The U.S.S. Indianapolis--Tragedy Amid Triumph
AUTHOR LCdr. C.R. Woodward, USMC
SUBJECT AREA History
TITLE: THE U.S.S. INDIANAP0LIS--TRAGEDY AMID TRIUMPH
I. Purpose: To provide a short historical account of the
final voyage of the U.S.S. Indianapolis during the waning
days of World War II and to provide an account of the com-
munication and intelligence sharing errors which led to the
sinking, Secondarily, this paper presents a brief summary
of the court-martial of the ship's captain and an account
of subsequent events in his life.
II. Problem: At 0014 the morning of 30 July 1945, the
heavy cruiser Indianapolis (CA-35) was sunk between Guam
and Leyte by an enemy submarine. This submarine, along with
three others, was known by senior officers to be in the area
where Indianapolis was sunk. Captain C. B. McVay III, the
ship's skipper, was not given this information prior to de-
parting Guam. Of over 800 survivors of the sinking, only
320 were rescued alive.
III. Data: Although other ships were lost with staggering
loss of life during World War II: Arizona (1104 dead),
Franklin (724 dead), and Bunker Hill (396 dead), the loss
of the Indianapolis is acknowledged by most naval historians
as the greatest tragedy at sea during World War II. Of the
1196 sailors and marines aboard, only 320 were rescued four
to five days later. A review of various references, dating
from 1958 to l982, seems to indicate that the Indianapolis,
after having transported parts for the first atomic bomb
from San Francisco to Tinian, was lost at a point approxi-
mately 600 miles from Guam and 550 miles from Leyte
(Phillipines). Due to ineffective command and staff action
on the part of various Pacific commands, Indianapolis was
not missed for nearly four days. Several months after the
incident, the ship's commanding officer was court-martialed
for failure to zigzag and failure to order abandon ship in
a timely manner.
IV. Conclusions: Indianapolis was not lost by poor sea-
manship; she was lost as a result of ineffective command
and staff action on the part of her superiors, The command-
ing officer was court-marialed as a "fall guy", to protect
the ineffective ship movement control system at the time,
and most importantly, the image of the victorious United
States Navy from further public scrutiny.
V. Recommendation: The importance of effective command
and staff action must continually be emphasized,
THE U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS--TRAGEDY AMID TRIUMPH
Although other ships of the United States Navy were
sunk with tremendous loss of life during World War II, the
sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis at O014 on 30 July 1945
has been regarded by many naval historians as the greatest
tragedy at sea in the history of the United States Navy.
No ship's captain to that time had ever bean court-martialed
for losing his ship as a result of enemy action. Since war-
time censorship of the news had been lifted two weeks after
the ship was sunk, and since the war was virtually at an end,
the loss of the Indianapolis captured national attention.
The U.S. Navy was never on the skyline for other ship losses,
but the Indianapolis, having completed a very special mission,
I. The Ship
A. General Specifications
B. Sailing History
1. Pre-World War II
2. World War II
II. The Final Mission
A. Receipt of the Mission
B. Execution of the Mission
1. San Francisco to Pearl Harbor
2. Pearl Harbor to Tinian
3. Tinian to Guam
4. Guam to Oblivion
III. The Sinking and Rescue
A. Chronology of the Days in the Water
B. The Rescue
1. Sighting the survivors
2. Pick up
IV. The Court of Inquiry
B. Final Recommendation
1. Nimitz disagrees
2. King overrules Nimitz
V. The Court-Martial
C. Verdict and Sentence
VI. Subsequent events 1946-1968
A. Remission of the Sentence
B. Ultimate Fate of the Commanding Officer
THE U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS--TRAGEDY AMID TRIUMPH
Although other ships of the United States Navy were sunk
with staggering loss of life during World War II, the sinking
of the U.S.S. Indianapolis at approximately 0014 on 30 July
1945 has long been regarded by naval historians as the great-
est tragedy at sea in the history of the United States Navy.
No ship's captain to that time had ever been court-martialed
for losing his ship as a result of enemy action. As soon as
wartime censorship of the news had relaxed two weeks after
the ship was sunk, the loss of the Indianapolis captured
national attention. The United States Navy was never on the
skyline for other ship losses, but the U.S.S. Indianapolis,
having just completed a very special mission, was different.
