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USS Indianapolis (CA-35)...Her Story

Capt. Charles B. McVay III

Dedicated To All Aboard The Indianapolis On July 29, 1945

The Beginning:
Named after the capital city of the state of Indiana, The USS Indianapolis' keel was laid down on the 31st of March 1930, by the New York Shipbuilding Corp., Camden, New Jersey. She was launched on November 7th,1931, sponsored by Miss Lucy Taggart, daughter of U.S Senator Thomas Taggart, a former Mayor of Indianapolis. From her inception, Indianapolis was the pride of the Navy; equipped with all the latest technology of her day. She was 610' 3" in length, and 66' 1" at the beam. She drew 17' 6" of draft. (24' when fully armed, manned and provisioned). Her design flank speed was 32 knots. She was equipped with eight White-Forster boilers located amidships, driving four Parsons geared turbines. Total horsepower was rated at 107,000 delivered through four screws. Her armament consisted of nine 8-inch guns placed in three turrets; two fore and one aft. Additionally, there were four 5-inch guns, twenty-four 40mm intermediate range guns and thirty-two 20mm Oerlikon guns; the latter being installed during several overhauls and refits accomplished during the war. Following final fitting-out, Indianapolis was accepted by the Navy and Commissioned on the 15th of November, 1932 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

The following events are those that lead to the sinking - and the aftermath - of the USS Indianapolis on July 30,1945

While the Indianapolis was in Mare Island dry-dock, the War Department chose the ship to transport "The Bomb" even before they were certain it would work. The Indianapolis, because of her great speed, her availability, and proximity to Los Alamos, New Mexico -where the Manhattan Project was based- had been tapped for history. The Manhattan Project, America's top-secret atom bomb effort, proved a success in the very early hours of July 16, 1945. In the early morning hours of that very same day, shrouded in security and secrecy, but with a huge assembly of Admirals, Generals and many technicians looking on at pier-side, the atom bomb components were loaded aboard Indianapolis. Several large wooden crates were stowed in one of the ship's hangars and guards were placed to keep all inquisitive souls away. The "heart" of two bombs, uranium-235, sealed in a lead-lined metal container, was lashed to cleats which had been tack-welded to the deck in the Admiral's Cabin. Orders were given that should the ship come under attack and find herself 'in extremis' the lead container was to be immediately thrown over the side. Even given the strangeness of this particular order, the nature of the cargo itself was kept secret from all aboard - including Indianapolis' Captain Charles McVay.

Following a record-setting run--average speed 29 knots-- from California, stopping off at Pearl Harbor for 6 hours to refuel and replenish, Indianapolis anchored off the island of Tinian in the Western Pacific, and off-loaded its secret cargo. Tinian was one of several American held islands from which B-29 bombing raids were conducted. (Tinian Island is along the Marianas Trench, and about 100 nautical miles North of Guam Island- Nearly 5,300 nautical miles from California.)

From Tinian, Indianapolis sailed South, made a brief stop at Guam, (Headquarters for the Pacific Fleet, under the command of the Commander In Chief of The Pacific Fleet, Chester A. Nimitz), to replenish and receive new orders. Her new orders were to sail to Leyte Gulf, on the East Coast of the Philippines, some 1,500 nautical miles West of Guam, and there to join with the battleship Idaho, for several days of gunnery practice and refresher training, (About 400 of Indy's crew, were green sailors fresh out of boot camp). From Leyte she was to rejoin the fleet off Okinawa for the expected invasion of Japan. According to the official record, a single coded message was sent from Guam to Idaho advising her of Indianapolis' orders. Reportedly, the radio message was garbled at the receiving end. Idaho didn't ask for a repeat of the message. Consequently they didn't know Indianapolis was on her way-- Indianapolis steamed out of Guam on the 28th of July, unescorted--for she was now in the backwaters of the war--and planned a three day voyage to Leyte at an average speed of 15 knots. As the watch changed at midnight, Monday, July 29-30, Indianapolis was making 17 knots on a course of 262 degrees in a moderate sea with visibility poor but improving under overcast skies. She had secured from zigzagging earlier in the evening and had only four of her eight boilers on line.

