The world’s first atomic bomb was transported to Guam by the former flagship of the American Pacific Fifth Fleet, the USS Indianapolis. The bomb was brought aboard the ship on July 15th 1945, while she was anchored in San Francisco Bay. At 8:00 a. m. The following morning the USS Indianapolis left San Francisco bound for Tinian with the atomic bomb, something that would cause so much devastation and go down in history. Of the crew aboard that morning 883 of 1,199 will have perished in two weeks. The ship was captained by Charles Butler McVay III, known for running a tight ship, had been appointed captain by President Wilson.
On that same day Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura led his 2,600 ton submarine, which was newer and better equipped than the Indianapolis, into the ocean and would soon annihilate the huge cruiser. From day one of the trip McVay pushed every crew member to their limit, as he was ordered to get to Guam as fast as possible. On her first day at sea the Indianapolis averaged 28 knots due to rough weather, however on Tuesday and Wednesday she averaged 29 knots. The first stop of the trip was at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, McVay and his crew reached there in 75. 4 hours from San Francisco, a new record.
Six hours after reaching Pearl Harbour having restocked on supplies she set off on her final journey across the Pacific. The Indianapolis travelled to Tinian at a consistent speed of 24 knots for 3,300 miles, and on July 26th she dropped her anchor roughly half a mile of the coast of Tinian. While in this region of the Pacific McVay took orders from the Commander In Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Chester Nimitz, stationed in Guam. From here the cruiser was going to be routed westwards across the Philippine Sea which would lead McVay to the final destination, Leyte.
However, before that could happen the crew were required to stay in Guam for ten days in order to train 25% of the inexperienced crew. While in Tinian McVay received his instructions for the remainder of the trip, these were issued to everybody concerned; the Port Directors in Tinian and Guam, Commander of the Marianas George Murray, and Rear Admiral McCormick, Commander of Task Group 95. 7. When the Indianapolis had finished unloading in Tinian she prepared for the night sail south to Guam. The instruction mentioned above were sent to the USS Idaho, McCormick’s ship, this message as thought to be of any concern to the Idaho and was not deciphered. Later, in the Court of Inquiry it was said to its security status, the message was deemed insignificant by staff members aboard the Idaho. Lieutenant Commander Hashimoto’s ten month old I-58 submarine was sent south after leaving Kure to Japans naval base at Hirao. Here the submarine was loaded with a state-of-the-art Kaiten torpedo, which was contained 3,200 pounds of explosives, had an underwater speed of 30 knots, and most uniquely carried a man, its was essentially a suicide bomb.
When Hashimoto left Hirao he and crew roamed the Philippine Sea for a week searching for an allied target without luck. However, their luck changed on the evening of Friday July 27th when the Indianapolis sailed into Apra Harbour. Earlier Hashimoto had moved into the shipping lane between Guam and Leyte, he and his crew patiently waited for their target. The Indianapolis safely reached Guam after her voyage from Tinian. At 10 a. m. on July 27th dropped her anchor in Apra Harbour, Guam.
While the ship was taking on fuel, food and other necessities Captain McVay went to speak to operations officer in the Pacific Commodore James Carter, McVay expressed his wish that the updated training be issued to his crew as soon as possible, as it was his top priority. However Carter is quoted in saying in The Tragic Fate of the USS Indianapolis by Raymond B. Lech that “we no longer give such training here in Guam. ” This meant that McVay was forced to sail to Leyte across the Philippine Sea with a number of inexperienced crew members.
The cruiser was therefore available to leave as soon as she was refuelled, meaning the crew was able to leave the following morning. McVay requested up-to-date intelligence of the conditions at sea, as he hadn’t been in the area for over three months. Naturally being stationed in Guam, Carter knew of the USS Underhill’s sinking and the Tamon group of submarines were in the area. However, Raymond B. Lech reports that Carter informed McVay of no dangers or unusual conditions at sea in The Tragic Fate of the USS Indianapolis.
Having gotten no information from Carter, McVay approached the routing officer for the Pacific Lieutenant Joseph Waldron looking for information on the conditions and to receive preliminary orders for the Indianapolis’s sailing. Two members of Waldron’s team were assigned to McVay in order to make arrangements for the cruiser’s journey. McVay and the pair agreed that in order to reach Leyte by dawn on Tuesday he needed to travel at roughly 16 knots. Now there was a question of the route, the route picked was “Peddie” the standard route from Guam to Leyte; however that is the shipping lane where Hashimoto was lurking waiting for a target.