When this proud ship breathed her last, over 800 men survived
her death. Five days later, the last of 316 sailors and
marines left alive were rescued from the sea.
U. S. S. Indianapolis (CA-35) was authorized 13 February
1929, laid down 31 March 1930, launched 7 November 1931, and
completed 15 November 1932. She had as main armament nine
8-inch (203 mm) guns and eight 5-inch (127 mm) guns. Her
four shafts, with a total of 107,000 shaft horsepower pushed
her through the sea at a maximum speed of 32 knots. Indiana-
polis was designed to accommodate a crew of 952 sailors and
The pre-war sailing history of the Indianapolis is
marked by three significant events. From 6 September to
27 October 1933, she carried the Secretary of the Navy on
tour of U.S Navy bases in the Pacific. On 1 November 1933,
Indianapolis became flagship, Scouting Forces, U.S. Fleet.
From 18 November to 15 December 1936, she carried the Presi-
dent of the United States on a tour of South America.2
On 7 December 1941, Indianapolis was exercising off
Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. She engaged in a
fruitless search for the enemy carrier force. Subsequently,
she participated in the Aleutian campaign from May of 1942
to January of l943. In April 1943, Indianapolis returned
to her flagship role, being designated as Flagship, 5th Fleet.3
The final mission of the Indianapolis was received while
she was just completing repairs of battle damage suffered off
the coast of Okinawa. Basically, the mission was to transport
"two pieces of cargo, one large and one small, to the island
of Tinian as fast as possible."4 With this simple portion of
the mission statement, the death warrant of the Indianapolis
along with some 880 of her crew, had been signed. While
transferring the two pieces of cargo (which turned out to be
parts for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima) was a signi-
ficant part of this final mission, it was by no means the
end. If anything, this transfer of cargo was nothing more
than the prelude to disaster.
Captain Charles Butler McVay, III, the tenth commanding
officer of the Indianapolis, assumed command of 18 November 1944.
Son of an Admiral who retired as, Commander, Asiatic Fleet in
1932, the last captain of the Indianapolis was an officer
who according to his contemporaries, was "slated for the top
of the Navy ladder."5 The forty-six year old Captain was no
stranger to combat, having earned the Silver Star while
executive officer of the U.S.S. Cleveland during action off
the Solomon Islands in early 1943.
Captain McVay felt an obvious sense of urgency in carry-
ing out the orders to transfer this cargo to Tinian. Coupled
with this sense of urgency was also a very real sense of con-
cern. The special mission had come unexpectedly. The ship
had just barely completed repairs of major battle damage.
Over twenty-five percent of the crew was green -- the
Indianapolis being their first ship. Additionally, the two
pieces of cargo which he was to transfer were none of his
business; neither he nor any member of his crew had a "need
to know." There was no time for practical shakedown or ship-
board training prior to deployment. Shore duty schools while
in port, couple with intensive training underway, was the
only solution. Because his orders were to get the cargo to
Tinian as fast as possible, he realized that he would have
to push every member of the crew at all times, especially
his engine room crew.
The route of the Indianapolis and her special cargo
called for her to proceed from San Francisco to pearl Harbor
and from Pearl straight to Tinian, approximately 3300 miles
away. After loading the bomb parts in San Francisco on
15 July 1945, the Indianapolis sailed on the first leg of
her last voyage at O830 on 16 July 1945. On this very day
while the Indianapolis was breaking out into open water, the
Imperial Japanese Submarine I-58 gently slipped away from
her pier at Kure."6 Fourteen days later, her commanding
officer, Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, Imperial
Japanese Navy would sink the Indianapolis.
The Indianapolis sailed unescorted from San Francisco
to Pearl Harbor at an average speed of over 28 knots. In the
process, she set a new world speed record from Farallon Light
(outside the Golden Gate) to Diamond Head, bettering the old
mark of 75.4 hours by nearly an hour. Six hours later, she
was underway again, with a full supply of fuel and stores,
destined for Tinian. Seven days later, on 26 July 1945,
Indianapolis reached Tinian and delivered her secret cargo.
Captain McVay was glad this mission was over. The secret
cargo had brought with it special passengers, had created a
rumor mill among a portion of his crew, and placed an extra
security burden on his Marine Detachment. These factors,
coupled with the lack of training time for the new crew
members, caused him to have serious concerns about the combat
readiness of his new command.
