By Richard Hulver, Ph.D., Naval History and Heritage Histories and Archives Division
Thomas Helm, a scholar and onetime crewman of USS Indianapolis (CA-35), described the loss of the ship in his 1963 Ordeal by Sea as follows: “Midnight [on 30 July 1945]—a moderately heaving sea and clouds covering a half moon now nearly three hours old. The Indianapolis, with her 9,950 ton displacement spread over 610 feet, sliced her way westward into what must forever be referred to as an approximate position of 134 degrees 48 minutes East and 12 degrees 2 minutes North. The exact latitude and longitude will never be known…” In the seventy-two years since USS Indianapolis sank, and the fifty-three years since Helm’s dire prognosis for her discoverability, the wreckage of Indianapolis eludes detection. The Discovery Channel documented explorer Curt Newport’s unsuccessful expedition to find the wreckage of Indianapolis in 2001 and National Geographic featured another expedition to find her in the incongruously named 2005 program Finding of the USS Indianapolis.
Why It’s So Hard to Find the Ship
It is difficult for under water explorers to locate the wreckage of Indianapolis for physical and historic reasons. The ship went down in the Philippine Sea in some of the deepest and most difficult terrain on Earth. In its immediate investigation of the sinking, the U.S. Navy (USN) estimated an ocean depth of over 1200 fathoms (nearly 1.5 miles) where Indianapolis sank. The depth of the area is more accurately in excess of three miles. The official USN position for the sinking is an estimated dead reckoning position of where Indianapolis should have been on Convoy Route Peddie if following its routing instructions exactly; which Captain McVay reported he was when picked up by USS Ringness (APD-100) on 3 August. Inability to send out on S.O.S. message because of damage to the ship’s electrical and communications systems, coupled with the delayed rescue, caused the exact latitude and longitude of the ship to be lost. Finally, Japanese submarine commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, captain of Indianapolis’s attacker I-58 reportedly destroyed his records before surrendering to Allied forces—and U.S. intelligence failed to recover the location Hashimoto reported for sinking Indianapolis in his messages to Kure the day after the attack.
The above mentioned difficulties do not make narrowing a possible area that Indianapolis went down impossible. Revisiting the archival records of the sinking revealed several clues capable of providing a better sense for where Indianapolis actually was on Route Peddie in the first minutes of 30 July 1945.
Archival Records, Paired With a Personal Blog Prove Key
One piece of the Indianapolis story capable of providing a better idea of the ship’s location when sunk has been present in accounts of the sinking and historical treatments, but mentioned only as a side note. Captain McVay revealed in an oral history that approximately twelve hours before the attack, Indianapolis passed an American tank landing ship (LST). He described the event on 29 July as follows:
“We had no incidents whatsoever [on July 29th]. We passed an LST headed toward Leyte as we were also, on Sunday, and talked to them. They were north of us and they were preparing to go further north in order to get out of our area to do some anti-aircraft shooting.” – Capt. McVay Oral History
Indianapolis chroniclers Richard Newcomb and Thomas Helm both mentioned the encounter in their respective books on the sinking. Both placed the encounter around midday on the 29th, stated that the LST was moving north, referenced a brief radio conversation between the two ships, and indicated the LST’s intent to move further north for anti-aircraft firing training. An after action report from the Peleliu Command dated 6 August 1945 prepared using survivor accounts addressed the passing as well, minus radio contact:
Radio silence had not been broken prior to the attack, but an LST had been spoken visually at about 1400 (-9 ½) on Sunday 29 July. The Indianapolis had passed this vessel on approximately the same course.
Such an encounter at sea on a heavily traveled convoy route would generally be considered routine. The fact that an LST was the last American ship to see Indianapolis afloat, however, and that the encounter took place on the day of the attack makes it a significant piece of the Indianapolis story. In the seventy-two years since the sinking, the identification of that LST was either lost or its importance overlooked.
Information posted online, however, has recently helped identify the LST in question. A key contribution came from John Murdick, owner of Aaron Murdick’s Fudge Shop in Mackinaw City, Michigan, who wrote a blog post entitled, “Francis G. Murdick—My Father,” accompanied by a WWII era photograph of a smiling young Sailor. Moved to commemorate his father’s naval service on Memorial Day 2015, the blog’s author recounted a story his father told him about being aboard an LST bound for Leyte in July 1945 and getting passed by Indianapolis. The young Sailor did not find out until much later that Indianapolis was sunk on that voyage. His son was thankful his father’s ship did not suffer a similar fate in the same dangerous waters. Historians at NHHC consulted the National Personnel Records Center for Francis G. Murdick’s service records to see if the story might offer a lead in identifying the LST. The historical record confirmed the memory; personnel files for Seaman First Class Francis Murdick listed him as a passenger on board LST-779 when she departed Guam on 27 July 1945—one day before Indianapolis sailed, a discovery that merited further research in the U.S. Navy’s World War II deck logs held by the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland.
The timing of LST-779’s anti-aircraft training and her movement northward from Peddie fits exactly with historic accounts of Indianapolis’s passing an LST on the cruiser’s final voyage.
