(The American Catholic will observe its tenth anniversary in October. We will be reposting some classic TAC posts of the past. This post is from July 15, 2015.)
Hours after the successful test of the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, the USS Indianapolis left San Francisco with a top secret cargo that mystified the crew. The cruiser delivered Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, to Tinian on July 26, 1945. On July 30, 1945 it was sunk by Japanese sub I-58. 900 of the crew made it into the water. SOS signals, contrary to the Jaws video clip, were sent off. Three Navy stations received the SOS signal. At the first station the commander was drunk. At the second station the commander had left orders not to be disturbed. The third station wrote off the SOS signal as a Japanese prank. The Navy denied that the SOS signals had been received for years, and only the release of declassified material revealed the criminal negligence involved. When the ship failed to dock at Leyte as expected on July 31, 1944, the port operations director Lieutenant Stuart B. Gibson inexplicably failed to report that the Indianapolis had gone missing.
This resulted in the men of the Indianapolis being in the water for 3 and a half days until they were spotted by a routine air patrol. Heroic efforts were then undertaken to rescue the survivors. 321 men were rescued, four of whom died soon thereafter. Most of the almost 600 men who escaped the ship and died in the water had been killed by hundreds of sharks who swarmed about the survivors. Among the dead was Lieutenant Thomas Conway, the ship’s Catholic chaplain. He spent his time in the water swimming from group to group, praying with the men, encouraging them, and reasoning with men driven to despair. When Father Conway died on August 2, 1945, he was the last American chaplain killed in World War II.
Captain Charles B. McVay III, the skipper of the Indianapolis, had been wounded in the sinking and was among those who survived to be rescued. He repeatedly asked why it took so long for the Navy to rescue his men, a question the Navy did not answer. Instead, McVay was court-martialed, a scapegoat for an episode that had tarnished the image of the Navy. He was convicted for not zigzagging, which was farcical since he had been told to use his discretion in regard to zigzagging, and with high-speed torpedoes and improved aiming devices aboard subs, zigzagging was not an effective technique for a ship to avoid being torpedoed by the end of World War II.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of the Pacific Fleet, recognizing the fundamental injustice of the court martial, restored McVay to duty and he retired as a Rear Admiral in 1949. Although most of the surviving crewmen of the Indianapolis regarded him as a hero, McVay was eaten away by guilt over the deaths of his crewmen, guilt that was exacerbated by hate mail and hate phone calls he periodically revealed from a few of the families of some of the men who died in the sinking and its aftermath.
After the death of his wife in 1966, McVay took his own life, clutching in his hand a toy sailor given to him by his father. In 1996 a twelve year old school boy, Hunter Scott, launched a campaign to clear McVay’s name. The campaign to clear McVay was supported by former Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto who had commanded the I-58 and who noted in a letter that zigzagging would have had no impact on his torpedo attack.
In 2000 Congress passed a resolution calling for the Navy to exonerate McVay. The resolution stated in part:
Whereas following the accomplishment of that mission, the INDIANAPOLIS sailed from Tinian to Guam and from there embarked for Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to join training with the fleet assembling for the final assault on the Japanese mainland;
Whereas as the INDIANAPOLIS began its trip across the Philippine Sea on July 28, 1945, the war was virtually over in that area of the South Pacific, with hostilities having moved 1,000 miles to the north, the Japanese Navy’s surface fleet was nonexistent, and United States naval intelligence reported only four operational Japanese submarines in the entire Pacific theater of war, all of which resulted in the state of alert among shore-based personnel routing and tracking the INDIANAPOLIS across the Philippine Sea being affected accordingly;
Whereas before departure from Guam Captain McVay requested a destroyer escort because his ship was not equipped with antisubmarine detection devices, but, despite the fact that no capital ship such as the INDIANAPOLIS had made the transit between Guam and the Philippines without escort during World War II, that request was denied, and a 1996 report by the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s office concedes that ‘Captain McVay and the routing officer did not discuss the availability of an escort after the operations officer for COMMARIANNAS confirmed that an escort was not necessary’;
Whereas although Captain McVay was informed of ‘submarine sightings’ in the Philippine Sea, such sightings were commonplace, and none of those reported to Captain McVay had been confirmed, and at the same time there was a failure to inform him that a submarine within range of his path had sunk the U.S.S. UNDERHILL four days before his departure from Guam;
Whereas United States military intelligence activities, through a code-breaking system called ULTRA, had learned that the Japanese submarine I-58 was operating in the Philippine Sea area, but Captain McVay was not told of this intelligence, which remained classified as Top Secret until the early 1990’s, and this intelligence (and the fact that it was withheld from Captain McVay when he sailed from Guam) was not brought to light at his court-martial;
Whereas the INDIANAPOLIS was sunk by this same submarine;
Whereas the commander of that submarine, Mochitsura Hashimoto, testified at the court-martial that once he had detected the ship, he would have been able to make a successful torpedo attack whether or not the ship was zigzagging;
Whereas with visibility severely limited by a heavy overcast at approximately 11 p.m. on the night of July 29, 1945, Captain McVay gave the order to cease zigzagging and retired to his cabin and shortly after midnight the INDIANAPOLIS was struck by two torpedoes and sunk within 12 minutes;