While the bomb parts and special passengers were being
off-loaded, the new sailing orders for the Indianapolis were
being prepared by Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet. These
new sailing orders directed Indianapolis to proceed from
Tinian to Guam and put ashore any other passengers, primarily
members of the Fifth Fleet Staff. From Guam, Indianapolis
was to proceed to Leyte. After her battle damage at Okinawa,
Indianapolis had to temporarily relinquish her Flagship status.
Captain McVay and the majority of his crew were anxious to
resume the prestige of being the Flagship of the Fifth Fleet.
The sailing orders were simple enough:
Date: 26 July 1945
From: CINCPAC Adv Hq
Upon completion unloading Tinian, report to Port
Director for routing to Guam where disembark Com
5th Fleet personnel X Completion report to PD Guam
for onward routing to Leyte where on arrival report
CTF 95 by dispatch for duty X CTG 95.7 directed
arrange 10 days training for Indianapolis in Leyte
The 26 July orders to the Indianapolis began the chain
of misfortune for the ship. It was at this point that things
started to go wrong. Vice Admiral J. B Oldendorf, Commander,
Task Force 95 (CTF95), received the orders, but since his
command was an "info" addee, and the orders gave no reporting
date for the Indianapolis, the orders were noted and filed.
The Admiral had no idea when the Indianapolis would leave
Guam and when she was due to arrive in Leyte.
Rear Admiral L. D. McCormick, Commander Task Group 95.7
(CTG95.7) also received a copy of the Indianapolis' sailing
orders. During the decoding process, the address was garbled.
As a result of the garbled address, the text of the message
was never decoded by Admiral McCormick's staff. Believing,
in error, that the message was not meant for CTG95.7 and
seeing the classification to be "RESTRICTED", instead of
"SECRET" or "TOP SECRET", Admiral McCormick's communications
staff did not request a repeat transmission.
Other "info addees" on the Indianapolis' sailing orders
were: (1) Port Director, Tinian, (2) Port Director, Guam,
(3) Commander, Marianas, and (4) CINCPAC.8 It seemed that
everyone knew where Indianapolis was coming from, where she
was going, and what she was going -- everyone except Admiral
McCormick and his staff. The unit (CTG95.7) to which the
Indianapolis was to report upon arrival at Leyte never knew
she was coming. Everyone above assumed everyone below knew
what was going on.
Indianapolis left Tinian the evening she unloaded her
secret cargo. Her special mission had left her name deleted
from most arrival and departure boards in the Philippine Sea
Frontier. For all practical purposes, the ship was caught
in a staffing nightmare. "Sailing from Tinian with 1196
on board, and newly repaired, the Indianapolis was lean, sleek,
and capable in the eyes of her crew of outrunning any enemy
The overnight trip from Tinian to Guam went without
incident. Indianapolis arrived in Apra Harbor in the morning
hours. Captain McVay had arranged for reprovisioning with
ammunition, fuel, and stores prior to leaving Tinian. While
the reprovisioning operation was taking place, Captain McVay
and a small party went ashore to meet with various CINCPAC
staff members to plan the next leg of the voyage. It was
the first time the Indianapolis had visited Guam since
she had taken part in the reconquest of the island nearly a
AT CINCPAC Advanced Headquarters, Captain McVay called
at the office of the Assistant Chief of Staff and Operations
Officer, Commodore James B. Carter. The captain explained
that he had been out of the Forward Area for three months
and inquired where he would get information on current condi-
tions, his sailing orders, and departure date. Captain McVay
was informed that his routing would be handled by the Routing
Officer, Naval Operating base, Guam, and that since refresher
training was no longer conducted in Guam, he would have to
accomplish this at Leyte.10
During this short meeting with Commodore Carter, two
significant bits of information were not presented to Captain
McVay. Since the Captain had not been in the Forward Area
for about three months, he did not know of the sinking of
the U.S.S. Underhill by an enemy submarine just three days
earlier. Additionally, it was known by Commodore Carter that
four enemy submarines were operating in the area between Guam
and Leyte. Commodore Carter did not reveal either of these
two significant pieces of intelligence, perhaps because he
thought the Office of the Port Director would do it.
