The USS Indianapolis transported components of an atomic bomb to Tinian Island, where the weapon was assembled, loaded on a bomber, and dropped on Hiroshima. After accomplishing its mission, the ship went to Guam and then on to Leyte Gulf. It was more than halfway there when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine. The sinking was not due to a series of unforeseen circumstances, but rather it was due to a carefully contrived conspiracy with two motives: (1) prevent the crew from disclosing secrets they might have learned about the atomic bomb, and (2) forestall concerns about radioactive material, which might hamper future shipments of atomic weapons.
|USS Indianapolis off Mare Island (10 July 1945)
|The USS Indianapolis was a heavy cruiser, commissioned in 1932. It served as President Roosevelt’s personal transport for trips across the Atlantic and to South America. Many of the world’s leaders and royalty came on board as guests of the president. In April 1940 in response to Japanese aggression in the Far East, it joined the U.S. Fleet based in Pearl Harbor. On Friday, December 5, 1941, orders came down that the ship was to be underway in an hour. At the time married men and those with liberty passes had gone ashore for the weekend. Leaving two-thirds of the crew behind, it went to Johnson Island to conduct a simulated shore bombardment. (Harrell, pp. 28-30) The strangeness of its hurried departure indicates foreknowledge of the impending attack two days later and that someone wanted to spare the president’s favorite ship.
The Indianapolis was involved in many campaigns against Japanese-held islands during the course of World War II. In 1943 it became theflagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance while he commanded the Fifth Fleet. On March 31, 1945, during the Okinawa invasion, nine men were killed when a bomb released from a Japanese fighter plummeted through the deck, the crew’s mess hall, and the berthing compartment. It hit the fuel tanks, before crashing through the keel and exploding in the water underneath. In spite of two gaping holes in the keel, damaged propeller shafts, ruptured fuel tanks, and ruined water distillers, the ship somehow managed to make the long trip back to San Francisco.
After major repairs and an overhaul, the Indianapolis was given the mission of carrying parts of an atomic bomb (Little Boy) to Tinian Island. A heavy, lead canister, painted black, about two-feet high and eighteen inches wide, padlocked in a steel cage, was welded to the deck in Admiral Spruance’s cabin. It contained 137 pounds of enriched uranium. Keeping watch over the container were two men in field artillery uniforms. One of them was actually a radiologist in disguise. He was often seen hovering around the container checking for radiation leaks with a Geiger counter. A large wooden crate (five feet by five feet by fifteen feet), weighing about five tons, was stored in the port hangar. It contained the hardware of the bomb, and it was guarded by thirty-nine, heavily-armed Marines.
The Indianapolis departed from San Francisco on July 16 at 8:30 in the morning (three hours after the first test of an atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico). When the ship entered Pearl Harbor for refueling, McVay forbade his crew to leave the ship, fearing they had gleaned too much information about the secret weapon. Not even the sick or injured could debark. (Kurzman, p. 35) The Indianapolis left Pearl Harbor and arrived at Tinian Island on July 26, making the trip in record time with an average speed of 29 knots (34 mph) over a ten day period.
After the crate and cylinder were off-loaded, the ship took on more fuel and departed for Guam. When it arrived the next morning in the port of Apra, the crew expected to go ashore, but again they had to remain on the ship. (Kurzman, p. 37, 49)
The Submarine Threat
At the headquarters of CINCPAC, Commodore James Carter told McVay that Admiral Spruance wanted to get his flagship back as soon as possible, but first the Indianapolis must go to Leyte Gulf where the crew would get the seventeen-day refresher training it had missed in San Diego. Departure from Guam must be no later than the following morning. During this meeting, Carter should have said something about the Japanese submarines patrolling the route that the Indianapoliswould be taking, but he said nothing.
|Indianapolis Captain Charles McVey
The submarines, four to six in number, formed a pack called the Tamon Group. They were specially designed to sink surface vessels. They were large and fast, capable of doing 18 knots. They had T-95 torpedoes and manned torpedo suicide boats called kaitens. Information about the Tamon Group as well as their positions at sea were known to naval intelligence officers in Washington and Guam, because Navy codebreakers had broken the Japanese code early in the war.