An escort for the ship was needed as she had no sonar technology to detect submarines under the water. There was no escort available on this occasion; McVay had travelled in these waters many times without an escort and thought no more of it. It was agreed by Lieutenant Johnson of the Marianas that no escort was needed as the ship was sailing between certain latitudes. The ship left Guam at 9 a. m. Saturday July 28th travelling at the agreed 16 knots. It was common practice for ships to “zigzag” during WWII however on this occasion it was said the ship would “zigzag” at the discretion of the commanding officer.
The sightings of submarines in the Philippine Sea were examined by the intelligence team, and were average for any given, the sighting in the area were at least two days old and thought to “stale” by now. Saturday had been a normal day aboard the ship, all crew members were in good form and co-operation between all departments was good. Lieutenant McKissick was on the six to eight watch on Sunday evening. He had received a very vague dispatch addressed to “all ships” giving the sighting of a submarine which was roughly 250 miles south of the Indianapolis.
When McKissick took over watch the ship was zigzagging, and in the last half hour of his watch he received an order top stop zigzagging and resume normal course, the captain felt safe in giving this order as he was falsely informed that there were no submarines in the area. Hashimoto is quoted in saying in Left For Dead by Pete Nelson that he did not feel zigzagging was “an effective torpedo deterrent. ” That night at 11:00 p. m. as Captain McVay went to sleep Lieutenant Hashimoto had just woken up, disturbed by the officer on watch. Hashimoto went to periscope in seek of an enemy ship, at 11:39 p. . the Indianapolis had been spotted. However, McVay was not sure if was an enemy ship, it was certainly a destroyer, but it was not zigzagging, it had no escort and it was heading straight for him. He was afraid he had been seen, this was not the case at all. At midnight Lieutenant Orr began his watch, he had not been on the Indianapolis for long, but he was an experienced watch man. Orr thought it necessary to begin zigzagging again. At 12:05 a. m. July 30th Lieutenant Hashimoto released his six torpedoes at a speed of 48 knots, in roughly one minute they would hit the USS Indianapolis.
The cruiser was hit on the starboard side, a deafening explosion rocked the ship, the water that rushed towards the bow sealed the fate of the ship. Orr was completely panicked as he could not stop the huge ship, and she ploughed ahead at a speed of 17 knots. The order to stop the ship did not get through to the engine room as all communication and electricity were down. At 12:10 a. m. K. C Moore, the damage control officer reported to the Captain that the ship had been badly damaged and was sinking fast. McVay found this unbelievable and requested that Moore check again, he did so and never returned to the bridge.
Commander Joseph Flynn reported to the Captain that it was necessary to abandon ship; sadly McVay agreed and replied “okay, pass the word to abandon ship. ” The abandon ship horn was never blown as it was not made clear to the bugler whether he should call abandon ship over his horn or abandon ship himself, he chose the latter. Men were simply abandoning ship by jumping over the side once they had were wearing their life preservers. At 12:18 a. m. the former flagship of the Pacific Fleet was on her side and Captain McVay was the only man left on board.
There was no response to the distress signal and it was received by a few ships in the area. The first day in the water had begun. Five minutes after his ship sank into the Pacific, Captain McVay was alone in the silent darkness. Two empty life rafts drifted past McVay hauled himself into one and set about finding crew members. As the night went on there were twelve men on the raft, however there was no food on the raft. McVay could hear other rafts in the vicinity but could not see them, all the men were exhausted to paddle over and investigate, so they waited until the next day.
The two rafts in the distance contained roughly twenty five men, McVay assumed that the thirty five or so men in all three rafts were the only survivors. However, what they didn’t know was that they had drifted roughly ten miles from the main group. The group were in good spirits as they anticipated their rescue some time over the next two days, as the ship was due in Leyte tomorrow. A shark had began to circle the group, the men became scared trying to get rid of him by hitting it with paddles, however it didn’t leave, and became a menace over the next few days, killing many of the crew.
The main group consisted of about four hundred men, and lay closer to the wreck of the Indianapolis than McVay and his group. By dawn on Monday morning fifty of these men were dead, many dying from shock. The morale in this group was good, and the men were kept in good spirits by Commander Coleman, who led the group. The Indianapolis was expected in Leyte on Tuesday July 31st at 11:00 a. m. she had not arrived and was automatically put onto the list of ships expected the following morning. The McVay group had now lashed their three rafts together.
By the third day Captain McVay was still convinced his ship had gone down with most of its crew, and his group were the only surviving members. At dawn a bomber flew over, and again at 1:00 p. m. the group waved yellow signal flags, and splashed about in the water but to no avail. They were becoming more depressed as rescue didn’t seem possible. The shark was circling ever closer, the men were becoming increasingly scared as it was quite possible for this creature to kill them all with one quick sweep of his jaw. The Coleman group had found a supply of food and rationing was ordered, however, there was a number of crew stealing the food.