The Ship Routing Officer, Naval Operating Base, Guam
was Lieutenant Joseph Waldron, USNR. Captain McVay met with
him to make preliminary arrangements for the Indianapolis'
sailing. Waldron "delegated two members of his staff the
task of making these arrangements with McVay -- Lieutenant
R. C. Northover and Ensign William Renor."11 As a result of
this meeting, it was determined that the Indianapolis should
arrive off the entrance to Leyte Gulf early on the morning of
31 July 1945. This early morning arrival would allow the
Indianapolis to get in some gunnery practice on the way in
-- something sorely needed by her green crew.
Based on an average speed of approximately 16 knots,
Indianapolis would have to leave Apra Harbor the morning of
28 July 1945. Since Captain McVay wanted to get refresher
training for his crew as soon as possible, and since the
maximum speed allowed was only 16 knots, he had no other
choice. The only other question he had of the Ship Routing
Officer was whether or not Indianapolis would have an escort
during the trip to Leyte. Lieutenant Waldron, after comuni-
cating with the Office of Vice Admiral George Murray, Commander,
Marianas, was told: "You know very well that an escort is not
necessary."12 Indianapolis would travel by herself. The dif-
ference between "necessary" and "required" would come up
several months later.
A summary of the Indianapolis sailing instructions for
the straight-line route from Guam to Leyte (Code Route "Peddie")
indicated that the ship would leave unescorted at 0900 on
28 July, cover the 1171 miles to Leyte at an average speed of
15.7 knots, and arrive off Leyte Gulf at approximately 1100 on
31 July. The orders further stated that commanding officers
were responsible for the safe navigation of their ships and
that the ship would zigzag at the discretion of the command-
ing officer. These orders were set forth in standard staff
jargon and listed various coded latitude and longitude points
along Route Peddie. The intelligence section of the Indian-
polis' routing instructions also contained information
regarding enemy bases within 300 miles of her route and three
submarine contacts from 22 to 25 July. Two of the three sub
marine contacts were listed doubtful and/or possible. Infor-
mation regarding the sinking of the Underhill and the known
four enemy submarines in the area was not mentioned at all.13
Indianapolis steamed out of Apra Harbor at 0910 on
28 July 1945. One hour later, Lieutenant Waldron's routing
office released a message to all interested parties reporting
her departure, her projected route, and her estimated time of
arrival off Leyte (0800 31 July). Additionally, Waldron's
message noted that the Indianapolis was sailing form one
command area (Marianas) to another (Philippine Sea Frontier).
Philippine Sea Frontier would pick up Indianapolis sometime
on Monday 30 July. The message was addressed as follows:
FROM: CINCPAC APV HQ
TO: SCOMA/PD TACLOBAN//CTG95.7[RADM MCCORMICK]
INFO: COM 5TH FLEET [ADM SPRUANCE]/COMMARIANAS
[VADM MURRAY]/CTF95 [VADM OLENDORF]/
COMPHILSEAFRON [ADM SPRUANCE] /CINCPAC [ADM
The two key players in this part of the story were again
Admirals McCormick and Olendorf. Admiral McCormicks's staff
correctly decoded the Waldron message, but having fumbled the
decoding of the 26 July message, they gave McCormick only
half the picture. Admiral Olendorf, who was aware of the
26 July message to the Indianapolis, never received the Waldron
message from the joint communications center on 0kinawa. Now,
two senior officers, miles apart, had different halves of the
puzzle. Indianapolis was caught in the middle of a ship
movement control and reporting system that was designed to
be foolproof -- or so it seemed. McCormik knew when Indian-
apolis was due at Leyte but did not know why; Olendorf knew
why, but not when.
Close scrutiny of the 26 and 28 July message traffic
leaves considerable doubt as to what command Indianapolis
was to report to. Was she to report to the port director at
Leyte, to Vice Admiral Olendorf, to Rear Admiral McCormick,
or to the Philippine Sea Frontier? All would later disavow
any responsibility for reporting the non-arrival of the
Indianapolis. If anything contributed to the massive loss of
life among the survivors of the sinking, it was the fact
that there was "no operational control procedure for reporting
combatant vessels overdue."15 Arrivals and departures were
covered by detailed instructions. Nonarrivals were not
mentioned in any of the directives. Basically, if a comba-
tant vessel arrived, it was reported. If a combatat vessel
did not arrive, the directives allowed silence.
