Captain McVay was unjustly accused and should never have been
statement submitted at September 1999 Senate hearing by Cleatus
A. Lebow, USS Indianapolis survivor
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
here for a listing of the final crew of the USS Indianapolis
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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).
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
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 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.
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
- 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.
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
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