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Lest We Forget: USS Indianapolis and Her Sailors

Aug. 24, 2017 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
Why should the U.S. Navy and the American people remember the Indianapolis (CA 35); a ship that sank in the last days of World War II? Why remember one of the worst defeats and a tragic moment in U.S. Navy's history? Beyond the defeat of the sinking itself, USS Indianapolis' story is compounded by grave errors in U.S. Navy command, control, and intelligence, which, beyond those Sailors who initially went down with their ship due to Japanese torpedo attack, resulted in hundreds of needless and horrific additional deaths to exposure, dehydration and shark attacks. And as if the sinking were not bad enough, the U.S. Navy's poor handling of casualty notification, and perhaps the most controversial court martial in U.S. Navy history, led to years of bitter recriminations.

Why, after 70 plus years should we remember? Because, even in the worst defeats and disasters there is valor and sacrifice that deserves to never be forgotten. The story of USS Indianapolis can serve as inspiration to current and future Sailors enduring situations of mortal peril. There are also lessons learned (and in the case of the Indianapolis, lessons re-learned) that need to be preserved and passed on, so that the same mistakes can be prevented, and lives saved. Lest we forget so we may learn.

| For more on Navy's lessons learned regarding USS Indianapolis, read this blog by Dr. Richard Hulver, NHHC Historian

There were 1,196 heroes aboard the USS Indianapolis when she was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-58 on the night of 29-30 July, 1945. Some of them had only recently reported aboard, but most of the crew had already distinguished themselves in some of the most critical battles of the Pacific War. Her crew had already succeeded in close-in shore bombardments supporting U.S. Marines and shooting down multiple kamikaze suicide aircraft, any one of which could have crippled or sunk a critical U.S. aircraft carrier.

While serving as the flagship for one of the largest and most costly naval battles in history off Okinawa, the Indianapolis was hit and nearly sunk by a kamikaze; she was saved only by the skill, courage, and determination of her crew. All of those aboard when she was torpedoed were instrumental in the successful accomplishment of Indianapolis' most important mission of the war; the safe delivery at maximum speed of atom bomb components to Tinian Island (her speed record from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor still stands today.) In doing so, the Indianapolis Sailors served to forestall additional years of carnage, in the long run saving many hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Japanese lives.

Indianapolis survivors en route to a hospital following their rescue, circa early August 1945. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives

The person responsible for the loss of the Indianapolis was Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, skipper of the Japanese submarine I-58, and he was just doing his duty. By a combination of skill, courage and the fortunes of war, Hashimoto was in exactly the right place, in the middle of a vast ocean, at exactly the right time, and hit the Indianapolis with at least two torpedoes. The impact was devastating, and took just 12 minutes the ship to sink. This time, her crew had no chance to save her. About 300 men went down with the ship. They were arguably the lucky ones. What followed was an ordeal of hell on earth for those who survived the sinking. For a whole host of reasons, many related to the secrecy of her atom bomb mission, the rest of the Navy did not know that Indianapolis was missing. Hundreds of Sailors died, vainly trying to survive for days in shark-infested waters until a rescue. Sadly, for most, that rescue did not come in time.

The first sighting of survivors was a sheer fluke, but once the U.S. Navy commands grasped that Indianapolis was missing, things happened very fast, and multiple aircraft and ships took great risks to save as many Indianapolis Sailors as possible. According to the Navy, only 316 survived, while the Indianapolis survivor's organization believes that number is actually 317. Either way the loss of life was staggering.

The litany of lessons learned from the Indianapolis sinking is very long. A number were "lessons lost" from the 1921 loss of the ocean-going tug USS Conestoga (AT 54). Similar to the Indianapolis, Conestoga went missing while transporting secret cargo. Unlike Indianapolis, none of her 56 crew members survived and the location of her wreck was a total mystery until 2015. Unlike Conestoga, lessons from the Indianapolis continue to impact U.S. Navy operations today. Procedures for sharing extremely sensitive intelligence so that it is operationally useful, as well as communications improvements and procedures for scheduling, routing, escorting and routing ships are still in effect today and are a result of the Indianapolis story.

Amongst the numerous errors in the aftermath of the sinking was the Navy's decision, for reasons that remain unclear, to withhold notification of families until two weeks after the sinking. On the same day that the rest of our nation experienced the euphoria of the announcement of victory over Japan, the families of the lost Sailors experienced the depth of despair, for which many never forgave the U.S. Navy. Nor did many forgive the skipper of Indianapolis, Captain Charles B. McVay, who was court-martialed and convicted of "hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag," thereby becoming the only U.S. Navy ship captain to be court-martialed for losing his ship as a result of enemy action. The court itself recognized the unfairness of the Navy's action and immediately after convicting him, recommended the sentence be remitted, and it was. But the remittance could not erase the stigma of blame, which McVay bore until he took his own life in 1968.

Captain McVay took a calculated risk. By regulation he had authority to decide not to zigzag during periods of low visibility, which was the case that night. He was trying to balance two contradictory requirements; the need to conserve fuel and his engines after the high speed transit, and his desire to get to Leyte as soon as possible to maximize the gunnery training his crew needed before going back into battle off Okinawa. Ceasing zigzagging on the dark night accomplished both objectives, and the odds of there being a submarine at exactly that spot were actually quite small.

Other commanders during the war had frequently taken calculated risks. A famous example was when Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher lit up his carriers at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, risking many thousands of lives to save a couple hundred. Mitscher got lucky that there was no Japanese submarine there. McVay was not. McVay's leadership and his dedication to his crew deserve remembering. In the ordeal that followed the sinking, Captain McVay never relinquished command. He remained in charge of everything that he could see from his raft, making decisions that saved many men's lives.

Any reasonable person could have forgiven him for just doing what it took to survive, when so many others did not. But McVay never reverted to just being a man in the water looking out for himself. It is one thing to exhibit great leadership when things are going well, but quite another to do so when everything has gone to hell. It is for this reason that the survivors of the sinking retained their respect and admiration and have kept their faith in their skipper to this day. That is true leadership, and it deserves to be remembered.
Editor's note: On August 19th, 2017 the wreckage of the World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA 35) was located by a team of civilian researchers led by entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul G. Allen. Read this blog to learn about the role U.S. Navy played in the discovery.