Steamship Sunday – U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Atomic Bomb

Steamship Sunday

U.S.S. Indianapolis

A painting of U.S.S. Indianapolis, CA-35, sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge
with the hills of Marin County, California in the background.

U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Atomic Bomb


On 6 August, 1945, 71 years ago, a U. S. Army Air Corps B-29 bomber piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets dropped an atomic bomb on the industrial and Imperial Japanese Navy port city of Hiroshima, Japan, some 500 miles south east of Tokyo. Three days later a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The cataclysmic force of these bombs moved the Japanese to cease hostilities and bring an end to the horrible Asian war they had begun in 1937. Within that story are several other stories, including the tragic story of the U.S. Navy heavy cruiser Indianapolis, CA-35.

Indianapolis was the second of only two Portland-class heavy cruisers built out of an original plan calling for four ships in the class. She was begun in 1929, launched on 7 November, 1931 and commissioned on 15 November, 1932. She was chosen by president Franklin Roosevelt as his ship of state. Roosevelt loved the Indianapolis for its size and speed and decided to use the ship as his own transport ship prior to the war. The “Indy”, as she was fondly called by her crew, was 133 feet tall from waterline to the radar antenna and 610 feet long. She could reach a speed of up to 32.75 knots, 40.93 m.p.h. While the Indianapolis was able to outmaneuver and escape larger enemy ships, she did have a weakness in that she had a lack of heavy armor. She was protected by only three to four inches of steel at the midship in contrast to battleships which had an average of thirteen inches of armor. Her thin armor, typical for cruisers, contributed to her doom.


Below: Now closed, Mare Island at Vallejo, California was for years an important Navy yard.

Mare Island

With the U.S. entry into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Raymond Spruance chose the Indianapolis as his flag ship. He chose the cruiser rather than an aircraft carrier as his flagship because he knew the Japanese would seek to destroy any ship he chose as a flagship and he felt the cruiser to be more expendable than an aircraft carrier. Also coloring his decision to pick Indianapolis was her age; he chose an older rather than newer ship to carry his flag. Little did he know at the time how expendable Indianapolis would prove to be, even though Admiral Spruance was not aboard when she sank.

The fierce Japanese resistance to ending the war persuaded President Truman that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would be too costly in terms of casualties and fatalities. The stubborn Japanese fighting on the islands leading to Japan was indicative of the fanatical resistance they would put up on their home turf. War planners estimated that Allied casualties alone would top 1,000,000 in an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Truman made the gutsy decision to drop the newly developed Uranium-235 bomb on Hiroshima.

The explosion wiped out 90 percent of the city and immediately killed 80,000 people; 60,000 more would later die of radiation exposure.

Indianapolis was chosen to deliver the bomb to the U.S. base on the Pacific island of Tinian from which the B-29 piloted by Col. Tibbets would fly.


After arriving at Tinian, the more than 9,000-pound Uranium-235 bomb was loaded aboard the modified B-29 bomber, christened “Enola Gay” (after the mother of  Colonel Tibbets). The plane dropped the bomb – known as “Little Boy” – by parachute at 8:15 in the morning. The bomb exploded 2,000 feet above Hiroshima in a blast equal to 12-15,000 tons of TNT, destroying five square miles of the city.






Hiroshima’s devastation failed to elicit immediate Japanese surrender, however. On 9 August, Major Charles Sweeney flew another B-29 bomber, “Bockscar”, from Tinian.


Thick clouds over the primary target, the city of Kokura, drove Sweeney to a secondary target, Nagasaki, where the plutonium bomb “Fat Man” was dropped at 11:02 that morning. More powerful than the one used at Hiroshima, the bomb weighed nearly 10,000 pounds and was built to produce a 22-kiloton blast. After the second bomb fell on Japan, Emperor Hirohito overruled the war lords and sought peace. In the meantime, Indianapolis sailed to her tragic fate.

Indianapolis delivered “Little Boy” to Tinian on 26 July 1945. She then sailed to CINCPAC (Commander-In-Chief, Pacific) Headquarters at Guam for further orders. There she was directed to join the battleship U.S.S. Idaho, (BB-42) at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Indianapolis, unescorted, departed Guam.

At 14 minutes past midnight, on 30 July 1945, midway between Guam and Leyte Gulf, Indianapolis was hit by two torpedoes out of six fired by the I-58, an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine commanded by Mochitsura Hashimoto.

Mochitsura Hashimoto

Mochitsura Hashimoto commanded I-58, the Japanese submarine that sank Indianapolis

The first torpedo 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. Indianapolis went down rapidly by the bow, rolling to starboard.