Each man received a cracker and a few drops of water for the day. By late afternoon many of the men had started to become delirious, with more and more of them drinking salt water. A search party had still not been sent out for the Indianapolis and her name was put up expected for arrival on Thursday August 2nd. On the third day all sanity virtually disappeared there were a number of men queuing in the water waiting for a room in a hotel, some men even planned on swimming to Leyte. By day four groups were starting to disband as more and more people were going insane and leaving in false hope.
What they did not know was that help was on its way. On the morning of August 2nd Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn got into his plane to spot submarines in the Philippine Sea, his route was directly over that where the survivors of the Indianapolis lay. Gwinn looked down 3,000 feet into the Philippine Sea and noticed a long oil slick, his instinct told him to follow it, in order to see it better he dropped to 900 feet. After five miles of following the slick he noticed thirty head bobbing in the water, at 11:25 a. m. the radio man sent the location of the men back to their air base.
Gwinn figure due to the size of the oil slick it must have been a large ship, and continued to search for more men, and he found them divided up into groups of big and small. Gwinn had no doubt that the men beneath him were American soldiers. When Gwinn’s message was received, one of the largest rescues in American naval history began. The Cecil J. Doyle, a destroyer, received message to reverse course and begin to rescue the survivors. Initially Doyle was the only destroyer ordered on the scene, but moments later the Ralph Talbot and the Madison were ordered on the scene.
However, both ships made contact with Doyle at 6:56 p. m. and said that their ETA would not be until roughly 3:00 a. m. The Doyle picked up its first survivor shortly after midnight on Thursday August 2nd. In the first four hours of the search the Doyle took 93 men aboard. In The Tragic Fate of the USS Indianapolis by Raymond B. Lech, Lech suggests that reports issued later that 96 men were rescued are incorrect. At 3:10 a. m. two more destroyers arrived on the scene; the USS Bassett and the USS Dufilho, the three ships rescued the crew member independently. When the Madison arrived it took charge, and 12:20 p. . on Friday August 3rd the Doyle was ordered to go back to Peleliu with its survivors. It is estimated that four hundred men went down with the ship and another four hundred died while waiting for rescue, many people have argued through the years that the solider were killed by inaction rather than killed in action. This has been argued as due to lack of care and attention on Captain McVay’s behalf and on the incompetence of the U. S navy. It is something that will never be fully solved. A court of inquiry was set up and many key figures in the Pacific were questioned about the sinking.
For example why wasn’t Captain McVay informed of submarines being in the area? And why wasn’t the ship zigzagging when she was sunk? All these questions have answers, but I would argue that they are not valid answers. Captain McVay feels that he had not done anything wrong, even though the abandon ship horn had not been sounded on his ship. The ship was not zigzagging at the time of sinking, but Lieutenant Hashimoto said before the court of enquiry that he felt it was not an effective torpedo deterrent, and it made no difference to he ships sinking. However, it was standard practice during the war. After weeks of witnessed and hearings McVay had still not been found guilty of anything, but Admiral King wanted McVay court-martialled, Nimitz did not agree with this but unfortunately was over ruled. Now all that had to be done was to find McVay guilty of something. The trial of Captain McVay began on December 3rd 1945, as there were no definite charges against McVay the press remained neutral and published the facts.
James Forrestal believed that because McVay did not inform his crew member of abandon ship he should be found guilty of murder, McVay had only two days to prepare his defence. McVay felt he was not ready to defend himself in court on December 3rd, an adjournment was granted until December 4th. Commander Hashimoto had been brought to testify against McVay. Only one person spoke out publically against what was being done to McVay and that was Congresswoman Edith Rogers from Massachusetts, she was furious, she took to the floor of the House of Representatives and vented her anger at them.
After thirteen days the case ended on December 19th and Captain Charles Butler McVay was found guilty of failing to zigzag, McVay had lost one hundred numbers in his grad of captain and one hundred numbers in his grad of commander, his career in the navy was over. His career was ruined as the navy had many members at fault, much more at fault than Captain McVay was, and someone had to take the blame, tragically it was McVay the only man ever to be court marshalled due to the actions of an enemy.
For many years Charles McVay carried around the guilt of what happened on his ship and never understood why the “young guys” were the ones that died, he confided in his close friends after the incident and was said to quiet and reclusive, he was a man who was formerly always friendly and chatty. Sadly twenty three years after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, McVay could no longer deal with his guilt and committed suicide in his home in Litchfield, Connecticut on November 6th 1968.