I don’t know if the title of this post is accurate, although the assessment was made by others. I do know that after seeing the video movie on the story of the USS Indianapolis, I didn’t need any persuading to believe this assessment was true, on many levels.
On July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis left Guam to assist a superspy in delivering the core of the atomic bomb in preparation for the strike on Hiroshima. The ship was struck by a submarine with two Japanese torpedoes and sank in 12 minutes, taking down 300 men with it. Almost 900 went into the water alive, where they fought for their lives for four interminable days and five nights, against sharks, dehydration, insanity, and attacks on each other in order to survive. In 2018, a book was published that tells the story.
The horror of the story builds over those four days. There were few life rafts, and life jackets were removed from those who were already dead to save those who were still alive. But from my perspective, the shark attacks were the most devastating part:
The animals were drawn by the sound of the explosions, the sinking of the ship and the thrashing and blood in the water. Though many species of shark live in the open water, none is considered as aggressive as the oceanic whitetip. Reports from the Indianapolis survivors indicate that the sharks tended to attack live victims close to the surface, leading historians to believe that most of the shark-related causalities came from oceanic whitetips.
Why did four days and five nights pass before they were rescued? Navy intelligence intercepted a message from the Japanese submarine that torpedoed the ship, but it assumed it was “a trick to lure American rescue boats into an ambush.”
Meanwhile, the survivors died from shark attacks, the heat, thirst and hallucinations from drinking the seawater.
Finally, on the fourth day, a Navy plane spotted them and called for help. The hero in their rescue was pilot Lieutenant Adrian Marks who dropped rafts and supplies:
When Marks saw men being attacked by sharks, he disobeyed orders and landed in the infested waters, and then began taxiing his plane to help the wounded and stragglers, who were at the greatest risk. A little after midnight, the USS Doyle arrived on the scene and helped to pull the last survivors from the water. Of the Indianapolis’ original 1,196-man crew, only 317 remained. Estimates of the number who died from shark attacks range from a few dozen to almost 150.
This entire situation was tragic in many ways. First, the Indianapolis was not provided with an escort, because the ship that would have escorted them was destroyed; apparently another ship was not available. Second, the boat was inadequately equipped in the event of a disaster. Third, the intelligence that the Navy intercepted was disregarded. Fourth, no alarm was raised when the Indianapolis didn’t arrive at its destination port.
There were so many errors made to deal with this situation that the Navy decided it needed a scapegoat:
In November, 1945, McVay was court-martialed and found guilty of causing his ship to be in grave danger because he failed to zigzag and, thus, confuse any enemy submarines in the area. Since the war was over at the time of the court-martial, the commander of the submarine which sank the Indy, Mochitsura Hashimoto, was called to testify as to his view of the event. According to Hashimoto, his position with regard to the Indy was so good that zigzagging would have made no difference. Regardless, it soon became clear that the Navy needed a scapegoat for the incident, and McVay was the man. The US Navy lost more than 700 vessels of all types during the Second World War. Charles McVay was the only captain court-martialed for his loss.
On November 6, 1968, Charles McVay killed himself with a Navy-issued sidearm.
For the next 50 years, his men labored to clear Charles McVay’s name to no avail, until 12-year-old Hunter Scott wrote a report about the Indianapolis. He interviewed 150 survivors and read over 800 official documents, and eventually his project was seen by the Congress, and along with survivors, he testified:
This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis.
In October 2000, five years after Hunter Scott testified, Congress passed a resolution, signed by President Clinton, stating that Admiral* McVay was “exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis.”
*He left the service as a Rear Admiral.
**The ship was found in March 2015.Published in