On July 24, three days before McVay’s meeting with Carter, a Tamon Group submarine, I-53, was working with a spotter plane as it stalked a convoy of fifteen ships near Luzon. The plane was seen by lookouts on the escort destroyer Underhill, and six hours later the submarine was detected by sonar. I-53 sent a kaiten out to attack the destroyer. To get a view of his target, the kaiten man put up a periscope and saw the destroyer bearing down on him at ramming speed. Upon contact, two explosions split the destroyer in half, killing 112 men. The remaining 109 survivors were picked up by other ships in the convoy. All this was known to Carter, but not to McVay.
The sinking of the Underhill alarmed Captain Samuel Anderson, aide to Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations in Washington DC. Anderson wrote a dispatch warning that current routes in the Western Pacific must be changed. King read the message but neglected to send it to Admiral Nimitz in Guam. (Leche, p. 13; Kurzman, p. 44).
Following his meeting with Carter, McVay had lunch with Spruance and his staff in the officers’ mess. Nothing about the dangers of going to Leyte Gulf was said.
McVay next saw Joseph Waldron, the port routing officer. Waldron said that an average speed of 25 knots would bring the Indianapolis into Leyte Gulf by Monday morning. McVay, however, wanted a slower speed to give his engines a rest from the exertion of racing to Tinian Island. Postponing the arrival to 11:00 am Tuesday would allow a leisurely pace of 15.7 knots. Waldron handed McVay an intelligence brief that mentioned the sighting of a submarine on July 22, 70 miles from the so-called “Peddie” route (the route between Guam and Leyte Gulf). Three days later, a “possible periscope” was seen at 13°N, 135°E, and a “sound contact” indicating a submarine was heard at 10°N, 136°E. Not mentioned in the brief was the sinking of the Underhill on July 24.
Indianapolis traveling alone
The Indianapolis would be travelling alone. Destroyers normally available for escort duty were being deployed to rescue men from downed aircraft returning from bombing raids over Japan. Traveling without an escort was particularly dangerous for the Indianapolis, because it lacked the means to detect underwater sounds that could disclose the presence of an enemy submarine. The equipment might have been installed during the time it was being repaired in San Francisco, but the Navy failed to do so. (O’Reilly and Dugard, p. 149). The only defense the ship had was to zigzag, and McVay’s routing instructions from Waldron gave him the discretion to zigzag as he deemed necessary.
|USS Underhill off Boston (21 June 1944)
McVay asked if there were any ships going to Leyte Gulf that the Indianapoliscould travel with. Waldron called the headquarters of Admiral Murray of the Marianas Command in Guam and asked Lieutenant Johnson, assistant to Captain Oliver Naquin, in charge of surface operations. Even though the question concerned ships other than destroyers, Johnson said no escort would be necessary.
The Indianapolis left Guam at 9:00 am, July 28. It expected to cross the boundary separating the Marianas Command from the Philippine Sea Command at longitude 130°E sometime after midnight July 30. It was due to arrive in Leyte Gulf at 11:00 am on July 31. A message stating these particulars was sent from the port director’s office in Guam to: (1) Commander Sancho, port director of Leyte Gulf; (2) Admiral McCormick of Task Force 95.7; (3) Admiral Spruance; (4) Commodore Carter; (5) Admiral Nimitz; (6) Admiral Murray of the Marianas Command; and (7) Admiral Oldendorf of Task Force 95. Plotting boards at the headquarters of both the Marianas Command and the Philippine Sea Frontier kept track of the progress the Indianapolis was making over the Peddie route. In practice this meant moving a marker a few inches on a map every two hours.
Seven hours after the Indianapolis departed from Guam, Wild Hunter, a merchant ship travelling with a convoy to Manila, opened fire with deck guns on a fast approaching kaiten and sank it. Another kaiten was blown to bits when the destroyer Lowry rammed it. Unlike the Underhill, the Lowry suffered little damage. To find and destroy the submarine, a sub hunter group comprised of spotter planes and the destroyer Albert T. Harris was sent from Leyte Gulf. Action dispatches concerning this operation flowed into Guam. According to documents later declassified, the Navy admitted that these dispatches should have been “sufficient reason to have diverted the Indianapolisfrom her routing, but no action was taken” (Leche, p. 22; Kurtzman, pp. 48, 55)
The following day, July 29, Commander Janney told fellow officers Flynn, Haynes, and Redmayne that he overheard radio traffic involving spotter planes and a destroyer searching for the submarine that tried to sink the Wild Hunter. The search was being conducted about 170 miles further along the Peddie route. He said that they would be passing through this area sometime around midnight. (Leche, p. 23, Nelson, p. 45) Meanwhile, Lt. McKissick, as officer of the deck, examined the “All Ship” dispatches and noted anti-submarine operations going on at 10°N, 131°E. (Leche, p. 23) By evening, the spotter planes and the destroyer lost contact and went home. (Leche, p. 21)
Between 7:30 and 8:00 pm the sea was choppy, and the sky was overcast. McVay gave the order to cease zigzagging and increase speed to 17 knots (one knot slower than the top speed of a Tamon Group submarine). At 11:00 he retired to an emergency cubicle just off the bridge.