Capt. McVay

Capt. Charles Butler McVay III

Indianapolis had been commanded by Capt. Charles Butler McVay III, a 1920 graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. A third generation Navy man, he was the son Admiral Charles Butler McVay II, who had commanded the Asiatic Fleet in the 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.

On the tragic night of 30 July, of the 1,196 aboard Indianapolis, 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.

Shortly after 11:00 A.M. on their fourth day in the water, the survivors were accidentally discovered by Lt. (j.g.) 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. Adrian Marks was dispatched to lend assistance and report. Enroute to the scene, Marks overflew the destroyer U.S.S. 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.

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 15 August, thus insuring that it would be overshadowed in the news on the day when the Japanese surrender was announced by President Truman. The U.S. Navy’s shameful reaction to the Indianapolis disaster had begun.

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.

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 U.S.S. 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. It is possible that these distress signals were received but ignored, considered 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.)

A hastily convened closed-door Court of Inquiry had been convened in Guam on 13 August 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. Never had an officer been court-martialed over the objection of his superiors, much less such prominent flag officers. The case can be made that the Chief of Naval Operations, the alcoholic and womanizing Admiral Ernest King, ordered McCoy’s Court-Martial. McVay was denied his request for Counsel and an inexperienced Defense Counsel was appointed instead for McVay. King, it seems, was determined to make McVay a scapegoat. Those familiar with King’s history will agree that this was entirely in character.

When orders were given to proceed with the court-martial of Captain McVay, only days before the trial actually began on 3 December at the Washington 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 rapidly 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.

Mochitsura Hashimoto, 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, Glynn Donaho, 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.

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 until-then splendid naval career.

In early 2000, only months before his death at the age of 91 in Kyoto, Japan, Mochitsura Hashimoto, who had become a Shinto priest after the war, 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.”

The court sentenced Captain McVay 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 replacing King, Secretary of the Navy James 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.

The survivors of Indianapolis were remarkably united. The tragedy haunted them the remainder of their lives. Most of the survivors felt that McVay had been railroaded. In contrast to the survivors, the families of those lost in the sinking of the ship largely bought the Navy line that McVay bore responsibility for the loss of the Indianapolis. For years after the tragedy, families still mourning the loss of their sons, wrote angry letters to McVay, tormenting him. Unable to bear it, he took a handgun and ended his own life in 1968.

That is the story. It remains a tarnish on the reputation of the United States Navy more than seventy years later. It will remain a stain on the conscience of the Navy. It would be a bigger stain than it is were it not for an eleven year old boy, Hunter Scott, in need of a project with which to compete in a National History Day Contest, and who saw the movie “Jaws” and was inspired to learn more about the Indianapolis tragedy. In the process, a movement was formed to clear McVay and inform the public of the real story of the Indianapolis. Mochitsura Hashimoto himself became active in the movement to clear McVay.

The story of the ship lives in film legend thanks to Robert Shaw’s character, ‘Quint,’ in “Jaws.” Quint reveals that he is survivor of the Indianapolis. It was this that inspired Hunter Scott to begin the movement to clear McVay’s name.

Quint tells the story of the Indianapolis. Click on the image below or watch it on YouTube.


The first organized effort by survivors to clear Captain McVay’s name did not commence until 1960 when the Survivors Organization was formally established. The organization was never able to gain sufficient public attention until 1996 when in Pensacola, Florida, Hunter Scott, born in 1985, was moved to learn more by the very accurate soliloquy by the character ‘Quint’ explaining his hatred of sharks.

Hunter Scott_Indianapolis

Eleven year-old  Hunter Scott launched the movement to clear McVay.

When told the actor was describing an event which was true, young Hunter began researching the story for what became an award-winning school history project but then, still fascinated, pursued it further, obtaining addresses of all survivors to whom he sent a questionnaire. One of the questions was whether they felt Captain McVay’s court-martial was justified and his conviction fair.

As he subsequently testified in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 15, 1999, “all of the responses I got back were unanimous, and most were strongly worded in outrage and anger” over the Navy’s treatment of Captain McVay.

These responses set Hunter Scott on a crusade to clear Captain McVay’s name. Because of his youth, he attracted media attention which, in turn, attracted the attention of the Survivors Organization and that of his member of Congress, Representative Joe Scarborough. This led to invitations, first to the 1996 survivors’ reunion in Indianapolis, then to join a group of survivors in Hawaii in 1997 for a short trip on the nuclear submarine the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

It also led to a 1997 promise from Representative Scarborough that he would introduce legislation in 1998, and plans were made for Hunter and a group of survivors to travel to Washington to support Scarborough’s Bill.

