I sat on the bench in front of the gift shop in the strip mall where my wife was shopping and tried to fight back the tears. It was almost 10 years ago, while on vacation along the South Carolina coast, and I had just finished reading Doug Stanton’s powerful book “In Harm’s Way,” a moving work about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the last days of World War II.
The sinking of the “Indy,” as she was affectionately known by her crew, took place on July 30, 1945, almost exactly 75 years ago. In the end, just fewer than 900 Americans perished in the tragedy, the largest loss of life from the sinking of a single ship in the history of the United States Navy.
American warships have always tended to take on a life of their own. Serving as both home and fighting platform, these vessels have endeared themselves to their crews down through the years. The USS Indianapolis (CA-35), a heavy cruiser of the Portland class of cruisers, was greatly beloved by those who served onboard her.
Named for the city of Indianapolis, Indiana, and commissioned in November of 1932, she was sleek, fast and heavily armed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former Secretary of the Navy before assuming the presidency, loved the “Indy” so much that he sailed on her three times during the 1930s. One of those presidential cruises, a goodwill tour of South America, lasted for almost a full month.
Just two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 5, 1941, the Indianapolis was docked at Pearl. Her berth was very near the now infamous Battleship Row, a site which would have made her a prime target as Japanese aircraft swarmed in and began to pummel the battleships and others vessels in the area.
Strangely, and still a topic evoking all sorts of Pearl Harbor theories today, the Indianapolis was hastily ordered out of port on Dec. 5, to participate in bombing practice at Johnston Atoll some 700 miles away. Thirty-six hours later, the Japanese bombs began to fall at Pearl. Edgar Harrell, an Indianapolis survivor who still lives today at age 95, sees that incident as evidence of the providence of God, sparing the “Indy” for critical service throughout the remainder of World War II in the Pacific.
For the next three and a half years, up until just two weeks before the end of the war, the USS Indianapolis participated in battles all across the Pacific. Her operational log reads almost like a history of the conflict with Japan, including legendary campaigns in places like New Guinea, the Aleutians, Tarawa, Kwajalein, Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
On March 31, 1945, in the waters off Okinawa, a Japanese kamikaze plane managed to make its way past the “Indy’s” wall of anti-aircraft fire and drop a bomb squarely on her main deck before crashing into the sea. Extensive damage to the ship and the loss of nine sailors’ lives resulted. Indianapolis limped back across the Pacific, under its own power, for repairs at Mare Island near San Francisco. All in all, she had amassed 10 coveted Battle Stars since the beginning of the war.
Despite the Indy’s heroic service up until this point in time, her most critical mission still lay ahead. Under a massive shroud of secrecy, the uranium and other component parts for the atomic bomb that would ultimately be dropped on Hiroshima, were loaded onboard for transfer to the island of Tinian.
There the parts would be assembled, and the bomb named “Little Boy” loaded onto the B-29 Superfortress named Eola Gay, for the historic mission to Hiroshima. Indianapolis left California with its top secret cargo on July 16, 1945, arriving at Tinian in record time for a Pacific Ocean transit.
With the bomb safely delivered, Indianapolis was sent to Guam. From Guam, she was to sail for Leyte in the Philippines. At Leyte, the “Indy” was to get in some needed training and then rejoin the fight for Okinawa.
A sad tragedy
But it was at this point that things began to go horribly wrong. Authorities at Guam did not warn the commanding officer of the Indianapolis, Capt. Charles McVay III, that enemy submarines were known to be in the area through which he and his crew would have to travel. Neither did they inform McVay that only days earlier a U.S. destroyer escort, USS Underhill, had been sunk by a Japanese sub in those very waters.
Cruisers like the Indianapolis had no special equipment with which they could locate, track and fight enemy submarines. That task was routinely assigned to destroyers and destroyer escorts. Although he specifically requested it, Capt. McVay was denied a destroyer escort for the journey to Leyte.
Just after midnight on July 30, 1945, a mere two weeks before the war would end, the “Indy” was struck by two torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58 as she sailed for Leyte. The explosions and resulting damage were catastrophic. In less than 15 minutes, the huge warship, listing badly to starboard, rose up by the stern and plummeted to the ocean floor over 3 miles below the surface of the water.
Somewhere around 300 men either died in the explosions or went down with the ship. Approximately 900 of the 1,195 crew members onboard made their way into the shark-infested waters of the Philippine Sea in the blackness of the night.
Because of multiple failures at both Guam and Leyte to account for the movement of the Indianapolis, and due to three distress signals being ignored, the Navy was unaware of the sinking of the “Indy.” Her survivors remained in the water for almost four days before being spotted by aircraft on a routine patrol. Sadly, the three distress signals had gone unheeded because of a drunken commander, another officer in charge who had ordered his men not to disturb him, and a third officer who thought that the the radio message was a Japanese trap.
By the time the men in the water were spotted and rescued, almost 600 of them had perished due to exposure, dehydration, hypothermia, salt water ingestion, fatigue and shark attacks. Some simply gave up and allowed themselves to sink to their death. Others hallucinated and attacked each other. Only 316 of the original ship’s crew survived.
In one of the saddest and most shameful episodes in the history of the U.S. Navy, the negligence of so many that contributed to the disaster was glossed over. Capt. McVay was wrongly made a scapegoat and court-martialed. Years later in 1968, a sorrowful and depressed McVay, unable to shake off the feelings of undeserved blame or deal with the hate mail received from family members of many who had perished in the sinking, took his own life at the age of 70.
Clearing the record
For years, surviving members of the Indianapolis crew fought in vain to clear their captain’s name and his official Navy record. In 1996, a sixth-grader from Florida named Hunter Scott completed a history project dealing with the sinking of the “Indy,” an undertaking in which he contacted many members of Congress. His project garnered national publicity and ignited a campaign to exonerate McVay.
In October 2000, the United States Congress passed a resolution, and President Clinton signed it, that officially cleared Capt. Charles McVay of “the loss of Indianapolis.” His good name was finally restored, and the despicable actions of certain Navy leaders, undertaken 55 years earlier, exposed for what they actually were.
Three years ago, in September of 2017, my son texted me with a link to an article in that day’s news. After several high tech efforts to locate the wreckage of the “Indy,” expeditions spread out over almost 20 years, she had finally been located.
Poignant photographs of the grand old lady lying peacefully, and very well preserved, 18,000 feet below the water’s surface on the floor of the Philippine Sea had now been released.
As I viewed the images online that day, I once again felt the tears welling up in my eyes. The USS Indianapolis and her courageous crew symbolize the 16 million Americans who donned their nation’s uniforms in the cause of freedom, freedom for America and freedom around the world, 75 years ago.