Since the ship was moving through a war zone, it should have had interior hatches and doors closed and sealed. Watertight compartments were essential to keep the ship afloat in case of a torpedo attack. Instead, McVay chose a relaxed state of sailing called the Yoke Modified Condition. Although the interior spaces were dangerously vulnerable, he believed the men below deck needed some relief from the stifling heat and humidity of summertime sailing. (Stanton, p. 81-82, Kurtzman, p. 52, Harrell, p. 65)
Indianapolis was set up
The fact that it was completely open at the time it was struck is a disturbing element in the story of the Indianapolis. A responsible captain should have placed the security of his ship above the comfort of his men, and a reading of McVay’s wartime record shows he was a very responsible captain. Resolving this discrepancy is the key to unlocking the mystery of its sinking.
Assuming the Navy had indeed contrived the circumstances that led to the sinking of the Indianapolis, than it would not want a skipper who knew nothing about the plot and, during the emergency, used his best judgment and whatever means he had to save the ship. Even worse would be the man who discovered the plot and used every means in his power to defeat it. Taking this logic one step further, the best man for the job would be someone who knew the ship was doomed and by covert means facilitated the swiftness of its destruction. McVay must have been under extraordinary pressure, perhaps blackmail, to play a role contrary to his training, experience, and outlook. His obviously troubled demeanor after the war might have stemmed from a guilty conscience, which ultimately drove him to take his own life twenty-three years later.
If the crew had gone ashore at Guam or Leyte Gulf, they certainly would have talked about the mysterious crate and cylinder, the two strange men who had charge of them, and the impressive gathering of high-ranking officers on Tinian Island who watched the cargo being unloaded. This might have helped the Japanese who would have deployed extra defensive measures to stop the use of the bomb, but it also might have helped the Soviet Union, which even in July 1945, was considered to be the next enemy. To safeguard the secrets of the bomb, it was necessary to get rid of ship and crew. Even if a small number of survivors were picked up, they could be kept quiet for the sake of national security.
Another problem was radiation. Despite the precaution of putting uranium material in lead containers, the efficacy of lead as a shielding was not fully trusted in 1945. Any reluctance Spruance might have had in returning to his flagship and using the officer’s quarters where the uranium was kept during the voyage to Tinian would have been noticed. So to keep the matter from becoming a public issue prematurely, it was better to send ship and crew to the bottom of the ocean.
After eluding the destroyer and spotter planes for most of the day, I-58 surfaced about 11:00 pm. About forty minutes later, the navigator announced the presence of an enemy ship. The captain went on the bridge of the conning tower and looked through his binoculars. With a half-moon behind him, he could see an enemy ship coming towards him. He wondered why there were no escorts and why it was not zigzagging. He gave the order to attack. The submarine launched six torpedoes against the starboard side of the ship. One torpedo struck at 12:05 am, tearing off thirty to forty feet of the bow. Three seconds later, another torpedo hit its mark directly under the bridge, blowing up the power center and touching off an ammunition magazine and a supply of aviation fuel.
