40,000 feet into the air. The test run successful, the signal was sent to the Indy to continue on her way.
“Captain McVay’s court-martial was simply to divert attention from the terrible loss of life caused by procedural mistakes which never alerted anyone we were missing.” Paul Murphy, survivor and president of the USS Indianapolis Survivor’s Organization.”
317 men were pulled out of the Pacific alive by rescuers, 2 of whom passed away after rescue. 1,197 men were on board the doomed ship when she went down, and, in the end, 880 men died in the Pacific. Of those 880, only an estimated 300 were lost during the ship’s sinking. Of the remaining 550, some succumbed to injuries and the ocean, but a sickening number were consumed by sharks. It is, to date, the Navy’s largest loss of life at sea. And, looking for someone to blame, the US Navy court-martialed Captain McVay for failure to zig-zag. Despite significant evidence maintaining a zig-zag course would not have saved the Indianapolis – including their bringing in Hashimoto himself, who admitted it was a miraculous parting of the clouds and amazing luck on his part – the Navy laid the blame at McVay’s feet.
How the US Navy failed Captain McVay and the USS Indianapolis:
- A code-breaker discovered the presence of Japanese subs, including the fateful I-58, in the USS Indianapolis’ path. But because the information was considered secret, the Navy decided not to warn Captain McVay.
- They also didn’t tell Captain McVay that, right before his departure from Guam (and beginning the return trip), a Japanese sub sank a destroyer escort, the USS Underhill, in that area.
- Captain McVay’s requests for a destroyer escort, as by the Navy’s own book, was denied because the powers-that-be felt an escort would only draw attention to the Indianapolis and possibly even slow her down.
- The distress signal from the Indianapolis was ignored repeatedly, considered a Japanese trick or a mistake of some sort. No one bothered to check.
- Faulty Navy directives and procedures led to the Indianapolis’ failure to arrive to go unrecorded and unnoticed until far too late. Despite a junior man alerting his superior officers, her lack of arrival was ignored. (The faulty directive was that only the ARRIVAL of non-combatant ships was to be reported. Non-arrivals, like the Indianapolis, were not reported.)
- McVay was ordered to zig-zag at his discretion. Due to the heavy fog and lack of enemies in the area – since he had been left out of the loop on the reality of Japanese subs – he ordered the halting of zig-zagging. Numerous witnesses and reports have shown the zig-zag to be entirely worthless, and Hashimoto himself testified it would not have made any difference.
- The Navy even delayed the final rescue 3 hours while debating whether the report of men in the Pacific was true, and, if true, whether the men were their own.
- The Navy put McVay under court-martial because they were looking for a scapegoat, a belief upheld by countless members of the Navy, including every single survivor of the Indianapolis.
- This list could easily go on. The bottom line is the US Navy failed Captain McVay in numerous ways.
Those close to the case and an overwhelming number of Navy service members believed McVay to be entirely innocent of blame. But due to the Navy’s using the captain as a scapegoat, certain members of the uneducated public, including some family members of the dead, sent McVay hate mail for years. His beloved wife Louise intercepted the mail for decades, but when she passed away after a long battle with cancer, the hatred poured in unchecked. On November 6, 1968, plagued by loneliness and survivor’s guilt, Rear Admiral Charles Butler McVay walked out onto his back porch and shot himself fatally using his service revolver. In his hand he clutched a small toy soldier given to him by his father. The Indianapolis had claimed her last victim.
“Day is done/Gone the sun/From the hills/From the lake/From the skies
All is well/Safely rest/God is nigh” Taps
Half a century later
Half a century after the Indy’s sinking, a 12-year-old boy named Hunter Scott watched the movie Jaws with his dad. Hunter was transfixed by Quint’s account of the USS Indianapolis, and asked his dad if it was true. His dad didn’t know, so he began searching for answers on his own. Hunter interviewed more than 150 survivors and collected and reviewed more than 800 documents, first for a school project, but then out of a desire to exonerate the late Captain McVay. Hearing repeatedly of the survivor’s anguish and anger over McVay’s unfair treatment by the Navy, Hunter went before Congress to ask for McVay’s exoneration. In October of 2000, due in large part to Hunter’s impressive efforts, Congress passed a resolution that Captain McVay’s record be altered to show “he is exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis.”
The resolution was signed by then-President Bill Clinton. Sadly, McVay’s son Kimo, who had lobbied tirelessly throughout his life for his father’s innocence, died just twelve days prior to the passage of the resolution by Congress. Perpetually late, in July 2001, the Navy finally ordered McVay’s record be cleared of all wrongdoing. 56 years after the sinking and 33 years after McVay’s suicide as a direct result of his being made a scapegoat, McVay’s record, and his name, were officially cleared. But to the men of the USS Indianapolis, their captain had been innocent from day one.
70 years later, John Woolston is retired and living out his days in the beauty of Hawaii. His memories of the Indianapolis are crystal-clear, and there is no doubt his recollections are accurate and jarring to this day. With a twinkle in his eye, he grieves the loss of his sandwich, repeating “I never did get that first bite.”
Once he was in the hospital receiving treatment on Guam, he was given another sandwich when doctors decided his weakened stomach could handle food. He says that second sandwich just wasn’t the same. Remembering his lost shipmates, he pauses, and tears fill his eyes. They were good men, he says, and they are deeply missed. He gives my daughter his autograph with a smile when she approaches and asks before moving away from our discussion to wait. And as we sit in the back of a quiet room in Washington state, he turns to me and asks if I have anyone in the Navy. My grandfathers served in the Air Force, I answer, ancestors and relatives in the Army, but, yes, I do know someone who served in the Navy. He asks for details, and I give them. He smiles, and a moment goes by while he is clearly lost in thought. “Well,” he began, gripping my hand in his, “you tell him thank you, from an old Navy man, you tell him.” And I did. A special thank you to all of you who have served or are serving in the US Navy; what better thank you than one from a World War Two hero?