I-58 commanded by Mochitasura Hashimoto was on patrol in the the waters East of the Philippines. Shortly before midnight local time in the Western Pacific, and approximately halfway between the Philippines and Guam, the Japanese submarine, sweeping the surface with her long range periscope, and listening with her upgraded passive sonar, picked-up the Indianapolis. "We waited until it got close enough to see what it was. When we saw what a big ship it was, I aimed my torpedoes, and fired ..." Said Captain Hashimoto. In fact Capt. Hashimoto recorded in his log that he had sunk a battleship of the Idaho Class with three hits from a torpedo spread of six.

It was just a few minutes after midnight, 00:14 to be exact, when the first torpedo struck--blowing away Indianapolis' bow. The second struck seconds later striking Indianapolis on the starboard side in the machinery spaces, near a powder magazine and one of her fuel oil bunkers. The explosion knocked out all electric power aboard ship--and any chance for an SOS. [Even though the radiomen on duty swore that at least three SOS messages had been sent before power was lost.] For many years it was believed the loss of electric power had prevented any SOS message from getting off the ship. However recent revelations would seem to support the Indy's radiomen.
Indianapolis' 17 knot forward speed through the water continued--shipping thousands of tons of sea water through collapsing forward bulkheads. Seawater surged in through the gaping hole in her side. She began to go down by the bow and then to list to port. Officers began to shout--ordering all hands to abandon ship. By the hundreds they jumped into the ink-black, midnight sea, taking their burned and wounded shipmates with them. Within about twelve minutes, according to the survivors, Indianapolis rolled completely over to port and went rapidly down, bow first.
Of the approximately 1197 officers and men aboard, survivors estimate about 880 men, many badly burned, maimed and wounded--made it alive into the sea in the early minutes of July 30, 1945.
Luck...Fate...whatever you want to call it, played an important role in all the events in the lifetime of the Indianapolis. Time of day now played a key role in allowing so many men to getaway from the mortally wounded ship. The torpedo attack had taken place within minutes of a watch change --about half the ship's company was taking up their watch duties, the other half still awake, and preparing for their off duty hours.
880 men were now scattered over thousands of yards of open sea. They had no water and no food. Some had kapok life jackets--many did not. Life rafts were precious few. The rafts which were designed to float free of the ship, failed to do so. Fuel oil from the ships ruptured tanks coated the sea and the men, making most violently ill. When the sun rose on that first day, there was reason for optimism--after all, the crew knew they were due to join up with USS Idaho the next day for gunnery practice--surely they'd be missed and search missions would immediately be mounted.
However, such was not the case, and for the next four and a half days, the men of the Indianapolis would know terror, thirst, hunger and despair on a massive scale. Many would give up the struggle and slip quietly beneath the sea, never to be seen again by their shipmates. Prayer constantly assaulted Heaven. Some cursed the navy. It would be the quintessential struggle of man against nature.
Shark attacks began with the coming of daylight on Monday. One by one sharks began to pick-off the men on the outer perimeter of the clustered groups. Agonizing screams filled the air day and night... Blood mixed with the fuel oil. The survivors say the sharks were always there by the hundreds- swimming just below their dangling feet. It was a terror filled ordeal- never knowing if you'd be the next victim. By the third day, lack of water and food combined with the unrelenting terror began to take its effect on the mental stability of the men. Many began to hallucinate. Some, many who had taken in sea water, went slowly mad. Fights broke out. Hope faded. By Wednesday evening, the third day, survivors estimate that only 400 or so were still alive- the dead littered the surface of the sea.