The torpedoes hit
On the bridge was Lt. John Orr. In November 1943, he was on a ship that was sunk by a torpedo, and now he was facing the same situation again. (Dube, p. 165) When the Indianapolis was hit, he immediately recognized the gravity of what happened and told a junior officer the exact position of the ship and ordered him to go to the radio room. He tried to communicate with the engine room, but because the electrical system was knocked out, he sent a messenger with an order to stop the engines. When McVay came on the bridge, he found Orr extremely upset and almost on the verge of panic, because he did not know if the order to stop the engines got through. The ship continued to plow ahead at 17 knots, with tons of water pouring through the open bow like a funnel. The forward compartments were flooding fast, and the bulkheads were breaking from the pressure of the water. A check of the inclinometer at 12:10 showed that the ship had a 12° starboard list. Two minutes later the list increased to 18°. McVay issued the order to abandon ship, but due to a misunderstanding, the bugler took the order to mean that he personally should abandon ship. He dropped the bugle and went over the side without sounding the call. Notwithstanding, most of the crew had already recognized the ship was lost and began jumping into the water. At 12:14 McVay sent Janney to the radio room to make sure an SOS was getting out, but Janney never got there, even though the radio room was only a short distance from the bridge.
To send a message, a man sitting at the transmitter key in a room called Radio I worked in cooperation with technicians manning the transmitter equipment in a separate room nearby called Radio II. When the torpedoes hit, Lt. Driscoll and four other men were occupying Radio I. The detonations threw them to the deck, the lights went out, and the room filled with smoke. They grabbed flashlights and lanterns, and prepared to abandon ship. The junior officer sent by Orr barred the way and ordered them to send a distress signal. Driscoll tried to call Radio II on the phone, but the line was dead. He sent a man over to Radio II to tell them to plug in a transmitting line. He was told that a line had already been set up for Radio I’s use and that they could transmit over 4235 kilocycles. (Leche, p. 47, Nelson, p. 58). The junior officer took a piece of paper and wrote a note saying the Indianapoliswas struck by two torpedoes, gave the longitude and latitude, and called for immediate assistance. Driscoll took the paper and held a flashlight on it, while Joseph Moran tapped the transmitter key. He was not sure the message was getting out, because a red indicator light did not blink as the key was being pressed. The men in the transmitter room however knew that the signal was getting out, for they could see the needle moving on a transmitter current meter. When the ship reached a list of 50°, Driscoll told his men to abandon ship (Leche, p. 46-48).
|Chief Radio Technician Leonard T. Woods
Meanwhile, in Radio II, Fred Hart started up the emergency generator which provided power to a desk lamp and two overhead fluorescent light fixtures. The pilot lights on the transmitters were all lit, indicating they had power. Among the fifteen men who crowded into the room was Chief Radio Technician Leonard T. Woods, severely burned by the blasts.He said the ship was sinking fast, told the men to put on life preservers and remain calm. Woods put Jack Minor in front of one of the transmitters, as big as a refrigerator filled with hundreds of foot-long vacuum tubes. He told him to warm it up, while he worked on another which operated on a different frequency. Although the room lacked the means to send messages, Woods cleverly manipulated a toggle switch used to test the equipment. By flipping it on and off, he created clicking noises through the transmitter and the antennae in a manner similar to sending a series of binary signals from a telegraph key. Using Morse code, Woods sent a plain SOS along with the ship’s coordinates at 500 kilocycles. Minor watched the needle move on the current meter as the signal was getting out. Meanwhile, Moran in Radio I was busy sending an SOS at 4235 kilocycles. Transmitting on two frequencies substantially increased the potential for reception by listening radio operators at shore bases and on ships throughout the Western Pacific. At 12:17 as the ship was approaching a 60° list, Woods ordered his men to abandon ship. (Leche, p. 48-49)
In about three minutes more, the ship capsized and sank. Of the 1196 men on the ship, about 800 to 900 men survived the sinking. Of those who suffered the five day ordeal in the water, only 317 made it back. Among those who died were Orr, Janney, Driscoll and Woods.
The official location was 12°N, 134°E, but a recent comparison of its position with the log of an LST it had passed the previous afternoon shows that the Indianapoliswas ahead of schedule and was probably at 11°N, 133°E, when it sank. This was approximately the same location where I-58tried to sink Wild Hunter at 10°N, 131°E.
Reception of the SOS
At the court of inquiry on August 13, Captain Hilbert said that his investigators found no evidence that any radio station had received an SOS message. Both Admiral Nimitz and Admiral King blamed McVay for failing to send an SOS. Thirty-seven years later, a UPI story dated March 22, 1983, said “Although the radio rooms were believed to have auxiliary power, and survivors said SOS and position messages were sent, none was apparently received, possibly because of antenna damage.” (Leche, p. 58) As shown below, an SOS did get out.
