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The Indy Story
Captain McVay
Seeking Justice
Mochitsura Hashimoto
A Survivor's Ordeal
Indy's Final Crew
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"... Captain McVay was unjustly accused and should never have been court-martialed."

From statement submitted at September 1999 Senate hearing by Cleatus A. Lebow, USS Indianapolis survivor

The Story

Torpedoed Ship

The world's first operational atomic bomb was delivered by the Indianapolis, (CA-35) to the island of Tinian on 26 July 1945. The Indianapolis then reported to CINCPAC (Commander-In-Chief, Pacific) Headquarters at Guam for further orders. She was directed to join the battleship USS Idaho (BB-42) at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan. The Indianapolis, unescorted, departed Guam on a course of 262 degrees making about 17 knots.

At 14 minutes past midnight, on 30 July 1945, midway between Guam and Leyte Gulf, she was hit by two torpedoes out of six fired by the I-58, a Japanese submarine. The first blew away the bow, the second struck near midship on the starboard side adjacent to a fuel tank and a powder magazine. The resulting explosion split the ship to the keel, knocking out all electric power. Within minutes she went down rapidly by the bow, rolling to starboard.

Of the 1,196 aboard, about 900 made it into the water in the twelve minutes before she sank. Few life rafts were released. Most survivors wore the standard kapok life jacket. Shark attacks began with sunrise of the first day and continued until the men were physically removed from the water, almost five days later.

Delayed Rescue

Shortly after 11:00 A.M. of the fourth day, the survivors were accidentally discovered by LT. (jg) Wilbur C. Gwinn, piloting his PV-1 Ventura Bomber on routine antisubmarine patrol. Radioing his base at Peleiu, he alerted, "many men in the water". A PBY (seaplane) under the command of LT. R. Adrian Marks was dispatched to lend assistance and report. Enroute to the scene, Marks overflew the destroyer USS Cecil Doyle (DD-368), and alerted her captain, of the emergency. The captain of the Doyle, on his own authority, decided to divert to the scene.

Arriving hours ahead of the Doyle, Marks' crew began dropping rubber rafts and supplies. While so engaged, they observed men being attacked by sharks. Disregarding standing orders not to land at sea, Marks landed and began taxiing to pick up the stragglers and lone swimmers who were at greatest risk of shark attack. Learning the men were the crew of the Indianapolis, he radioed the news, requesting immediate assistance. The Doyle responded she was enroute.

As complete darkness fell, Marks waited for help to arrive, all the while continuing to seek out and pull nearly dead men from the water. When the plane's fuselage was full, survivors were tied to the wing with parachute cord. Marks and his crew rescued 56 men that day. The Cecil Doyle was the first vessel on the scene. Homing on Marks' PBY in total darkness, the Doyle halted to avoid killing or further injuring survivors, and began taking Marks' survivors aboard.

Disregarding the safety of his own vessel, the Doyle's captain pointed his largest searchlight into the night sky to serve as a beacon for other rescue vessels. This beacon was the first indication to most survivors, that their prayers had been answered. Help had at last arrived. Of the 900 who made it into the water, only 317 remained alive. After almost five days of constant shark attacks, starvation, terrible thirst, suffering from exposure and their wounds, the men of the Indianapolis were at last rescued from the sea.

Click here for a listing of the final crew of the USS Indianapolis

Shocked Reaction

The impact of this unexpected disaster sent shock waves of hushed disbelief throughout Navy circles in the South Pacific. A public announcement of the loss of the Indianapolis was delayed for almost two weeks until August 15, thus insuring that it would be overshadowed in the news on the day when the Japanese surrender was announced by President Truman.

The Navy, however, was rushing to gather the facts and to determine who was responsible for the greatest sea disaster in its history . who, in effect, to blame. It was a faulty rush to judgment.

Evidence Withheld

It is important to note at the outset that vital information pertinent to determining responsibility for the loss of the Indianapolis was not made public until long after the subsequent court-martial and conviction of Captain McVay. U.S. intelligence using a top secret operation labeled ULTRA had broken the Japanese code and was aware that two Japanese submarines, including the I-58, were operating in the path of the Indianapolis.

This information was classified and not made available to either the court-martial board or to Captain McVay's defense counsel. It did not become known until the early 1990s that - despite knowledge of the danger in its path - naval authorities at Guam had sent the Indianapolis into harm's way without any warning, refusing her captain's request for a destroyer escort, and leading him to believe his route was safe.

