'Indianapolis' resolves a long uncertain World War II tragedy

With help from an elementary school student, a naval captain has finally been exonerated.

Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man By Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic Simon & Schuster 592 pp.

For the United States Navy, World War II began and ended with a disaster.  America was plunged into the global conflict, of course, with the December 7, 1941 attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor.  Much less well known but also shocking was the sinking of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis as she steamed through the Philippines Sea in the closing days of the war. 

As with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the loss of the Indianapolis has been clouded in mystery and controversy, leading both conspiracy buffs and historians to pore over the records in an effort to understand what happened.   

Thanks to Indianapolis, a new book by Lynn Vincent and Sarah Vladic, we now have a complete and accessible story of this saga.  It is a gripping and engaging tale that features grievous mistakes, extraordinary courage, unimaginable horror, and a cover-up.  Among the important actors who appear before the story finally ends decades later are an elementary school student, the captain of the nuclear submarine USN Indianapolis, the Japanese submarine captain who sank the Indy, a determined US Senator, and even the co-founder of Microsoft.     

The Indy weighed 10,000 tons; relatively light for a World War II capital ship.  But with a crew of 1,200 men it was a big vessel and, armed with nine eight inch guns, she packed a wallop.   It had a storied history – it ferried President Franklin Roosevelt to multiple meetings with world leaders, participated in numerous battles in the Pacific War and acted as the flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance when he commanded the US Fifth Fleet. 

In July 1945, the Indy was in the Mare Island shipyard in Vallejo, Calif., for repairs when she was suddenly ordered to undertake a secret mission with a “highly classified cargo” and two Army officers.  The assignment was so secret that Indy’s captain was ordered not to let another ship make visual contact during the voyage and, in the event of an emergency, the cargo was to be saved – even before the vessel or the crew.  He was not told what he was transporting. 

The cargo was the uranium for the first atomic bomb and the “Army officers” were really scientists from the Manhattan Project.   After leaving the uranium and the scientists at Tinian in the Northern Marianas Islands where it was used to arm the bomb, the Indy was instructed to proceed to Guam and then to travel west across the Philippine Sea to Leyte. 

This is where things started to go awry.  Captain Charles B. McVay III was not warned that Japanese submarines were lurking along the way, he was not given an anti-submarine escort, and the messages about the Indy’s plans sent between Guam and Leyte were not transmitted smoothly.  About 40 hours after leaving Guam, a Japanese submarine fired two torpedoes that blew the bow off the ship.  The Indy sank in just 12 minutes. 

About 300 sailors died in the attack and the other 900 were washed into the ocean.   The survivors, many covered in fuel oil, drifted for days.  Some were on rafts and in lifeboats while others clung to anything that would float.  Exposure, dehydration, hallucinations, and delirium soon appeared.  Then came terrifying shark attacks that carried off many men.  It would get worse: Vincet and Vladic make clear that sexual assault and cannibalism took place as the number of survivors rapidly shrank.

Frantic emergency messages were sent as the ship was sinking but were either not received or, as later emerged, ignored.  When the ship failed to arrive on schedule in Leyte, no attention was paid.   It was not until four days later that a Navy plane on a routine patrol spotted the survivors.  A rescue was quickly organized but it was too late for most – just 316 men survived.  It was the largest loss of life from a single sinking in the Navy’s history.  Chagrined by the debacle, the Navy delayed announcing the loss of the Indy until the day that Japan surrendered in hopes of burying the news.

Captain McVay was among the rescued.  The Navy needed a human sacrifice to blame for the disaster and he was the obvious choice.  A distinguished naval officer who was so trusted and experienced that he was charged with delivering the key ingredients to make the atom bomb to Tinian, he was nonetheless convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zig zag” after a hurried court martial.   

Many of the survivors believed that their skipper had been railroaded and some spent years trying to clear his name.  Over the years, multiple books examined the incident and raised serious questions about the whole affair.  Still, nothing changed.  Then in 1996, a sixth grade student – whose interest in the Indy was sparked by a reference to the ship in the movie “Jaws” – started a class project to learn about the ship.  With the help of survivors he met, the student convinced the Senate Armed Services Committee to begin an investigation.  Meanwhile, the Navy continued to blame Captain McVay.  Finally, after a series of twists and turns worthy of a John Grisham thriller, Congress passed a resolution in 1996 exonerating McVay and his record was corrected.

The news came too late for Captain McVay: emotionally tortured by the loss of his ship and men, he committed suicide in 1968.

Vincent and Vladic spent years talking to the dwindling band of survivors and giving voice to their stories.  Some parts of this wonderful book – especially those involving the sailors in the water waiting for rescue – make for painful reading.  But this exhaustive and comprehensive assessment is as complete an account of this tragic tale as we are likely to have.  It is compelling history.

Ultimately, the central lesson of the book is that terrible things happen in war.  Mistakes are made and when they are, soldiers and sailors die, often in gruesome ways.  But we compound the tragedy when we find fault and assign blame to those who were victims of circumstance, bad luck or both.  Sometimes, the errors are rectified by later generations.  Too often, they are not.     

[Editor's note: This story originally misstated the location of Mare Island.]

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