- Donald Allen worked the midnight to 8:00 am watch in Tacloban as driver for the port director, Norman Gillette. On the night of the sinking, Allen was free to stand watch in the officer of the day’s office, while Gillette was playing bridge on the nearby island of Samar, ninety miles away. Shortly after midnight, an ashen-faced technician from the radio shack in the back half of the Quonset hut burst in and said he had received an SOS from the Indianapolis, “clear as a bell, with coordinates.” It had been torpedoed and was sinking. They summoned the officer on duty, Lieutenant Stuart B. Gibson, who double-checked to make sure the distress call was for real. He dispatched two ocean-going tugs to investigate. They were powerful, stubby vessels with mighty engines capable of doing 30 knots. After Allen went off duty at 8 am, he went to bed. He woke up curious to hear what had happened to the Indianapolis. He was told that Gillette was furious that the tugs had been dispatched without his permission and ordered them to return to base, even though they had completed seven hours of the twenty one hour voyage. If those tugs had been allowed to continue, hundreds of lives might have been saved. (Nelson, p. 163; Stanton, p. 126)
- Guarding the quarters of Commodore Jacob H. Jacobson, the commandant of the Leyte Gulf base, was a sailor named Clair B. Young. A messenger approached with an SOS from the Indianapolis. It had been hit by torpedoes and gave the coordinates. When Young gave the message to Jacobson, the commandant said “No reply at this time. If any further messages are received, notify me at once.” He then sent Young back to his post. Several days later, Young noticed that the Indianapolis was not in its assigned berth. He did not notify his superiors about the absence of the Indianapolis, figuring they were not interested. He made public his story ten years later, after he read articles in a newspaper and later a magazine that no record existed of anyone receiving a distress signal. (Nelson, p. 162; Stanton, pp. 126-127)
- Rear Admiral Alexander Sharp wrote a report that on July 30 the Coast Guard cutter Bibb received a fragmentary distress message. In response to an inquiry in December 1945, the officers commanding the Bibb said that Sharp’s report was not true. (Leche, p. 58)
- A crewman of the seagoing tug USS Pawnee (one of the two that Gibson sent out?) told one of the survivors, Donald Cowan, that they had picked up the tail end of an SOS “the night we were sunk.” The SOS said “We are torpedoed and sinking fast. We need immediate assistance.” Identification was not received nor the location of the ship. (Leche, p. 59)
- Russell Hetz was on watch aboard LCI-1004 in Leyte Gulf. The ship’s radio received two distress calls from the Indianapolis eight and half minutes apart. The radioman tried to contact the Indianapolis but got no response. Both messages were relayed through channels to the appropriate authorities. Hetz’s superior officers said the two SOS calls were probably hoaxes contrived by the Japanese to lure rescue ships into a trap. (Nelson, p. 162; Stanton, p. 127)
- Lt. J. F. Newman, senior aviator aboard the cruiser Salt Lake City, met radio technician Fred Hart on a train in November 1945. Newman said the Salt Lake City was on its way to Saipan from Okinawa when it picked up the distress message from the Indianapolis. The skipper, Captain Mitchell, considered diverting his ship but decided against it because his ship was with a flotilla of destroyers. The captain asked Newman if he could take his plane out and search for the survivors. Unfortunately, Newman could not go, because the 300 mile distance was beyond the range of his plane. Later when Newman was before the inspector general investigating the facts for the court martial of McVay, he denied everything Hart said. The discrepancy was never resolved. (Leche, pp. 59-60)
- In December 1945 naval authorities investigated a rumor that an SOS was received aboard the USS Hyperion on the night the Indianapolis sunk. The skipper, Captain Clarke Withers, claimed he did not remember receiving such a message, nor could he remember the names of the radiomen who were on duty that night. (Leche, p. 60)
Six weeks after the sinking, according to Russell Hetz, “an officer with a lot of clout” came onboard LCI-1004 and ripped out a large section from the logbook, disappearing with incriminating evidence. Donald Allen said the cover up of what really happened that fateful night originated at the naval base of Leyte Gulf. Documents and witnesses who could have verified the reception of an SOS were suppressed.
