"Unless a way is found to exonerate Captain McVay... a black mark could stain the honor of the Navy long after his name is engraved in naval lore as a victim not only of the Navy's worst sea disaster, but possibly its worst moral disaster as well."
From testimony of Dan Kurzman, author of "Fatal Voyage" (1990),
at September 1999 Senate hearing Introduction
THE HISTORY OF THIS SITE
This web site was first established in March of 1998 for three purposes. First, to tell the incredible and tragic story of the USS Indianapolis, its contribution to American history, its sinking on July 30, 1945, and the ordeal of the 316 men who survived in a shark-infested sea for days without food or water until spotted by chance because, when the ship failed to arrive on schedule, it went unnoticed by the Navy.
Second, to tell the story of the shameful court-martial and conviction of the ship's captain, Charles Butler McVay III, an injustice which the survivors have sought for over fifty years to correct.
And, third, to promote public support for Congressional legislation which would exonerate Captain McVay.
Happily, thanks to the help of many people, including specifically Hunter Scott, of Pensacola, Florida, and Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire, in October of 2000 Congress passed and the President signed legislation which declares that Captain McVay's military record should now reflect that he is exonerated for the loss of the Indianapolis and the lives of the men who died in that disaster.
The Navy Department strongly opposed this legislation, and - because both House and Senate have rules which prevent consideration of any legislation which would alter a military record - Congress would not consider legislation to erase the conviction from Captain McVay's military record. Thus, it remains there as a stain upon the conscience of the Navy.
Initially, some have urged a presidential pardon for Captain McVay, but their efforts, while well-intentioned, were misdirected. Such a pardon would not remove the conviction from Captain McVay's record. It would only exempt him from punishment, and that had already happened. Captain McVay was, in effect, pardoned in 1946 when Admiral Nimitz (who had opposed his court-martial in the first place) took over as Chief of Naval Operations and immediately remitted his sentence and restored him to duty.
When the final and successful campaign to clear Captain McVay's name began in 1998, it was learned that Congress - both House and Senate - have rules which preclude consideration of any bills which would alter a military record. Thus, it was apparent from the outset that legislation to erase the conviction from Captain McVay's record was not possible.
It was only possible to have a joint resolution introduced expressing the sense of Congress that he was not to blame for either the loss of the ship or the deaths of the 880 crew memebers who perished. Such a joint resolution was introduced, subsequently passed by Congress, and signed into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2001. After that, Senator Smith of New Hampshire persuaded the Secretary of the Navy to amend Captain McVay's record to coincide with the views of Congress.
It was an amazing victory. To see how it happened, see the tab entitled "Seeking Justice."
"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
"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.4
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.
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.
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.
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
A Remarkable Parallel to the Story of Captain McVay
"Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction."
From November 24, 1999, letter by Mochitsura Hashimoto, commander of submarine which sank the Indianapolis,
to Senator John W. Warner, Chairman,Senate Armed Services Committee
Mochitsura Hashimoto was the commander of the Japanese submarine I-58 which sank the USS Indianapolis. He died on October 25, 2000, at the age of 91, having spent the last years of his life as a Shinto priest in Kyoto, Japan.
For reasons which will be explained, his death saddened many Indianapolis survivors. His path was to cross theirs again in years to come.
When the decision was made in November of 1945 to court-martial Captain McVay, a decision was also made to bring Hashimoto to the trial as a witness, and a military plane was dispatched to Japan with an armed escort to bring him to Washington.
Public animosity toward the Japanese was still very high, and using Hashimoto, so recently an enemy, as a witness against a decorated American officer created a storm of controversy both in the media and in the halls of Congress.
Dan Kurzman interviewed Hashimoto for his 1990 book "Fatal Voyage," however, and wrote "Commander Hashimoto was amazed by the Americans. While penned up in his dormitory during the trial, he was treated more like an honored guest than an enemy officer who had caused the deaths of so many American boys." (His treatment by the Navy undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that he was to be one of their witnesses in the prosecution of Captain McVay.
The charge against Captain McVay was that he had hazarded his ship by failing to zigzag at the time Hashimoto's torpedoes struck, and Hashimoto confounded the prosecution by stating that he would have been able to sink the Indianapolis whether it had been zigzagging or not, testimony which appeared to have no impact at all on the court-martial board which found McVay guilty anyway, and Hashimoto was returned to Japan.
On December 7, 1990, with the war's bitterness faded, survivors of the Indianapolis, including Giles McCoy, met Hashimoto in Pearl Harbor on the 49th anniversary of that attack.
Speaking through a translator, Hashimoto told McCoy, "I came here to pray with you for your shipmates whose deaths I caused," to which McCoy, apprehensive about encountering the man who had caused him so much pain and sorrow but touched by Hashimoto's comment, replied, "I forgive you."
Nine years later Hashimoto responded to this forgiveness by volunteering support to the survivors in their efforts to clear Captain McVay's name.
In 1999, when a Japanese journalist was interviewing the elderly Shinto priest about his life and about the sinking of the Indianapolis, she informed him that an effort was being made in the United States Congress to exonerate Captain McVay. Hashimoto told her he would like to help, an offer which was relayed by e-mail to young Hunter Scott in Pensacola, Florida, who suggested that Hashimoto write a letter to Senator John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and passed on Warner's address.
The text of that letter follows:
"November 24, 1999
Attn: The Honorable John W. Warner
Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee
Russell Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510
"I hear that your legislature is considering resolutions which would clear the name of the late Charles Butler McVay III, captain of the USS Indianapolis which was sunk on July 30, 1945, by torpedoes fired from the submarine which was under my command.
"I do not understand why Captain McVay was court-martialed. I do not understand why he was convicted on the charge of hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag because I would have been able to launch a successful torpedo attack against his ship whether it had been zigzagging or not.
"I have met may of your brave men who survived the sinking of the Indianapolis. I would like to join them in urging that your national legislature clear their captain's name.
"Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences. Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction.
former captain of I-58
Japanese Navy at WWII
30 Fukeno Kawa Machi, Umezu
Ukyo-ku, Kyoto 615-0921, Japan"
Hashimoto's letter received press attention during the effort to clear Captain McVay's name, and, as a result, it no doubt helped in getting Congress to exonerate him. For some reason, however, it was not included in the Senate Armed Services Committee report.
Meanwhile, some very interesting comments by Hashimoto were revealed in an English translation of his interview with the same journalist who acted as the go-between in arranging his letter to Senator Warner. Here are some excerpts from that interview in which Hashimoto speaks about his involvement in the court-martial of Captain McVay:
"I understand English a little bit even then, so I could see at the time I testified that the translator did not tell fully what I said. I mean it was not because of the capacity of the translator. I would say the Navy side did not accept some testimony that were inconvenient to them ... I was then an officer of the beaten country, you know, and alone, how could I complain strong enough?"
When asked how he would feel to have his views known about the court-martial, here was his response:
"I would feel great. It will be pleasant. No matter what the occasion would be. Because at the time of the court-martial I had a feeling that it was contrived from the beginning" and
"I wonder the outcome of that court-martial was set from the beginning."
When told of the efforts of young Hunter Scott to clear Captain McVay's name, Hashimoto replied as follows:
"This is the first time I am informed about Hunter Scott. Well, that's fine ... I hope he will succeed (in his effort) because it's a good thing to do."
The little Shinto priest and a former wartime foe had joined the Indianapolis survivors in their quest for justice.