Whereas the formal charge upon which Captain McVay was convicted for ‘suffering a vessel to be hazarded through negligence’ contained the phrase ‘in good visibility’ in reference to the weather conditions on that night, which is contrary to the recollection of all survivors, who recall that the visibility was very poor;
Whereas after the INDIANAPOLIS was sunk, various Navy shore offices compounded the previous errors which had led to the ship being placed in jeopardy by failing to report the ship’s overdue arrival, thus leaving the approximately 950 members of the crew who survived the sinking of the ship adrift for four days and five nights until by chance the survivors were spotted by a routine air patrol;
Whereas a court of inquiry to investigate the sinking was convened in Guam on August 13, 1945, just two weeks after the sinking and nine days after the survivors were rescued (a date so soon after the sinking that Captain William Hillbert, the Navy judge advocate for the inquiry, admitted that the inquiry was so rushed that they were ‘. . . starting the proceedings without having available all the necessary data’) and recommended that Captain McVay be issued a Letter of Reprimand and that he be court-martialed;
Whereas the headquarters staff of CINCPAC (commanded by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz) disagreed with the recommendation of the court inquiry, stating that in not maintaining a zigzag course Captain McVay at worst was guilty only of an error in judgment and not gross negligence and concluded that the rule requiring zigzagging would not have applied in any event since Captain McVay’s orders gave him discretion on that matter and took precedence over all other orders (a point that was never made by Captain McVay’s attorney during the court-martial);
Whereas the Department of the Navy delayed the announcement of the sinking of the INDIANAPOLIS for almost two weeks to coincide with the announcement of the surrender of Japan, thus diverting attention from the magnitude of the disaster and lessening its public impact, and then, despite opposition by Admiral Nimitz and Admiral Raymond Spruance (for whom the INDIANAPOLIS had served as flagship), it brought court-martial charges against Captain McVay in a rare instance when a commanding officer’s recommendations are contravened;
Whereas Captain McVay thus became the first United States Navy commanding officer brought to trial for losing his ship in combat during World War II, despite the fact that over 700 ships were lost during World War II, including some under questionable circumstances;
Whereas Captain McVay was convicted on February 23, 1946, on the charge of ‘suffering a vessel to be hazarded through negligence’, thus permanently damaging his career as a naval officer, although when Admiral Nimitz was advanced to the position of Chief of Naval Operations later that same year, he remitted Captain McVay’s sentence and restored him to active duty;
Whereas following his court-martial conviction, Captain McVay remained on active duty until retiring in 1949 upon completion of 30 years of active naval service, with a final promotion, in accordance with then-applicable law, to the grade of rear admiral, effective upon the date of his retirement;
Whereas Rear Admiral Charles Butler McVay III (retired), died on November 6, 1968, without having been exonerated from responsibility for the loss of his ship and the lives of 880 members of her crew;
Whereas the survivors of the INDIANAPOLIS still living have remained steadfast in their support of the exoneration of Captain McVay;
Whereas in 1993, Congress, in section 1165 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1994 (Public Law 103-160; 107 Stat. 1765; 16 U.S.C. 431 note), recognized the memorial to the U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS (CA-35) in Indianapolis, Indiana, as the national memorial to that historic warship and to her final crew; and
Whereas in 1994, Congress, in section 1052 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1995 (Public Law 103-337; 108 Stat. 2844), stating that it was acting on behalf of the grateful people of the United States (1) recognized the invaluable contributions of the U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS to the ending of World War II, and (2) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of her tragic sinking, and the dedication of the national memorial in Indianapolis on July 30, 1995, commended that ship and her crew for selfless and heroic service to the United States: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
SECTION 1. SENSE OF CONGRESS CONCERNING THE COURT-MARTIAL CONVICTION OF CHARLES BUTLER MCVAY, III.
It is the sense of Congress that–
(1) the court-martial charges against then-Captain Charles Butler McVay III, United States Navy, arising from the sinking of the U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS (CA-35) on July 30, 1945, while under his command were not morally sustainable;
(2) Captain McVay’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice that led to his unjust humiliation and damage to his naval career; and
(3) the American people should not recognize Captain McVay’s lack of culpability for the tragic loss of the U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS and the lives of the men who died as a result of her sinking.
SEC. 2. SENSE OF CONGRESS CONCERNING PRESIDENTIAL UNIT CITATION FOR FINAL CREW OF THE U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS.
(a) SENSE OF CONGRESS- It is the sense of Congress that the President should award a Presidential Unit Citation to the final crew of the U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS (CA-35) in recognition of the courage and fortitude displayed by the members of that crew in the face of tremendous hardship and adversity after their ship was torpedoed and sunk on July 30, 1945.
(b) WAIVER OF TIME LIMITATION- A citation described in subsection (a) may be awarded without regard to any provision of law or regulation prescribing a time limitation that is otherwise applicable with respect to recommendation for, or the award of, such a citation.
The Secretary of the Navy cleared McVay of all wrongdoing in July of 2001. The boy who began the campaign to bring posthumous justice to McVay is now a helicopter pilot in the Navy.