At about 10:25 AM, Thursday morning, 24 year old Lieutenant Chuck Gwinn, piloting his Lockheed Navy Ventura PV-1 bomber based on the island of Palau, about 300 miles south of the location where Indianapolis went down, was on routine antisubmarine patrol. It was his second flight of the day; earlier while attempting to reel out his radio antenna, it broke away. He returned to base at Palau, installed a new one and immediately took off to start his antisubmarine patrol. On that second patrol, Gwinn was in the rear of the plane working with his crew to solve a binding problem with the antenna winch. He was leaning out of the plane, guiding the wire, when he chanced to glance down at the ocean- and changed the fate of 317 men. Gwinn had spotted a huge oil slick. Thinking the large oil slick indicated that an enemy sub had just submerged beneath his plane, he dropped down several hundred feet for a depth charge run. The bomb bay doors were opened, ready to drop depth charges on the suspected enemy sub. Gwinn glanced out the window just as he was about to release his depth charges--and there, spread out over the ocean, were hundreds of delirious men waiving to get his attention. Immediately Gwinn regained altitude and radioed his base at Palau: "Many men in the water", and gave his latitude and longitude. He orbited the location answering questions from Palau. Many hours were wasted in getting through the bureaucracy-They refused to believe him--some thought it was a prank.
Some three hours after Gwinn's first report, a Catalina PBY flying boat was eventually dispatched. At her controls, a 28 year old Navy pilot from Frankfort, Indiana named R. Adrian Marks. Enroute to the location reported by Gwinn, Lt. Marks overflew the USS Cecil Doyle, whose skipper was a close friend. Marks informed the skipper of his mission. On his own initiative, the Doyle's captain, Graham Claytor, diverted from his orders to proceed to Leyte Gulf, where his ship was to take part in the invasion of Japan, to lend assistance.
At this point, his fuel state near critical, Gwinn headed for his home base, little knowing the part fate had played in his life or the lives of 317 American sailors and marines.
Arriving at the survivors' location, Marks dropped to about 100 feet above the surface of the sea while his crew began dropping rafts, and supplies. While this was happening, his crew informed him they could see men being attacked and eaten alive by sharks!
Seeing these men under shark attack, the crew voted to abandon standing orders prohibiting landing in open seas. This act of humanity is all the more remarkable when you realize Marks and his crew had no idea who these sailors might be--English, Aussies, Japanese or American. Marks landed the PBY. (Years later Marks related he knew the day might come when he'd be forced to make an open sea landing--so he had planned for the eventuality. On that day he would put his theory into practice). In a daring maneuver, he landed between swells in a power-on stall - tail low, nose high attitude. Although many hull rivets popped out from the force of the landing, his PBY made it! He taxied his plane as close as he could to the first large group of men and immediately began taking survivors aboard. Some nearby survivors were so weakened by their ordeal that when they slipped out of their kapok life jackets, they drowned while attempting to swim to the plane.
Learning the men were from Indianapolis, a thoroughly shaken Marks frantically, and now in plain English, repeatedly radioed for help. When the PBY's fuselage was full, the crew carried men onto the wings. All night long, Marks and his crew fought to get as many men as possible out of the shark infested sea. The wings' fabric covering was soon filled with holes, and covered with survivors, many tied in place with parachute cord. By morning, Lieutenant Mark's PBY was a floating unflyable hulk. Responding to Marks' calls for help, the destroyers, Cecil Doyle, (DE-368), Talbot, (DD-390), and Dufilho, (DE-423), converged on the scene. The Auxiliary Ships Ringness, (APD-100) Bassett, (APD-73), and Register, (APD-92) also came to the rescue of the remaining Indianapolis crew. The Cecil Doyle came along side Lt. Mark's PBY and took off the rescued survivors. Marks stripped the plane of all instruments and secret gear, and transferred himself and his crew to the Doyle. He then asked her skipper to destroy his plane by gunfire, lest it fall into enemy hands.
The PBY Marks used that day, as he put it, "was the duty PBY", one of those built toward the end of the war in which an experimental self-sealing gas tank had been fitted in the starboard wing. The port wing tank was the standard non-sealing type. In spite of two direct hits to the starboard tank, the plane refused to burst into flame. It wasn't until the Doyle trained her guns on the PBY's port side that they were successful in destroying the plane. Adrian Marks and his courageous flight crew saved 56 men that day. A record that has never been equaled for a sea plane of that size since!
Sadley, Bureaucracy is the same the world over. Believe it or not, some low level Navy functionary in the Pacific actually began the paperwork to court marshal Lt. Marks for disregarding standing orders not to land on the open sea. It was proceeding through the chain of command until somebody realized who Lt. Marks was and what he'd done...the paperwork for the court marshal was killed.

