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"I would not have hesitated to serve under him again. His treatment by the Navy was unforgivable and shameful."

From statement submitted at September 1999 Senate hearing by Florian Stamm, USS Indianapolis survivor

Captain McVay

"I believe this whole ordeal about the sinking and especially the outcome of the court-martial was and is a black mark on the Navy and not the Captain."

From statement submitted at September 1999 Senate hearing by Lyle M. Pasket, USS Indianapolis survivor

A 1920 graduate of the US Naval Academy, Charles Butler McVay III was a career naval officer with an exemplary record whose father, Admiral Charles Butler McVay II, had once commanded the Navy's Asiatic Fleet in the early 1900s. Before taking command of the Indianapolis in November 1944, Captain McVay was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the combined chiefs of staff in Washington, the Allies' highest intelligence unit.

Captain McVay led the ship through the invasion of Iwo Jima, then the bombardment of Okinawa in the spring of 1945 during which Indianapolis antiaircraft guns shot down seven enemy planes before the ship was struck by a kamikaze on March 31, inflicting heavy casualties, including 13 dead, and penetrating the ship's hull. McVay returned the ship safely to Mare Island in California for repairs. 

On July 16, 1945, the Indianapolis sailed from California with a top secret cargo to Hawaii for refueling, then to Tinian where it unloaded its cargo, the uranium and major components of the atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay on August 6. The Indianapolis was then routed to Guam enroute to Leyte in the Philippines.

It was at Guam that the seeds for the destruction of the Indianapolis were laid. Hostilities in this part of the Pacific had long since ceased. The Japanese surface fleet no longer existed as a threat, and 1,000 miles to the north preparations were underway for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. These conditions resulted in a relaxed state of alert on the part of those who were to route the Indianapolis across the Philippine Sea.

Here is some of the evidence (as indicated in "The Story"):

  • Although naval authorities at Guam knew that on July 24, four days before the Indianapolis departed for Leyte, the destroyer escort USS Underhill had been sunk by a Japanese submarine within range of his path, McVay was not told.
  • Although a code-breaking system called ULTRA had alerted naval intelligence that a Japanese submarine (the I-58 by name which ultimately sank the Indianapolis) was operating in his path, McVay was not told. (Classified as top secret until the early 1990s, this intelligence -- and the fact it was withheld from McVay before he sailed from Guam -- was not disclosed during his subsequent court-martial.)
  • Although no capital ship (unequipped with antisubmarine detection devices such as the Indianapolis) had made the transit between Guam and the Philippines without a destroyer escort throughout World War II, McVay's request for such an escort was denied.
  • Although the routing officer at Guam was aware of dangers in the ship's path, he said a destroyer escort for the Indianapolis was "not necessary" (and, unbelievably, testified at McVay's subsequent court-martial that the risk of submarine attack along the Indianapolis's route "was very slight").
  • Although McVay was told of "submarine sightings" along his path, none had been confirmed. Such sightings were commonplace throughout the war and were generally ignored by navy commanders unless confirmed.
Thus, the Indianapolis set sail for Leyte on July 26, 1945, sent into harm's way with its captain unaware of dangers which shore-based naval personnel knew were in his path.

Captain McVay's orders were to "zigzag at his discretion." Zigzagging is a naval maneuver used to avoid torpedo attack, generally considered most effective once the torpedoes have been launched. No Navy directives in force at that time or since recommended, much less ordered, zigzagging at night in poor visibility.

At about 11pm on Sunday night, July 29, the Indianapolis traveling alone was about halfway across the Philippine Sea. There was heavy cloud cover with visibility severely limited. Captain McVay gave orders to cease zigzagging and retired to his cabin. Minutes later the ship was spotted as an indistinct blur by Japanese submarine commander Mochitura Hasimoto of the I-58. It was coming directly toward him from the east.

Shortly after midnight the ship was struck by two torpedoes and sank in about twelve minutes.

When the ship failed to arrive at Leyte on Tuesday morning, a series of blunders ensued. First, there was confusion as to which area the Indianapolis was to report when it arrived. Second, there was no directive to report the non-arrival of a combatant ship. And, third, there was no request to retransmit a garbled message which would have clarified the Indianapolis' arrival time. As a result, the surviving crew of the Indianapolis was left floating in shark-infested waters until 11am on Thursday, August 2, when Lt. Wilbur C. Gwinn, the pilot of a Ventura scout-bomber, lost the weight from his navigational antenna trailing behind the plane, a loss which was to save the lives of 316 men. 

While crawling back through the fuselage of his plane to repair the thrashing antenna, Gwinn happened to glance down at the sea and noticed a long oil slick. Back in the cockpit, Gwinn dropped down to investigate, spotted men floating in the sea, and radioed for help. At 3:30 that afternoon Lt. R. Adrian Marks, flying a PBY Catalina, was the first to arrive on the scene. Horrified at the sight of sharks attacking men below him, Marks landed his flying boat in the sea, and, pulling a survivor aboard, he was the first to learn of the Indianapolis disaster. 

The Court-Martial

"The charge upon which he was convicted for failing to zigzag contained a phrase 'in good visibility.' The visibility that night was NOT good as all of us know who were there that night."

From statement submitted at September 1999 Senate hearing by Paul J. Murphy, USS Indianapolis survivor

Upon their rescue by different vessels, the Indianapolis survivors were scattered at various Pacific bases. Captain McVay was taken to Guam where he faced a board of inquiry ordered by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz (CINCPAC) which convened on August 13, one day before the sinking of the ship was announced to the public (simultaneously with the announcement that the Japanese had surrendered, thus insuring minimum press attention).