In April of 1998 fifteen survivors and Hunter Scott arrived in Washington and met with members of both the House and Senate, urging support for Representative Scarborough’s bill (H.R. 3610) which urged a presidential pardon for Captain McVay. Unwittingly, it did not take into consideration the fact that Captain McVay had, in effect, already been pardoned in 1946 when Admiral Nimitz remitted his sentence and restored him to duty.

Thus, when a new Congress convened in 1999, Representative Scarborough introduced a joint resolution (H.J. Res. 48) which, among other things, expressed the sense of Congress that Captain McVay’s court-martial was morally unsustainable and that his conviction was a miscarriage of justice. Once again in April of 1999 Hunter Scott and fourteen Indianapolis survivors traveled to Washington to meet with key members of Congress in support of the Scarborough resolution.

On this visit they persuaded Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire to introduce an identical companion measure in the Senate (S.J. Res. 23), and over the ensuing months over 100 House members joined as co-sponsors of the Scarborough resolution and sixteen senators as co-sponsors of the Smith resolution.

A major breakthrough occurred when Senator Smith persuaded Senator John Warner (R-VA), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to hold a hearing on his Joint Resolution. The hearing was held on September 14, 1999. Ten survivors came to Washington for the hearing, and seventeen survivors submitted statements for the record.

Witnesses on behalf of Senator Smith’s resolution were Hunter Scott; survivors Paul Murphy, Harlan Twible, and Giles McCoy, and Dan Kurzman author of “Fatal Voyage.” It was apparent that the eloquent and emotional testimony of these witnesses made an impression on Senator Warner. Additionally, the Navy witnesses had difficulty responding to testimony which clearly indicated that mistakes which caused the sinking of the Indianapolis were beyond Captain McVay’s control.

During 2000 there was a constant stream of letters from survivors and their friends to Senator Warner and consistent support from the media, including an excellent cover article in Parade Magazine on 20 August by Peter Maas entitled “It’s Time to Right a Wrong.”

In September Senator Smith convinced Senator Warner to add S.J Res. 26 as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2001. Because of strong opposition of the Department of the Navy, the language of the Resolution was altered to omit any reference to the court-martial being morally unsustainable or the conviction being unjust. The Navy continued to be wrong-headed in this. (In a similar way, the Navy  wrongly railroaded Admiral Husband Kimmel over the attack at Pearl Harbor – as did the Army with General Walter Short – when Roosevelt full-well knew of the pending attack. Roosevelt deliberately withheld information about the attack from Admiral Kimmel and General Short, but let the Navy and the Army throw these officers under the bus. See Robert Stinnett’s excellent “Day of Deceit” for the meticulously researched details. The to-this-day Roosevelt-friendly media continues to cover up the truth about Pearl Harbor.)

Despite the Navy’s opposition, the Resolution did express the sense of Congress that Captain McVay’s record should reflect that “he is exonerated for the loss of the U.S.S. Indianapolis,” representing acknowledgment at last by the Federal Government that he was not guilty for the tragedy which led to his shameful conviction.

As a footnote, although the Navy Admirals had strongly opposed the legislation to exonerate Captain McVay, they must have learned a lesson. Following the terrorist attack on the U.S.S. Cole in the Red Sea harbor on 12 October, 2001, the Navy decided not to court-martial her Captain. It gave as reasons that the Captain of the Cole (1) had taken all reasonable precautions to prevent such an attack and (2) had not been adequately warned of the danger to his ship in the harbor.

The same reasons were used in the successful effort to exonerate Captain McVay. It might be concluded that the Navy did not want another controversy on their hands.

Much of this post was adapted from the U.S.S. Indianapolis website.
Other sources were also used.


Add yours →

  1. Jack Darnell 07/08/2016 — 10:35

    TRagic story, I read In Harm’s way and also a lesser known book about the survivors in the water, and for the life of me I cannot remember it.

    Anyway the incident shows Irate authority can try and find a scape goat, too many times they succeed! The military has learned over the years from our government, “Gimme someone to blame” that is all I ask! Once someone is blamed, all is well, no reason for the truth.


  2. Great post, I had heard the outlines of the story but you provide a lot of detail. Clearly an injustice was done.


  3. Chris Houck 08/08/2016 — 17:56

    When I was a volunteer on the SS Red Oak Victory, we had a crew member who’s father was on the Indianapolis.


  4. Outstanding, Packardman! You’ve done the ship and her crew proud!

    Liked by 1 person

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