Following medical treatment on Guam, the 317 weary, but deliriously happy survivors were returned to the United States aboard the escort carrier, Hollandia, (CVU-97).

Even though the Indianapolis had been sunk on 30 July 1945, The navy did not release the news to the press until August 15th, The day Japan surrendered. News of the surrender all but overshadowed the loss of Indianapolis.
The Indianapolis was a very high profile ship. Owing to her pre-war fame and her wartime service as the Flagship of ADM Spruance and ADM Halsey, she was the center of attention in the Pacific. The media of the day, radio and print, attempted to get reporters aboard Indianapolis to record the news. Young men just out of Annapolis and the various V-12 and NROTC programs all wanted to be assigned to Indianapolis. That's where the "action" was, and consequently enhanced chances for recognition and promotion. Politically influential fathers had pulled strings to get their sons assigned to the Indianapolis. When the ship was lost, these same influential families began to pressure the navy about the loss of their sons. The navy reacted badly. ADM Earnest King then the Chief of Naval Operations, (the navy's TOP Admiral), ordered a Court Marshal for the INDY'S captain, Charles B. McVay.
On 19 December 1945 Charles Butler McVay III was found guilty of the specification of the first charge: Hazarding his vessel by failing to zig-zag. He was found innocent of the second specification: Failing to sound a timely order to abandon ship. McVay's punishment was to be dropped 100 point numbers on the promotions list--effectively ending what had been by all accounts an absolutely brilliant naval career.
Following the proceedings, an unprecedented thing happened. Almost to a man, the officers sitting in judgment signed a petition asking the court to set aside the verdict in light of McVay's record. As Admiral King had retired in the interim, it fell to ADM Chester Nimitz to grant the petition of the court, and he set aside the punishment. He could not set aside the fact of the conviction. Admiral Nimitz restored Captain McVay to duty and posted him as commandant of the New Orleans Naval district where he was promoted to Rear Admiral (lower half), where he finished his career and retired.
Tragedy continued to stalk McVay even in retirement. What could only be termed "hate mail" was constantly sent to his home. He was the recipient of emotionally charged phone calls from parents and loved ones of those who lost their lives in the tragedy of the Indianapolis. His wife contracted cancer and passed away within a few short years of their move home to Litchfield Connecticut. Eventually the weight of loneliness and calumnious phone calls and mail took its toll on the man.
In the fall of 1968 Charles Butler McVay III, last Captain of the USS INDIANAPOLIS (CA-35), stepped out on his front stoop, and using his navy issued service revolver, took his own life. The tragedy of the Indianapolis had claimed her final victim.

July 13, 2001:
The Navy Department announced that Captain McVay's offical record has been amended. He has been exonerated of the loss of the Indianapolis and the lives of those who perished as a result of her sinking. The action was taken by Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England who was persuaded to do so by New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith, a strong advocate of McVay's innocence. The Indianapolis survivors are deeply grateful to Secretary England and Senator Smith and also to young Hunter Scott of Pensacola, Florida, without whom the injustice to Captain McVay would never have been brought to the attention of the media and the Congress.