Controversial Facts

  • Captain McVay's request for a destroyer escort was denied despite the fact that no capital ship lacking anti-submarine detection equipment, such as the Indianapolis, had made this transit across the Philippine Sea without an escort during the entire war.
  • Captain McVay was not told that shortly before his departure from Guam a Japanese submarine within range of his path had sunk a destroyer escort, the USS Underhill.
  • Shortly after the Indianapolis was sunk, naval intelligence decoded a message from the I-58 to its headquarters in Japan that it had sunk an American battleship along the route of the Indianapolis. The message was ignored.
  • Naval authorities then and now have maintained that the Indianapolis sank too quickly to send out a distress signal. A radioman aboard the Indianapolis testified at the September 1999 Senate hearing, however, that he watched the "needle jump" on the ship's transmitter, indicating that a distress signal was transmitted minutes before the ship sank, and sources at three separate locations have indicated that they were aware of a distress signal being received from the sinking ship. Its very likely that these distress signals were received but ignored as a Japanese trick to lure rescue vessels to the area.
  • Confusion on the part of Navy communications and a faulty directive caused the failure of the Indianapolis to arrive on schedule to go unnoticed, leaving as many as 900 men at the mercy of a shark-infested sea. (The faulty directive - which required only reporting the arrival of non-combatant ships - was corrected days after the Indianapolis survivors were discovered to require reporting the arrival of combatant ships as well.)

The Court of Inquiry

A hastily convened closed-door court of inquiry had been convened in Guam on August 13 with the Judge Advocate (prosecutor), Captain William Hilbert, stating that they were "starting the proceedings without having available all the necessary data." Little was done to add to such data prior to the court's decision.

As the first witness, Captain McVay was asked, among other things, whether he had been zigzagging the night the ship was sunk. His answer was simply, "No, sir," but apparently little weight was given to the fact that he was under orders to zigzag at his discretion.

Testimony by survivors that visibility was severely limited the night of the attack, thus explaining Captain McVay's orders to cease zigzagging, was heard but never considered again (either then or at the subsequent court-martial).

The Surface Operations officer at Guam who had sent the Indianapolis across the Philippine Sea without a destroyer escort and who was responsible for advising Captain McVay of any perils in his path testified that the danger was "practically negligible." (It is very likely that the Surface Operations officer was indeed aware of the dangers in the path of the Indianapolis revealed by the ULTRA code-breaking but not known to the court-martial board. Thus, his testimony that the dangers were "practically negligible" had the self-serving impact of diverting attention from his own culpability for not heeding Captain McVay's request for a destroyer escort.)

The court of inquiry ultimately recommended that Captain McVay be court-martialed on two vague charges: (1) culpable inefficiency in the performance of his duties and (2) negligently endangering the lives of others.

Over 350 Navy warships had been lost in combat during World War II, but none of their captains had been court-martialed. Both Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance for whom the Indianapolis served as Fifth Fleet flagship opposed court-martialing Captain McVay, and never had an officer been court-martialed over the objection of his superiors, much less such prominent flag officers.

With the war ended, the scene then shifted to Washington. When orders were given to proceed with the court-martial of Captain McVay, only days before the trial actually began on December 3 at the Wastington Navy Yard, he and his defense counsel learned for the first time of the charges against him.

The Charges

The Navy finally had decided on two charges against Captain McVay. There was no evidence to substantiate the first charge which was failure to issue timely orders to abandon ship. The fact that it was even lodged against him was curious. Well before the trial began, the Navy was aware that the torpedo attack had knocked out the ship's electrical system and that orders to abandon ship could only be shouted by word of mouth in the din and confusion aboard the sinking ship.

The second charge against Captain McVay was that he had hazarded his ship by failing to zigzag in good visibility. Here are the facts which made this charge shamefully unjust.

  • The orders which Captain McVay received in Guam directed him to zigzag at his discretion.
  • No Navy directive in existence then or now requires zigzagging at night in limited visibility.
  • The charge against Captain McVay stated that the visibility was good on the night of the sinking (a fact never contested by the inexperienced defense counsel who was assigned to Captain McVay).
  • When Captain McVay issued orders to cease zigzagging shortly before midnight, the visibility, according to all eyewitnesses aboard the ship, was and remained very poor up to the time of the torpedoes struck, so bad that crew members could not identify their shipmates several yards away.
  • Statements taken by survivors immediately after rescue that the visibility was severely limited were not made available as evidence at the court-martial. And only recently surfaced as the result of research into old Navy records.
  • The commander of the Japanese submarine which sank the Indianapolis and who testified at the court-martial said that he could have sunk the ship whether it had been zigzagging or not.
  • A decorated U.S. submarine commander testified at the court-martial that, given the identical circumstances which faced the Japanese submarine that night, he could have sunk the Indianapolis whether it had been zigzagging or not.

As so the Navy court-martial found Captain Charles Butler McVay III guilty of hazarding his ship by failure to zigzag in good visibility, thus diverting attention from so many others whose negligence and misjudgments were the real cause of this tragedy, humiliating Captain McVay and damaging his promising naval career beyond repair.

In early 2000, only months before his death at the age of 91 in Kyoto, Japan, the commander of the Japanese submarine which sank the Indianapolis gave an interview and, referring to Captain McVay's court-martial at which he had been a witness, said, "I had a feeling it was contrived from the beginning."

That is the story. It remains a tarnish on the reputation of the United States Navy more than a half a century later. And it will remain a stain on the conscience of the Navy.

For an in-depth narrative on the history of the USS Indianapolis click here.

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