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The Burden of Command: The Experience of Captain Charles Butler McVay, III

Nov. 6, 2017 | By Richard Hulver, Ph.D., Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division
The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA 35) was struck by two Japanese torpedoes in the first minutes of July 30, 1945. She sank in less than fifteen minutes. Several hundred Sailors and Marines went down with their ship; the rest drifted at sea for four days with few or no supplies until a patrol plane found them by chance and the Navy organized a rescue. Less than a third of the 1,196 men aboard survived the ordeal. For the skipper, Capt. Charles McVay III, the weight and burden of command was readily visible in his words and actions following the disaster.
McVay's experience provides a somber reminder of the responsibility of command, the mental burdens carried by combat veterans, and the lingering memories of war. Just over twenty-eight years after his ship's loss, McVay died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on November 6,1968. His motivations may never be fully understood, but the emotional weight of the loss of his crew and ship likely played some role.
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 210624-N-ZX259-6929
Captain McVay's Ordeal
Holding with military tradition, as commanding officer, McVay notified the families that their loved ones, his 879 crewmen, had died. His letters to the families went out in the final days of September 1945 and explained to grieving families the circumstances of their loved ones' deaths. The notification also imparted a sense that much was still unknown about the ship's loss. For many families, the notification from the Indianapolis's captain brought a sense of finality that the Navy's initial casualty notification did not. Many families put pen to paper and thanked McVay for reaching out to them. Family members often had many questions and engaged McVay in somewhat lengthy correspondence.

Through October and November 1945 one widow, Carmellia Neu, sent increasingly desperate letters to McVay. Mrs. Neu's initial letter showed appreciation for his words and requested a photo of Indianapolis and any additional information he knew. McVay sent Neu a photo but notified her that he "had no further information concerning your husband." She let McVay know in her reply that she "would not be satisfied until you answer my questions," and that she "won't believe that my husband is at the bottom of that terrible sea." She followed this with a barrage of questions: was there a chance that her husband swam to a deserted island, where exactly was he sleeping on the ship, did he go down with the ship or make it into the water, why did the Navy not give them an escort? She ended by asking McVay if "Hugh has lost his life as you say, what have I to live for, this war will never be over with if Hugh don't come home.?" All that McVay could offer in his reply to this letter and subsequent similar letters from Mrs. Neu was assurance that this member of his crew was surely gone.

McVay wrestled with the question of his own survival during the ordeal and afterward. When he sat down with Navy interviewers for his post-war oral history (just months after the loss of his ship) he told them that thoughts of dying with his ship crossed his mind. As the ship went down he understood the humiliation that would come if he was the only officer left and his ship was gone. He also candidly spoke of survivor guilt. He told interviewers that "it was very embarrassing to me, being the old fud on the ship" to find out that no officer between himself and a naval reserve lieutenant, except the ship's doctor, survived.

When reflecting on why he lived he stated that he made the decision "that I would attempt to save myself, despite thinking that it would have been much easier if I go down, I won't have to face what I know is coming after this." He ultimately concluded that he chose to get away from the sinking ship because "he enjoyed life" and wanted to repeat some of the experiences that brought him joy. Dark thoughts continued to fill his mind as he floated on a life raft for four days, namely the conversations he would have with families if he lived through his ordeal; "I had a great many hours to think of the disaster and I knew of some of the people I had lost. I hated to think of having to see their wives and a great many of them I knew quite well . . . I knew there was nothing I could say to them."

The difficult situation that McVay faced as the captain of Indianapolis was made even more difficult by the decisions the Navy made in their search for blame.

A Captain's Responsibility
A U.S. Navy captain at sea is responsible for the safety of ship and crew. This was an absolute then as it is today. At the same time, the Navy also affords a captain a great deal of discretion in the maintenance of said safety. Captain McVay was aware of his accountability as captain and his actions following the sinking are commendable. He was pulled from his life raft onto the deck of the high speed transport Ringness (APD 100) around 10:30 a.m. on August 3, 1945, nearly 82 hours after his ship went down. He remained captain of a group of survivors 9 men with 4 life rafts and a floater net. These men looked to him for leadership. He assessed and rationed the meager supplies that they had available: two oars, canned SPAM, malted milk balls, a flare gun with 12 cartridges, some medical ointments and a few morphine injections, a radar mirror, and three gallons of unusable fresh water contaminated with sea water. Upon being rescued he immediately made it known that his ship had not been zigzagging at the time of the attack. When afforded an opportunity to place blame for not zigzagging solely on his officer-of-the-deck in legal proceedings that followed he stated that it was his job as captain to censure his junior if their decision was bad, but that he knew "he could not shirk the responsibility of command."