What saved many of the survivors was the alertness of Wilbur Gwinn who was the pilot of the Ventura bomber who spotted men in the water on August 2. McVay and 37 other survivors were rescued by the USS Ringness and taken to Peleliu on August 4. The following day, one day before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, McVay held a press conference for the newsmen gathered in the base hospital. McVay said, “We were due at our anchorage at 1100 hours. I should think by noon or 1300 they would have started to worry. A ship that size practically runs on train schedule. I should think by noon they would have been started to call by radio to find out where we were, or if something was wrong. This is something I want to ask someone myself – why didn’t this get out sooner. So far as I know, nothing was started until Thursday.” (Kurzman, p. 182; Stanton p. 243) This was the first and only time, McVay made a public complaint about the Navy. His remarks would not be known until after the news blackout was lifted ten days later.
|Indianapolis survivors on Guam (August 1945)
McVay’s candid statement exposes an unbroken chain of foul-ups reaching from officers at the junior level all the way to the top admirals and generals conducting the war against Japan. It would be a mistake to assume that the men who achieved a brilliant victory over a stubborn and aggressive nation were bumbling idiots when it came to the tragedy of the Indianapolis. The reality was that, as the facts unfolded, they found themselves entangled in a web of complicity that could possibly put them in the docket for criminal negligence, or worse. The only escape was to play the fool and hope for the best. The missed opportunities to save the survivors are not significant when taken separately and alone. However, when totaled up and taken as a whole, they constitute evidence of a conspiracy.
- I-58 sent a message sometime between 12:30 and 1:00 am to Tokyo saying he had sunk “a battleship of the Idaho class.” This message was intercepted by U.S. naval intelligence. Capt. Layton in Guam and Capt. Smedberg in Washington DC ignored the message, believing that it was a grandiose claim by the submarine captain to impress his superiors in Tokyo since no SOS had been reported. Naval intelligence in Pearl Harbor also ignored the message, “believing the Japanese were trying to be deceptive.” Since they knew the submarine’s position from other decoded messages, they might have compared it to the position of the Indianapolis. If they had done so, they would have seen that the submarine and the Indianapolis were both in the same place. These excuses for ignoring the message were controverted by declassified naval documents that said “at a time which is approximately within a half hour after the recorded time of the sinking of the Indianapolis, the Japanese submarine I-58 which was known to be operating on an offensive mission in the general area which the Indianapolis was then passing sent a dispatch to his commander reporting that he had made a sinking.” The documents also admitted that “the delay in making the search for the survivors of the Indianapolis … seems to involve deeply the headquarters of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet.” If Admiral Nimitz and his staff had “taken immediate steps to have this matter investigated, it is probable that the survivors of the Indianapolis would have been located within twenty-four hours of the time of the sinking of the ship and many lives would have been saved.” (Leche, p. 52)
- The Indianapolis had a new type of communication system known as RATT or Radio Teletype. A test of this equipment was scheduled for the morning of July 31. Amphibious Forces, the testing authority, sent a message to the Indianapolis but no reply came back. It then contacted Radio Guam and asked them to try to make contact. When Guam relayed it could not get through, Amphibious Forces became worried and sent the following dispatch at 9:08 am (two hours before the expected arrival of the Indianapolis at Leyte Gulf): “Unable to contact Indianapolis. On HF RATT or cue circuit either directly or by relay through Radio Guam. Request Indianapolis advise at what time she will be ready for further test. Will discontinue cue circuit until that time.” Captain Paul Anderson, Nimitz’s assistant communications officer told Amphibious Forces to forget it. He was not concerned that Indianapolis did not reply to the test message. His excuse later was that the RATT was totally new, and he expected the Indianapolis would have some difficulty conducting its first test. This was untrue, for the Indianapolis had already tested the equipment in San Francisco and had no problem with it. (Leche, pp. 76-77)
- Admiral McCormick never got the message on July 26 that the Indianapolis would be joining his command for training. When his staff deciphered the address, they wrote down CTG-75.8 instead of the correct CTG-95.7. Assuming that the message was meant for another command, no one bothered to decode the contents. McCormick did however get the message that Spruance’s flagship would be joining his command when it entered Leyte Gulf at 11:00 am on July 31. He might have been smart enough to guess that the ship’s crew needed training, but instead of waiting, his task force steamed out of port at the very moment that the Indianapolis was due to arrive. Why he did not make inquiries, or why he chose not to make a short delay in his departure in case the Indianapolis showed up has not been adequately explained. (Leche pp. 5, 19; Kurzman, p. 120)
- Admiral Oldendorf, who commanded Task Force 95, got the first message that the Indianapolis would be joining McCormick’s Task Force 95.7, but he never got the second message stating the Indianapolis was due to arrive in Leyte Gulf on July 31 at 11 am. For some reason, Waldron’s office did not send the message directly to Oldendorf but rather to the joint communications center in Okinawa, where it mysteriously disappeared. For all Oldendorf knew, the cruiser was still at Tinian unloading cargo. If he had gotten the second message, the absence of the cruiser in Leyte Gulf on July 31 would have been noticed at once. (Leche, p. 19; Kurzman, p. 119).