At approximately five minutes past midnight on 30 July
1945, two torpedoes from LCDR Hasimoto's I-58 slammed into
Indianapolis. The first struck near the bow, the second
near the bridge. From midship forward, the Indianapolis was
a damage control nightmare; no light, power, communications,
or pressure. Captain McVAY had been following fleet orders
-- zigzag during periods of good visibility day or night.
He had ordered a halt to this questionably effective anti
submarine maneuver at approximately 2000. Taking on water
at a rapid rate, Indianapolis continued to plow ahead.
Captain McVay gave the official order to abandon ship at
0014 on 30 July 1945 after he directed the dispatch of a
The abandon ship order was unofficially passed before Captain
McVay issued it. This, plus the fact that all hands were
ordered topside after the first hit, allowed somewhere
between 800 and 850 men to survive the sinking. Approxi-
mately 400 men went down with the ship.16
Lieutenant Commander Hashimoto surfaced about and hour
after he fired his torpedoes, but neither he nor his lookouts
saw any sign of survivors or debris in the dark. He was sure
he had sunk his target.17 Hashimoto directed that a summary
of the I-58's recent action be sent by radio to Fleet Head-
quarters at Kure and Tokyo, Japan. The dispatch said in
part "... released... torpedoes at battleship... definitely
sank it."18 The dispatch also included Hashimoto's estimate
of position at the time the Indianapolis was sunk. The code
used for the transmission was already known to the U.S. Navy,
as was the transmissions's frequency.
LCDR Hashimoto's dispatch was intercepted in Washington
and at Pearl Harbor. Navy offices in Washington took no
action on the intercept other than comparing its transla-
tion with Pearl Harbor's, CINCPAC headquarters at Guam had
the translated intercept approximateiy 16 hours after the
sinking. None of these commands acted on or investigated
the validity of Hashimoto's message. If combat intelligence
evaluators at Guam or Pearl Harbor had plotted the position
given in Hashimoto's message,they would have noticed that
I-58 and Indianapolis were essentially occupying the same
spot. This third misfortune dealing with communications
delayed the rescue effort for two days.
The survivors of the sinking were separated into several
groups along a southwest to northeast axis. This separation
was due in large part to the facts man were abandoning the
ship while she was still moving and the winds and currents
were pushing those fortunate enough to be in rafts away
from the "floaters" in life jackets or life belts. During
the first night, an estimated 50 to 100 sailors who had
been badly burned or otherwise injured, or who had no life
jackets, died in the water."19
The airspace above Code Route Peddie was heavily
travelled. Several planes were sighted on 30 July but none
of the planes spotted the survivors. Shortly after midnight
on 31 July, the-main group of survivors southwest of Captain
McVay's group saw the running lights and heard the engines
of a plane heading east toward Guam. The survivors in rafts
fired Very flares to attract the pilot's attention. This
effort was witnessed by the pilot, who continued his eastward
course. Ordeal by Sea gives the following account of this
The plane was... piloted by Captain Richard G.
LeFrancis of the Army Air Force. Captain LeFrancis
saw the pyrotechnics...To him it looked like a small
naval battle... He watched the bright balls of fire
jut up from the sea and made a note of the location
in his logbook. When Captain LeFrancis touched down
in Guam, he made a full report... but it those in authority
told him to forget it. What the Navy was involved in
was no concern of the Army Air Force. Captain LeFrances
nodded and bowed out. He had made his report and it
had been tossed aside.20
During the second day in the water (31 July 1945), many
of the survivors began to show the weakening effects of thirst,
exposure, and dehydration brought on by the sun and their burn
injuries. Additionally, many men in the groups of survivors
(primarily the "floaters" in life jackets) began to halluci-
nate in various ways. Some, seeing their ship just below
the surface, removed their life jackets and swam down to
reboard her. Others struck out on their own or in small
groups for non-existent islands on the horizon. Still others,
believing some of their shipmates to be Japanese infiltrators,
committed murder. Some, who were totally exhausted, simply
gave up and slipped beneath the surface. The sharks found
the survivors this day.