Captain McVay stood ready to receive the verdict that would decide the fate of his career from the seven officers of his court-martial board on December 191945. He had listened to nearly two weeks of highly publicized testimony including that of the Japanese submarine captain who sank his ship and now Rear Adm.Wilder D. Baker, president of the court, read the body's decision. Admiral Baker announced McVay's acquittal on the charge of failing to order "abandon ship" in a timely manner. He remained silent on the more serious charge of hazarding his ship through negligence by failing to order the running of a zigzag course. The silence meant that the court had found McVay guilty and that their verdict awaited approval from a higher authority.

Unbeknownst to McVay, the Court had also unanimously signed a statement indicating their belief that the sentence for the conviction be remitted in its entirety. McVay would receive no official punishment, but his prospects of career advancement were at an end. He would never again be given command at sea or rise to a flag rank on active duty. He became the only U.S. Navy captain convicted for losing his ship to enemy action in either World War, and his name would forever be associated with the loss of the Fifth Fleet's flagship and nearly two-thirds of its crew.

McVay's decorated combat record entitled him to the tombstone promotion to rear admiral upon retirement in 1949, yet he preferred to be referred to as "Captain" for the remainder of his life.
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 171106-N-ZW259-8165

The Navy's treatment of McVay remains one of the more controversial aspects of the Indianapolis loss. No attempt from today's Navy to explain why he was court-martialed and convicted will adequately answer the question because the Navy's decision was ambiguous. Legally the verdict was sound. McVay was charged with a very technical offense that was almost impossible to disprove given the outcome of the attack on his ship. He was sunk by an enemy submarine firing from close range after maneuvering into attack position undetected for thirty minutes.

In an unprecedented move, Secretary of Navy (SECNAV) James Forrestal approved of Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, the Japanese submarine captain who sank Indianapolis, being brought to the Washington Navy Yard to testify against McVay. The enemy combatant's widely reported testimony added to the spectacle. He essentially stated that zigzagging would have made little difference in the outcome of his attack given the favorable conditions he faced. McVay's conviction was approved by Forrestal and not contested by President Truman.

The Court's recommendation to absolve McVay from his sentence was also unanimously approved. Adding insult to injury, the Navy's official press release describing the disaster (released after McVay's conviction), made clear that Capt. McVay was not tried for the loss of his ship or the large loss of life. Still, the conviction for hazarding his ship stood. The court found that as the commander of a combatant ship, he had violated standard Navy tactical doctrine.

The approval of the conviction by the highest authorities at the time and the remittance of any damages against McVay set the outcome in stone. Unable to appeal the verdict through the military courts, he could also make no appeal in civilian courts because his conviction caused him no tangible losses, aside from a tarnished reputation. The Navy handled the McVay case poorly. The Court-martial took place with the recommendation of a court of inquiry that met a month after the sinking to investigate the loss.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, then Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), disapproved of this recommendation. He thought that McVay had erred in judgment by not zigzagging during a time of night when visibility was good enough for an enemy to make visual contact and launch an attack. However, Nimitz felt that a letter of reprimand was sufficient punishment. Secretary of Navy Forrestal and Adm. Ernest J. King (then Chief of Naval Operations) disagreed. Theories as to why Forrestal and King moved forward with the court-martial have been posed over the years.

Unproven conjecture centers on political pressure from well-connected survivors' families and long-held grudges for punishments handed out by McVay's father Adm. Charles B McVay, Jr. (Ret.). It seems, however, that the strongest reason for the court-martial was the Navy's steadfast commitment to the concept of responsibility of command combined with the lifting of wartime censorship which had previously slowed the public release of losses during the war. Instead of focusing solely on McVay's Court-martial and conviction, he can be better honored through remembrance of his commendable U.S. Navy service, his leadership during tragedy, and the weight of loss he shouldered for the remainder of his life.

Captain William Toti (Ret.), former commander of USS Indianapolis (SSN 697), has stated the conviction of McVay was legally sound, but morally wrong. The Navy took steps toward correcting the moral wrong in July 2001 when SECNAV Gordon England, with the urging of a large group of Indianapolis survivors and a teenager named Hunter Scott who testified on McVay's behalf before Congress, placed the text of Congressional legislation symbolically exonerating McVay into his personnel file.

While the conviction still stands, there is now strong reaffirmation in McVay's file of the Navy's poorly timed 1946 statement that McVay was not to be blamed for the loss of Indianapolis.

Editor's Note: The Veterans Crisis Line offers confidential support for active duty personnel, reservists, veterans and their families 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at or send a text message to 838255. For more information, visit