By Richard Hulver, Ph.D., Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division
The sinking of USS Indianapolis (CA-35) provides many lessons to the contemporary United States Navy, officers and enlisted alike. It shows, perhaps above all else, that the worst can happen at any moment, even under sound and responsible leadership. The bravery showed by the Sailors and Marines through their ordeal stands as an example to their contemporaries of the sacrifice and service. Throughout the sinking and aftermath, Capt. Charles Butler McVay, III served as a model for command responsibility. Indianapolis teaches that twelve terrible minutes can overshadow years of decorated service—in the case of Indianapolis, ten WWII battle stars for actions in the Pacific. Furthermore, it demonstrates that clear operating procedures must be in place to mitigate loss and that vigilance is a necessity even in operational areas considered backwaters.
At the forefront of Capt. Charles B. McVay III’s mind during Indianapolis’ 28-31 July voyage from Guam to Leyte Gulf, Philippines was training. After delivering components for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima to Tinian on July 26, 1945, Capt. McVay primarily concerned himself with getting his crew in peak fighting condition before returning to the forward area to join Task Force 95 for the invasion of mainland Japan. During the Indianapolis’ refit in San Francisco from May-July 1945, following damage sustained by a bomb dropped by a Kamikaze plane off of Okinawa on 31 March, approximately 25 percent of McVay’s crew turned over—most of his new arrivals were untested recruits.
McVay’s orders to deliver bomb components shortened Indianapolis’ time in San Francisco by almost two months. The hastened preparation for their top-secret mission prevented scheduled training from taking place stateside. During Indianapolis’ short stopover in Guam for routing to the Philippines he inquired about getting the needed training in Guam before moving closer to the fighting, only to learn that training was no longer available there. McVay was likely relieved to learn that Indianapolis would join a training task group immediately upon arrival at Leyte. McVay’s concern for training was made even more evident by his request for routing instructions to put him at his final stretch into Leyte in the early morning hours so that he could maximize the last few miles with anti-aircraft practice in the best light to follow the tracer shells. This early morning arrival meant that McVay had two routing options. He could leave on the 27 July, travel at 24-25 knots and arrive to Leyte the morning of July 30, or leave the morning of July 28, travel 15.7 knots, and arrive the morning of July 31. Having just pushed his engines on the top-secret delivery, McVay opted for the slower speed transit. Unbeknownst to him, this decision would place his ship directly in the path of Japanese submarine I-58.
Captain McVay’s concern for getting his crew prepared to enter the anticipated bloodbath that an invasion of Japan would be, likely factored into his decision to cease zigzagging the night that his ship was sunk. Feeling pressed for time, he used the discretion granted him under his routing orders and ceased zigzagging the night of 29-30 July to make up time lost during required daylight zigzagging. Unfortunately, the poor visibility justifying this decision improved just as Indianapolis came in range of I-58. McVay took full responsibility for the loss of Indianapolis. Although zigzagging would not have saved his ship, he understood that his decisions contributed to her loss and that a commander’s responsibility for his ship, then and now, is absolute. The nighttime sinking proved that continuing to zigzag would have been prudent. In interviews and testimony at the court of inquiry and court martial McVay blamed no one but himself for failure to zigzag. He anticipated the scrutiny that would fall on him and his actions, and felt that he failed his men.
Broader operational failures in the Pacific Fleet compounded the tragic loss, as the men struggled to survive while awaiting rescue. Communications overloads in ports, as well as desires to limit radio traffic to conceal operational movements, had led the Navy to remove requirements for port directors to report arrivals of combatant ships. Indianapolis’ non-arrival at Leyte was incorrectly interpreted in the same light as an arrival and not reported. The non-reporting unfortunately resulted in Indianapolis never being missed in Leyte. Wartime complacency had also set in, as at this point the Philippine Sea was seen as a backwater on which the Navy did not deem dangerous enough to require escorts to protect against submarines. Capt. McVay inquired about an escort to port authorities at Guam, but was told none were available, nor was one needed. Travelling without an escort made Capt. McVay uneasy because, if the worst happened, his ship was alone.
Furthermore, the lifesaving equipment available to the crew was inadequate for their situation and U.S. patrol planes flew at too high of an altitude to spot survivors in the water. Most of the men in the water had either pneumatic life belts or kapok life jackets. Pneumatic lifebelts were the less desirable flotation devise because they could slip down the body and cause the wearer to be flipped under and stuck. Kapok vests worked well, but were not designed for five days use in the water. By days two and three these became waterlogged and came precariously close to holding the wearer’s head below the waterline. The rapidity in which Indianapolis listed to ninety-degrees and went under prevented many of her life rafts from being deployed. In the aftermath of the sinking it was suggested that self-releasing rafts be used by the Navy in the future. Those crew fortunate enough to have a life raft available often had access to flares, fresh water breakers, basic medical supplies, and a provisions such as malted milk balls and SPAM. Unfortunately, most of the water breakers contained undrinkable brackish water due to leaks, there was not enough burn ointment, and the gauze was destroyed by water damage. The flares and radar mirrors available to those on life rafts also proved nearly useless for making contact with U.S. patrol planes at the altitude they were flying. The flares were the non-parachute type and did not remain in the air long enough to draw attention.
The Navy addressed many of the contributing factors for the loss of life at sea immediately after the Aug. 2-3 rescue. Escort became a requirement for all U.S. ships with 500 crew. Additionally, the misinterpreted reporting procedure was remedied. It became a requirement for any U.S. ship five hours overdue to be immediately reported and procedures for better ship movement reports were initiated. The discretion for zigzagging given to captains sailing the Pacific waters was taken away and all combatant ships were directed to zigzag at all times. Capt. McVay also advocated for lifesaving equipment improvements. He urged the Navy to provide parachute flares in emergency kits, to adopt a life preserver with a pocket containing fresh water, for dull colored life rafts to be replaced with bright yellow ones, and for the susceptible wooden water breakers to be replaced with watertight metal ones—just to name a few.
Ultimately, a captain is responsible for his ship and crew. McVay, a Navy man to his core, understood this. Rather than shirking his duty and blaming institutional problems, he accepted responsibility for the loss and suggested improvements that might save Sailors in the future. The tragedy is a blemish in U.S. naval history, but in turn, sparked changes in reporting procedures, escort requirements, lifesaving equipment, and operational awareness. McVay’s leadership and the procedural changes are not the only lessons to be learned. Current Sailors and Marines can look to the final crew of Indianapolis as a model of the sacrifice and bravery that their service sometimes requires. They can also take comfort from the fact that the lessons learned by the Navy from the tragedy of Indianapolis directly lead to procedures in place today that will hopefully prevent such a disaster from ever happening again.
Editors 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.