THE TRAGEDY OF THE USS INDIANAPOLIS

THE TRAGEDY OF THE USS INDIANAPOLIS

Doug Stanton has written a compelling book In Harm’s Way which I have just finished. It is the story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during the final days of World War II. It was the Indianapolis that secretly carried parts of the atom bomb to the island of Tinian. This is the island where the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped "Little Boy", the first of the atomic bombs used, flew from on its way to Japan.

After the delivery was made to the island, the Indianapolis was headed back to its next port. On July 30, 1945 at 12:14 am the ship was torpedoed in the South Pacific by a Japanese sub. The tragedy of this sinking was enormous. Some three hundred men on the ship were killed on impact of the torpedoes and close to 900 men Indinapolis ended up in the water as the ship sank within twelve minutes of being hit. Almost all of them were in the watert in life vests and not in rafts. Due to Navy blunders the Navy wasn’t aware that a ship was missing, so no one was searching for it. It took almost five days for the Navy to accidently discover the ship was missing. During those five days floating groups of crew members were left exposed to the elements in the rough ocean. For a full accounting of this tragic story see the surviving crew’s website: http://www.ussindianapolis.org/

By the time the Navy arrived for the rescue only 321 men were left. These were youngsters ages eighteen to twenty one for the most part. The rest had died from exposure, drowning, hypothermia and especially from shark attacks. An average of fifty men a day were killed by sharks who routinely showed up in a feeding pattern at night. The description of the terror of the sharks is more then disturbing to read about. The heroics of the ship’s physician, Captain McVay and others is inspiring. Young boys daily died from the conditions and from shark attacks as they stayed together in floating groups. Many went out of their minds. Some simply gave up and released themselves from their life vests which were becoming daily more water logged so that they were in water to their chins. They were dying of thirst and from the condition of being in salt water exposed to the sun as well as the sharks. 

By the time the boats and planes arrived and began the rescue only 317 were left to be pulled from the water. This was the worst naval disaster in its history. Instead of acknowledging its role in the disaster, the Navy instead decided to prosecute the captain of the Indianapolis in an obvious attempt to cover up it’s own incompetence in not discovering the ship was missing and in failing to send rescue ships sooner. Captain Charles Butler McVay was the only Navy captain to be court marshaled for the loss of his ship during wartime and due to hostile attack. The prosecution used a trumped up charge the captain had failed to follow a zig zag pattern even though it was not required. Testimony of survivors supported the captain. The prosecution even located the Japanese sub commander who had torpedoed the ship and brought him from Japan to testify. However, he surprised the prosecution by testifying that a zig zag pattern would have made no difference at all. The surviving crew website points out:

"…the navy knew there were submarines in the area, but never told McVay and sent the ship to sea unescorted…Worse, the Navy failed to notice that the cruiser had never arrived at its port, while hundreds died at sea."

In spite of the lack of proof of any negligence, he was found guilty by the Navy court.

McVay’s surviving crew were unanimous in insisting he had done nothing wrong and was a great captain to sail under. McVay had come from a navy family and he never recovered from the accusation and conviction. Over the years he received hate mail from some families of boys who did not survive. McVay was given a desk job at some insignificant base and retired. Years later he ended his retirement putting a pistol to his head. After many years of continuous efforts by the surviving crew members, a Navy board concluded he had done nothing wrong, but the court marshal has never been withdrawn from his record. What a tragic story this was.

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