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Remembering USS Indianapolis CA-35: Disaster, Dishonor and Redemption

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“Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences. Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction.” Mochitsura Hashimoto, Captain of the I-58 to Senator John Warner

On July 30th 1945 the USS Indianapolis CA-35 was speeding from the island of Guam where she had made some personnel transfers to Leyte to join other American forces for the final campaign against Japan.

Indianapolis under the command of Captain Charles B McVay III had completed one of the most important secret missions of the war. She had delivered the component parts and enriched Uranium for the the first Atomic Bomb, Little Boy which in less than a week would be detonated over the Japanese City of Hiroshima on August 6th 1945.

Indianapolis was the second ship of the Portland Class heavy cruisers built under the terms of the Washington Naval Conference. Displacing 9800 tons and mounting a main battery of 9 8” guns she typical of the American cruisers of the era. During the 1930s she hosted President Franklin D. Roosevelt three times. When Pearl Harbor was attacked she was on gunnery exercises and from that point played an active role in combat operations in the South Pacific, the Aleutians later served as flagship to Admiral Raymond Spruance, Commander 5th Fleet. After being damaged a Kamikaze off Okinawa on March 31st 1945. She then returned to Mare Island for repairs and a rendezvous with destiny.

With the components for Little Boy aboard Indianapolis sailed unescorted to Pearl Harbor in complete secrecy and then to Tinian where she delivered her deadly cargo. After her brief port call in Guam she made haste to join Vice Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s Task Force 95 at off Leyte. Her Captain used discretion in his use of a zig-zag course and was not employing it on the night of July 30th.

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What Captain McVay and his crew did not know was that the Japanese Imperial Navy submarine I-58 under the command of Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto was stalking Indianapolis. At 2300 on the 29th while surfaced the Japanese noted a ship approaching and submerged. At 0014 after he gained firing position Hashimoto launched a spread of 6 Type 95 torpedoes, one of the most powerful type of torpedoes used during the war. Two stuck Indianapolis on her starboard side. The powerful charges caused catastrophic damage and 12 minutes later the cruiser rolled over and sank taking about 300 of her nearly 1200 man crew down with her.

She sank so quickly that few lifeboats or rafts were launched and no distress call issued. It took the Navy nearly three days to even know that she was missing. Finally on August 2d the survivors, now decimated by exposure, dehydration and shark attacks were spotted by a patrol plane. The aircraft sent a message out and other aircraft and the USS Cecil J. Doyle DE-368 as well as a number of other ships which responded to the call. Only 321 crewmen out of the estimated 880 survivors of the sinking lived.

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The tale of the sinking and the stories of the survivors would be recorded in Fatal Voyage by Daniel Kurzman and All the Drowned Sailors by Raymond Lech. It was also mentioned in the movie Jaws by Robert Shaw’s character, the fishing boat Captain “Quint” who was supposed to be an Indianapolis survivor. The made for television film Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis staring Stacy Keach as Captain McVay brought a renewed interest in the sinking and the story of the survivors.

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Captain McVay would be tried at court-martial and convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zig-zag.” The sentence was controversial as McVay was the only commander of a U.S. Navy ship lost during the war to be tried by court-martial. The true fact of the matter was that McVay was a scapegoat for the failure of several systems of reporting and communication that he did not control.

Admiral Nimitz commuted the sentence and restored McVay to active duty. He retired in 1949 after being promote to Rear Admiral. Despite the fact that many of the crew felt that he was innocent many families of those lost at sea took their revenge on McVay. He received much hate mail and was frequently threatened in writing and by phone. On November 6th 1968 McVay, despondent over the death of his wife and the continued harassment committed suicide using his Navy issued revolver in his back yard. In one hand he grasped a toy sailor doll given to him by his father when he was a child.

In the years following many survivors banded together with Captain McVay’s family and others including the commander of I-58, Mochitsura Hashimoto to clear his name. The president of the USS Indianapolis Survivor’s Association testified “Capt. McVay’s court-martial was simply to divert attention from the terrible loss of life caused by procedural mistakes which never alerted anyone that we were missing.” 

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Hashimoto, who spent much of his time after the war as a Shinto priest sought the forgiveness of survivors. He returned to a survivor reunion in 1991 and said: “I came here to pray with you for your shipmates whose deaths I caused.”   

Hashimoto wrote Senator John Warner on behalf of the late Captain McVay in 1999 when he learned of the efforts being made to clear McVay’s name. The letter is touching in its honesty and speaks of the deep respect that warriors who once fought against each other can maintain for one another. It also speaks to the deep sense of honor of Hashimoto:

“I hear that your legislature is considering resolutions which would clear the name of the late Charles Butler McVay III, captain of the USS Indianapolis which was sunk on July 30, 1945, by torpedoes fired from the submarine which was under my command.

“I do not understand why Captain McVay was court-martialed. I do not understand why he was convicted on the charge of hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag because I would have been able to launch a successful torpedo attack against his ship whether it had been zigzagging or not.

“I have met may of your brave men who survived the sinking of the Indianapolis. I would like to join them in urging that your national legislature clear their captain’s name.

“Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences. Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction.”

Finally in October 2000 Congress passed a resolution stating of Captain McVay that “he is exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis.” President Clinton signed the resolution and in July 2001 Secretary of the Navy Gordon England order Captain McVay’s record cleared of wrong doing. Hashimoto would die on 25th 2000 at the age of 91.

This year, on the 68th anniversary of the sinking 17 survivors gathered to mark the occasion and pay tribute to their shipmates. The Facebook page of the association has this memorial:

Goodnight and sleep well, crew of the USS Indianapolis. On this night, sixty-eight years ago, you had no way of knowing that a Japanese torpedo would hit your ship in just a few short hours. Your floating home away from home would sink within twelve minutes. Unable to get topside in time, three hundred of you would go to the bottom of the ocean with your ship. Nine hundred of you would find yourselves in the water, about to experience a terrifying existence amid sharks, dehydration, hallucinations, and the elements. 

You were so young, Indy sailors. 

Tonight, like that night, let your minds be free from nightmares and flashbacks. Tonight, like that night, know that your families and friends miss and love you. Tonight, like that night, just be “The Crew of the USS Indianapolis” instead of “Survivors” or “Lost at Sea.”

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I cannot say more.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Navy Ships, US Navy, world war two in the pacific