Deck logs for LST-779 indicated that she left Port Apra Harbor, Guam, at 1500 on Friday, 27 July en route to Samar, Philippines. She would follow Convoy Route Peddie to her destination. Indianapolis cleared the same harbor at 0910 the next day (28 July) en route to Leyte Gulf. Shortly after midday on the 29th the two ships passed. LST-779 did not specifically mention her encounter with Indianapolis in her deck log that day, but the log did recount exactly what McVay remembered from the meeting. At 1300, LST-779 held general quarters to conduct firing exercises and began moving north of Peddie. At 1324, she released eight target balloons and shot five down. The crew secured from gunnery practice at 1353. With firing exercises completed, crew secured from general quarters at 1410 and the ship resumed her regular route. A reason for the omission of the encounter with Indianapolis or the exchange of signals between the two ships in the LST’s deck logs is unknown. Nevertheless, the timing of LST-779’s anti-aircraft training and her movement northward from Peddie fits exactly with historic accounts of Indianapolis’s passing an LST on the cruiser’s final voyage. There is little doubt that LST-779 is the anonymous ship from the Indianapolis story. As the tank landing ship moved north for their firing exercises, those who may have caught a glimpse of the cruiser were the last Americans to do so. In approximately eleven hours, the cruiser would be in the sights of a Japanese submarine.
That fateful meeting of LST-779 and Indianapolis provides critical information regarding the Indianapolis sinking, namely, that the cruiser was ahead of schedule on Route Peddie and slightly south of it. The encounter offers a previously unknown data point along Route Peddie the day of the sinking that helps establish the location of Indianapolis. Additionally, LST-779’s deck logs are the closest thing to the missing Indianapolis deck logs that will ever be found. LST-779 traversed the same waters at the same time, recording specific information about weather and sea conditions. The deck logs make it possible to better understand exactly what natural circumstances Indianapolis encountered—new data that can help researchers better determine where Indianapolis would have been when torpedoed and how survivors in the water would have been at the mercy of the movement of the sea. Additionally, LST-779’s being unable to see any survivors or wreckage as she passed where the sinking was on Peddie the following morning, and an absence of survivors’ recollections of seeing a ship the first morning in the water, indicates that neither were in the other’s line-of-sight.
Deck Logs Tell a Different Story
Instructions for Indianapolis established seven routing positions along Route Peddie. A chart with positions and times for which Indianapolis passed each up until the sinking was presented at the court of inquiry to determine if McVay would face court-martial. That chart indicated that Indianapolis reached the third point on her route, CFL (12°30’N, 138°00’E), at 1200 on 29 July. The deck logs for LST-779, however, tell a different story. At 1200 on 29 July LST-779 recorded a position of 12°22’N, 137°23’E, approximately 43 miles south-southwest of point CFL. Between 1200 and the initiation of maneuvers for anti-aircraft firing practice at 1300, logs for LST-779 indicate that the ship moved at full speed. When Indianapolis made first contact with LST-779, the tank landing ship was reportedly beginning to move northward for practice. That meant that the meeting likely took place shortly after 1300 and even further south-southwest of point CFL than LST-779’s noon position. During that daytime meeting, Indianapolis was zigzagging at approximately 15 knots. Sometime between 1930 and 2000 Captain McVay determined that the visibility post-sunset was poor enough for Indianapolis to cease zigzagging and increase speed to 17 knots. That increased speed for the ship’s final four hours would move her even further ahead of schedule on Route Peddie. Unfortunately, it also appears that Captain McVay likely maintained his route slightly south of Peddie while Lieutenant Hopkins definitely kept LST-779 slightly north of Peddie following his ship’s gunnery evolutions. When LST-779 traveled past where the Indianapolis survivors would have been in the water at 0800 the morning after the sinking, she was much too far north—about 10 miles—to have any possibility of spotting them.
Those new findings indicate that Indianapolis was, in all probability, ahead of schedule and not exactly on Route Peddie, information that does not merit further indictment of Captain McVay. To the commander of a combatant ship, the U.S. Navy left much discretion. McVay was given the option of leaving Guam on Friday, 27 July, steaming at 24-25 knots to arrive at Leyte on the morning of Monday, 30 July. That was unsatisfactory because McVay felt that the engines of Indianapolis needed a rest after the high speed run, transporting atomic bomb components from San Francisco to Tinian, between 16-26 July. He opted instead for the routing instructions that called for a slower speed and put him at Leyte Gulf one morning later. McVay was so adamant about a morning arrival in Leyte Gulf because Indianapolis had a large contingent of untested crewmen in the ship’s company and he wanted to arrive at dawn so that the ship could conduct anti-aircraft firing practice in the final stretch of the voyage. The war was not yet over, and McVay, anticipating that his ship would take part in the invasion of the Japanese home islands, did not want to take an untrained crew into a critical phase of the war. McVay’s eagerness to arrive at Leyte in time to squeeze in precious training perhaps enticed him to keep slightly ahead of schedule early in the voyage to mitigate unknown factors that might slow him down later. It is an unfortunate circumstance that Indianapolis’s track placed her in the path of submarine I-58.
The new information regarding Indianapolis’s progress on Route Peddie does not fundamentally change any of the questions about accountability, it does, however, provide new intelligence for exploration to identify a new search area. Teams have tried to find Indianapolis in the past, but failed, partly because she is three miles down, but also because they were looking in the wrong place.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Richard Hulver is a historian in the Histories and Archives Branch of Naval History and Heritage Command. He is leading a project to revisit the sinking of USS Indianapolis and make historic material readily available to the public and Navy that tells the whole story of the loss. Hulver received a B.A. in history from Shepherd University and a Ph.D. from West Virginia University. Prior to joining the Naval History and Heritage Command he worked as a historian for United States Southern Command, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and was a part of the Army Chief-of-Staff’s Iraq War Study Group.