A great deal of attention has been given in various
books and articles to shark attacks on the survivors of the
Indianapolis. While some men were attacked and killed by
sharks as they floated helplessly in the water, most writings
place more emphasis on the fact that sharks attacked the re-
mains of those who had already expired. While no one will
ever know for sure, the latter observation appears more
During the third day (l August 1945), the hallucinations
and deaths continued. Several planes passed over the groups
of survivors but heads bobbing on the surface and the small
rafts were unseen by the pilots thousands of feet above.
Captain McVay, as well as others in the crew, knew that
certainly the rescue would come this day. Indianapolis was
sure to be missed when she did not arrive at Leyte on 31 July.
The search order had probably been given. Unfortunately, they
At approximately 1000 on Thursday 2 August, LTJG Wilbur
C. Gwinn, USNR, flying a routine search out of Peleliu,
moved aft in his plane to make temporary repairs on a trailing
wire antenna. While making these repairs, Gwinn chanced to
look down at the sea. A perfect combination of sun and sea
showed the thin line of an oil slick. Thinking the slick
might be from an enemy submarine, Gwinn decided to follow it.
As the plane lost altitude to approximately 1000 feet, the
crew saw heads floating among the oil. He made several
passes over the area, dropped life rafts and sonobuoys, and
transmitted urgent messages regarding his discovery. The
first message estimated 30 survivors. The second message
raised the estimate to 150.21
Now, three--and-a-half days after the sinking, things
began to move quickly. Planes and ships from all over the
area began to converge on the survivors. Two PBY Catalinas,
one Army and one Navy, landed among the survivors. The Navy
PBY, piloted by LT Adrian M. Marks picked up at least 56 men.
The Army PBY, piloted by LT R.C. Alcorn, rescued one. The
following ships arrived on the scene 2-3 August 1945: Cecil
J. Doyle, Bassett, Dufilho, Madison, Ralph Talbot, Ringness,
and Register. Doyle, commanded by LCDR W. G. Claytor, USNR,
was the first to inform higher headquarters that the survivors
were from the Indianapolis. Ringness picked Captain McVay's
group around noon on 3 August 1945. The search for survivors
and the task of removing the dead from the sea ended at 2000
8 August. Of the 800-850 who survived the sinking, only 320
were rescued. Four of the rescued sailors died shortly
Fleet Admiral Nimitz signed the convening order for a
court of inquiry, "to inquire into all the circumstances
connected with the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (CA-35)
and the delay in reporting the loss of that ship,"23 on
9 August 1945. This court convened on 13 August. The members
of the court were Vice Admiral C. A. Lockwood (president),
Vice Admiral G. D. Murray, Rear Admiral F. E. M. Whiting,
and Captain W. E. Hilbert (judge advocate). Perhaps the most
interesting fact about the board membership was the fact that
VADM Murray was detailed as a member. The Indianapolis was
sunk in his jurisdiction and he was responsible for the
actions (or inaction) of his operations officer, Captain
Oliver Naquin, who knew of the four enemy submarines near
the route of the Indianapolis and decided not to pass this
information to those who could use it. "The fact that
Admiral Murray was one of the members [of the court] made
a mockery of the impartiality of the investigation since
his command was intimately involved in the disaster."24
Captain McVay, Lieutenant Commander Jules Sancho (Act-
ing Port Director, Tacloban, Leyte) and Lieutenant Stewart B.
Gibson (Operations Officer, Port Director's Office, Tacloban,
Leyte) were named as "interested parties" by the court. An
"interested party" in this case was a quasi-defendant and
as such, McVay, Sancho, and Gibson were entitled to attend all
court sessions and listen to all evidence.
Seven days and forty-three witnesses later, the court
of inquiry finished its business. The court found "insuffi-
cient evidence" (at this time) to continue any further pro-
ceedings against Sancho and Gibson for failure to report the
non-arrival of the Indianapolis at Leyte. The court recom-
mended that captain McVay be reprimanded for failure to
zigzag and further that he be tried by a general court-martial
for (1) culpable inefficiency in the performance of his duty
and (2) negligently endangering the lives of others.25
Fleet Admiral Nimitz did not like the court-martial
recommendation given by the court of inquiry, and on 6 Sep-
tember 1945 informed the Judge Advocate General of the Navy
that, "a letter of reprimand will be addressed to Captain McVay
in lieu of a general court-martial."26 Admiral Nimitz's
decision was countermanded by Chief of Naval Operations,
Ernest King, who recommended to the Secretary of the Navy
that McVay's court-martial proceed.
