I was reading up tonight on the USS Indianapolis. Then we watched a movie about it. In between I was swarmed by military dead. I’m still not fully recovered. The story is one of heroism and shame – heroism by the men who served on the ship and shame of the bureaucrats who refused to take responsibility for their own incompetence, incompetence that caused the death of nearly a thousand men. I will tell a little of their story here.
In 1945 this ship, a heavy cruiser under the command of Charles Butler McVay III, was sent to deliver nuclear materials necessary for the bombs that were eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The mission was top secret. As such, they were denied any type of escort, even though they were sailing through waters where Japanese submarines had sunk American ships only days earlier and even though the Indianapolis lacked any type of sonar by which they could detect these subs. Under normal circumstances, the ship would have been allotted at least one escort. That they were not amounts of malfeasance by the Navy brass. It gets worse.
They delivered their cargo successfully and on the way back home, while in the midst of the Philippine Sea, they were targeting by a Japanese sub, the I-58 commanded by Mochitsura Hashimoto. The resulting attack devastated the Indianapolis, immediately killing at least three hundred men. The ship went down leaving over a thousand men marooned in shark infested waters.
Three SOS calls were ignored by the American military. The men were slowly picked off by shark attacks, exposure, dehydration, saltwater poisoning, and injuries sustained during the initial attack. They were in the water for four days after the Indianapolis went down. (This was the single greatest loss of life in US naval history). Eventually they were rescued, in large part due to a routine air patrol having spotted them. Out of close to 1200 men of the original crew, only 316 survived.
Then, knowing that there would be an investigation into such great loss of life and wanting to cover its collective ass, the US Navy decided to use Captain McVay as a scapegoat and court-martialed him (against the wishes of Admiral Nimitz) for failing to “zigzag,” a common maneuver to avoid Japanese missiles. They also brought charges of dereliction of duty. It was utter bullshit. Commander Hashimoto testified that McVay acted properly and that there was nothing that he could have done differently to avoid his ship having been sunk. He was found guilty of not zigzagging anyway, though the dereliction of duty charge was a not-guilty. In fact, evidence shows that McVay did everything right.
Charles McVay shot himself on November 6, 1968. He received ongoing hateful phone calls and letters from the relatives of those of his crew who did not survive throughout his life. The men who did survive continued to push for his exoneration, insisting he was innocent of any wrong doing. Commander Hashimoto, who upon retiring from the military became a Shinto priest, also pushed for his exoneration.
While reading up on this, I found out that a twelve -year old student named Hunter Scott while working on a school project for National History Day in 1998, researched the USS Indianapolis and this event after seeing it discussed in Jaws(which ironically is what made me read up on it again – I had known most of the story before – tonight. I saw Jawstoday at a local theatre). He interviewed survivors and waded through over 800 documents pertaining to the incident and McVay’s conviction. His hard work and that of the survivors who had formed the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization, led to a Congressional Hearing where the conviction was overturned and McVay exonerated. In 2017, the remains of the ship were discovered in the Philippine Sea and in 2018 the entire crew of the Indianapolis was collectively awarded a Congressional Gold Medal – long overdue.
There is a National Memorial to the USS Indianapolis on Canal Walk in the city Indianapolis. Hunter Scott joined the Navy and as of 2017 was serving as a naval aviator.
Books of interest on the topic include:
“Fatal Voyage: the Sinking of the USS Indanapolis” by Dan Kurzman (who also helped push the cause of McVay’s exoneration forward)
“In Harm’s Way: The Singing of the USS Indianapolis” by Doug Stanton
“Indianapolis: the True Story” by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic
There is also a movie with Nicholas Cage that is quite good: “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage”
They will be added to my shrine for the military dead and starting tomorrow, I will be doing an elevation for Captain McVay and his crew. (I felt Hashimoto’s presence as well very, very strongly as I was researching this but I don’t sense any elevation needed there. He wasn’t wronged and driven to suicide).
May these men be remembered.
May their story be told.
May they eat honey from the hands of their ancestors.