Conceding that they "were starting the proceedings without having available all the necessary data," the board nonetheless recommended a general court-martial for McVay. Admiral Nimitz, however, did not agree and on September 6, six weeks after the disaster, wrote to the Navy's Judge Advocate General opposing a court-martial and stating that at worst McVay was guilty of an error in judgment, but not gross negligence. Nimitz recommended a letter of reprimand which constituted a slap on the wrist but was far from career-ending punishment.

In a CINCPAC report, Nimitz pointed out that the rule requiring zigzagging would not have applied in any event since McVay's orders gave him discretion on that matter and thus took precedence over all other orders (a point which, unbelievably, was never made by McVay's defense counsel during the subsequent court-martial).

Overriding the opposition of both Nimitz and Admiral Raymond Spruance (for whom the Indianapolis had served as Fifth Fleet flagship), naval authorities in Washington, specifically Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations, directed that court-martial proceedings be held against McVay, and the trial was scheduled to begin on December 3, 1945, at the Washington Navy Yard.

Captain McVay was notified but not told what specific charges would be brought against him. The reason was simple. The Navy had not yet decided what to charge him with. Four days before the trial began they did decide on two charges. One, failing to issue orders to abandon ship in a timely fashion. And, two, hazarding his vessel by failing to zigzag during good visibility.

Captain McVay was denied his first choice of defense counsel, and a Captain John P. Cady was selected for him. McVay was also denied a delay to develop his defense, and thus Cady, a line officer with no trial experience, had only four days to prepare his case.

It's difficult to understand why the Navy brought the first charge against McVay. Explosions from the torpedo attacks had knocked out the ship's communications system, making it impossible to give an abandon ship order to the crew except by word of mouth which McVay had done. He was ultimately found not guilty on this count.

That left the second charge of failing to zigzag. Incredibly, the Navy brought the commander of the Japanese submarine, Mochitura Hashimoto, to testify at the court-martial which was held at the Washington Navy Yard. Hashimoto implied in pretrial statements that zigzagging would not have saved the Indianapolis but was not pressed on this point during the trial itself.

One prosecution witness which they wished they had never called was a veteran Navy submariner named Glynn Donaho. A four-time Navy Cross winner during the way, Donaho was asked by McVay's defense counsel whether "it would have been more or less difficult for you to attain the proper firing position" if the Indianapolis had been zigzagging under the conditions which existed that night. His answer was, "No, not as long as I could see the target." It was either deliberately ignored by (or passed over the heads of) the court-martial board, and it was not pursued by McVay's defense.

There was also information withheld from McVay's defense counsel. It involved the testimony of a Captain Oliver Naquin who had been in charge of the routing instructions for the Indianapolis from Guam to Leyte. When asked about the risk of enemy submarine activity in the ship's path, Naquin replied "it was a low order" and "the risk was very slight." Being responsible for sending the Indianapolis across the Philippine Sea without a destroyer escort, Naquin's response served him well. Later it was learned that Naquin was aware of the submarines in McVay's path, had not told McVay and denied McVay's request for a destroyer escort.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of McVay's ultimate conviction for failing to zigzag, however, was in the phrasing of the charge itself. The phrase was "during good visibility." According to all accounts of the survivors, including eye-witness accounts of survivors only recently declassified and not made available to McVay's defense at the trial, the visibility that night was severely limited with heavy cloud cover. This is pertinent for two reasons. First, as stated in an earlier section, no Navy directives in force at that time suggested, much less ordered, zigzagging at night with visibility limited. Second, McVay's orders were "to zigzag at his discretion." Thus, when he stopped zigzagging, he was simply following procedures set forth by Navy directives.

It is reasonable to assume from the evidence that a decision to convict McVay was made before his court-martial began. The survivors of the Indianapolis are convinced that he was made a scapegoat to hide the mistakes of others, mistakes which included sending him into harm's way without warning and failing to notice when the Indianapolis failed to arrive on schedule, thus costing hundreds of lives unnecessarily and creating the greatest sea disaster in the history o the United States Navy.

McVay was found guilty on the charge of failing to zigzag. The court sentenced him to lose 100 numbers in his temporary rank of Captain and 100 numbers in his permanent rank of Commander, thus ruining his Navy career. In 1946, at the behest of Admiral Nimitz who had become Chief of Naval Operations, Secretary Forrestal remitted McVay's sentence and restored him to duty. McVay served out his time in the New Orleans Naval District and retired in 1949 with the rank of Rear Admiral. He took his own life in 1968.

A Remarkable Parallel to the Story of Captain McVay 

Charles Butler McVay III is not the only sea captain to be blamed by authorities for a disaster beyond his control. There is another officer, Captain William Thomas Turner of the Lusitania, whose experience was remarkably similar following the 1915 sinking of his ship off the southern coast of Ireland with the loss of more than 1,200 civilians and crew.

It was a disaster often given as the reason for the entrance two years later of the United States into World War I.

As was the case with Captain McVay, Captain Turner's ship was sunk by torpedoes, and he survived only to be summoned before a British Admiralty board of inquiry anxious to find a scapegoat for such a tragedy.

As was the case with Captain McVay, Captain Turner had not been adequately warned of the submarine threat in his path, and the subsequent inquiry -- at which evidence clearing him of blame for the Lusitania's loss was withheld -- left a shameful smear on his name for the rest of his life.

We have established contact with the Lusitania Historical Society, and we are proud to salute them for their efforts to clear Captain Turner's name. We both cherish the memories of two gallant sea captains who suffered a similar injustice, but whose reputations have been restored, albeit long after both men were dead, by the passage of time and by the disclosure of facts not revealed at their trials.

Moreover, our two sites are now linked, and you can access their site and the story of Captain Turner (click here). We highly recommend it to you.

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