Captain McVay's court-martial began at the Navy Yard
in Washington, DC, on 3 December 1945. There were two charges
against him: (1) through negligence suffering a vessel to
be hazarded (failure to zigzag) and (2) culpable insuffici-
ency in the performance of duty (failure to order abandon
ship in a timely manner). Captain McVay and his counsel,
Captain John P. Cady, were given notice on 29 November 1945
-- a mere four days before the trial was to proceed. The
seven members of the court were:
Rear Admiral W. D. Baker, President
Commodore R. S.Theiss
Commodore W. S. Popham
Captain H. L. Grosskopf
Captain J. R. Sullivan
Captain C. B. Hunt
Captain H. J. Redfield
Captain T. J. Ryan, Judge Advocate27
Of the 57 witnesses appearing at the court-martial,
none created more controversy than Commander Hashimoto, the
skipper of the submarine that sank the Indianapolis. This
controversy was created by his presence, not his actions on
the stand. This was the first time that an enemy officer
had been brought into U.S. Navy courtroom to testify in
the court-martial of an American naval captain. This
departure from normalcy created vocal protests both in the
press and on the floors of Congress.
Hashimoto was asked seventy-eight questions by the pro-
secution and the defense. The only thing even remotely
significant to come out of his testimony was the fact that
his torpedoes would have sunk the Indianapolis whether she
was zigzaging or not. This observation was reinforced in
testimony by Captain Glynn R. Donaho, USN, an acknowledged
expert in submarine warfare. 28
Unfortunately for Captain McVay, he asked Donaho one
question too many. The transcript of Donaho's testimony
revealed the following:
Q. Is it disconcerting to you as a submarine
commander to have a ship, a target, to zigzag?
Yes, because you may be -- Just before firing,
a zigzag throws your calculations off and you
have to get a new setup.29
One cannot help but believe that this answer was not
lost on the court members. In answerirg this final question,
Donaho not only contradicted part of his previous testimony
but left the impression that the Indianapolis would have
been saved had she been zigzagging. Although Captain
McVay had admitted that he had not been zigzagging, Donaho's
answer to the last defense question probably caused McVay
to be found guilty of this charge.
Testimony on the second charge of failure to order abandon
ship in a timely manner showed this charge to be totally un-
founded. Many authors and historians believe that the Navy
knew this from day one. Research indicates that the Judge
Advocate General felt that this charge could not be proved,
although he still recommended the charge be pursued. The
JAG's reasoning follows:
...this specification is still recommended...
[because] it will permit Captain McVay to clear
himself of criticisms made in the press [and
that] full justification springs from the fact
that this case is of vital interest not only to
the families of those who lost their lives but
also to the public at large.30
Since McVay had already admitted that he was not zigzagging,
the charge of failure to order abandon ship in a timely
manner was obviously allowed to stand in order to placate
the public and the press.
On the final day of testimony, Captain McVay took
the stand in his own beha1f. His testimony summarized the
meetings with the personnel on Guam, his confidence in the
watchstanders on the bridge at the time of the attack, and
his actions after the torpedoes struck the ship. At the
close of McVay's testimony, and after listening to the closing
arguments, the members of the court retired to deliberate
for two and a half hours.
Captain McVay was found guilty of failure to zigzag
and innocent of the charge of failure to order abandon ship
in a timely manner. Based on the finding of guilty on the
first charge, Captain McVay was sentenced by the court to
lose "one hundred numbers in his temporary grade of Captain
and one hundred numbers in his permanent grade of Commander."31
After pronouncing the sentence, the members of the court
strongly recommended clemency on the part of the reviewing
authority (in this case, James Forrestal, the Secretary of
the Navy). Clemency or no, McVay's naval career was ruined.
Press reaction to the verdict was quick in coming. The
verdict had apparently taken many observers and participants
by surprise. Reporters Paul McGee of the Chicago Sun, Leo
Cullinane of the New York Herald Tribune and an account
from the New York World Telegram typified press reaction by
emphasizing the surprise of the verdict and the fact that no
officers involved in the failure to report the nonarrival
(overdue status) of the Indianapolis were brought to trial.
The press, as well as many observers of the event, came to
the conclusions that Captain McVay was being used as a scape-
goat to protect more senior officers and that the court-
martial was designed to appease a disgruntled American
The review process dealing with Captain McVay's case
took over two months. Finally, on 20 February 1946, Secretary
Forrestal made the decision to remit the sentence set forth
by the court and restore Captain McVay to full duty. Admiral
Nimitz, now Chief of Naval Operations, held a news conference
on 23 February 1946 to answer questions regarding (and hope-
fully close forever) the case of the loss of the Indianapolis.
Prepared texts given to the reporters made no mention of the
fact that four enemy submarines were known to be on offensive
missions in the area where Indianapolis was sunk. Nimitz's
remarks indicated that he should bear his share of the
responsibility "for the sinking of the Indianapolis and
the attendant loss of life. [The Navy] has no desire or
intention to deny [its] mistakes."33 The case of the
Indianapolis was now closed from a Navy point of view.
Captain McVay, after being restored to full duty, was
assigned to duty as Chief of Staff, Eighth Naval District,
New Orleans, Louisiana. He held this billet until he was
transferred to the retired list with the grade of Rear Admiral
(based on combat citations) on 30 June 1949. Eventually he
retired to a small farm near Litchfield, Connecticut. Captain
McVay committed suicide on 6 November 1968. With his death,
the sea had claimed the final casualty of the greatest disa-
ster at sea in the history of the United States Navy.34
The sinking of the Indianapolis was not caused by Captain
McVay's failure to zigzag. It was caused by a failure to pro-
vide timely intelligence information to the ship. The delayed
rescue was caused by failure to report Indianapolis' non-
arrival, faulty staff action in decoding message traffic,
failure to share information and strict adherence to written
staff procedures. If anything can and should continue to
be learned from this unfortunate incident, it should be the
importance of effective communication and proper command and
1Hugh Lyon, Encyclopedia of the World's Warships
(New York: Crescent Books, 1978), p. 244.
2Ibid, p. 245.
3Ibid, p. 245.
4 Thomas Helm, Ordeal By Sea: The Tragedy of the
U.S.S. Indianapolis (new York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1963),
5Richard F. Newcomb, Abandon Ship!: Death of the
U.S.S. Indianapolis (New York: Henry Holt andCo., 1958),
6Raymond Lech, All the Drowned Sailors (New York:
Stein and Day, 1982), p. 5.
7Ibid, p. 210.
8Ibid, p. 210.
9Helm, p. 19.
10Newcomb, pp. 46 and 47.
12Newcomb, p. 49.
13Lech, pp. 22, 23, and 210-213.
14Newcomb, p. 53.
15Ibid, p. 104.
16Samuel Eliot Morison, History of the United States
Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 14: Victory in the
Pacific 1945 (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., l96O),
pp. 324 and 327.
17Helm, p. 209.
18Hewcomb, p. 19
19 Morison, p. 324.
20Helm, pp. 132 and 133.
21Newcomb, pp. 142-144.
22Morison, p. 326.
23Lech, p. 163.
24Ibid, p. 165.
25Ibid, p. 173 and Morison, p. 327.
26Ibid, p. 174.
27Newcomb, pp. 192-196
28Lech, p. 178 and Newcomb, pp. 240-244.
29Newcomb, p. 244.
30Lech, p. 184.
31Newcomb, p. 253.
32Ibid, p. 255.
33Lech, p. 203.
34Ibid, p. 205-207.
1. Helm, Thomas. Ordeal By Sea: The Tragedy of the
U.S.S. Indianapolis. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co.,
2. Lech, Raymond. All the Drowned Sailors. New York:
Stein and Day, 1982.
3. Lyon, Hugh. Encyclopedia of the World's Warships.
New York: Crescent Books, 1978.
4. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of the United States
Naval Operations in World War II. Vol 14: Victory
in the Pacific 1945. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.,
5. Newcomb, Richard F. Abandon Ship!: Death of the
U.S.S. Indianapolis. New York: Henry Holt and Co.,
6. Silverstone, Paul H. U.S. Warships of World War II.
New York: Doubleday and Co., 1972.
7. Smith, S.E. ed. The United States Navy in World War II.
New York: Willian Morrow and Co., 1966.
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