- The pilot of an army air force C-54 travelling from Manila to Guam flew over the site of the sinking at around 4:00 am. Those below tried to draw the attention of the plane with flare guns. When the pilot landed in Guam, he reported what he saw. The stupid excuse given for the pilot not recognizing these signals as coming from the survivors of a sunken ship was that he thought he was seeing the star shells and tracers of surface ships engaged in battle. (Nelson, p. 110)
- Gibson was the operations officer under Commander Sancho, the port director whose first day on the job was July 27. Gibson received the dispatch on July 28 that the Indianapolis would arrive on July 31 at 11 am and duly wrote it in his log. As noted above, on the night of the sinking, Gibson sent two ocean-going tugs to the rescue, but was later reprimanded for sending them out, and the tugs returned to port. The following day, when the Indianapolis was overdue, it was Gibson’s duty to notify Sancho, Jacobson, or Granum. Instead he merely changed the cruiser’s expected arrival to Wednesday, August 1. When it failed to show up on that day, he moved its expected arrival to Thursday, August 2. By this time, Indianapolis was 36 hours overdue. (Leche, p. 84)
- Sancho and Jacobson both knew the arrival time, but failed to take action when the ship was overdue. Lt. James Brown was responsible for the Ships Present List at Leyte Gulf. When the ship was overdue, he should have notified someone but chose not to. Captain Alfred Granum, Gillette’s chief of staff, kept track of ships at sea on the plotting board. On the day of its expected arrival, he simply moved the ship’s marker into the arrived slot. Apparently, he did not check with Gibson who, as previously noted, rescheduled the arrival to the following day. Lt. Edward Henslee, supervisor of the plotting section, became aware of the missing ship on Tuesday and knew that it was overdue on Wednesday but chose not to inform his superiors. Lt. William Green, a controller at another plotting board located in Tolosa, became aware that Indianapolis was missing Wednesday morning but chose to do nothing. The following day he asked Granum if he could remove the marker for the ship off the plotting board. Granum told him to leave it where it was, because he had just been informed that survivors of the ship had been found. (Leche, pp. 70, 84; Stanton, p. 211)
The excuse given for failing to report the missing ship was a directive composed by Commodore Carter on January 26, 1945 and forwarded to all CINCPAC commands. It said that “arrival reports shall not be made for all combatant ships.” The purpose of the directive was to alleviate communication networks. Nothing was mentioned in the directive about what to do if a ship failed to arrive. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal blamed this poorly written directive as the primary reason the Indianapolis was not reported missing.
The Court of Inquiry
On August 9, the same day that an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Admiral Nimitz called for a court of inquiry, which convened four days later. It was to consider whether McVay was negligent for failing to zigzag at the time of the sinking and for failing to send a distress call.
|Japanese submarine I-58 prepared for scuttling (April 1946)
As it proceeded to investigate the circumstances, the court was caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it needed to magnify the danger of enemy submarines to justify faulting McVay for not zigzagging at night. On the other hand it needed to minimize the same danger to avoid faulting high ranking officers such as Commodore Carter and Captain Naquin for allowing McVay’s ship to go without an escort.
Captain Naquin told the court that he had estimated the danger of submarines as “practically negligible.” His superior officer Admiral George Murray, Commander of the Marianas, one of the judges on the court of inquiry (even though this was a gross conflict of interest) accepted this estimate. (Leche, p. 120)
On August 19, the court concluded that (1) McVay had been warned about the submarine menace but did not zigzag that fatal night; (2) visibility was good that night, making it essential to zigzag; (3) McVay failed to send an SOS.
McVay’s court martial convened on December 3, 1945. Just prior to the trial Naquin told the inspector general that the sinking of the Underhill elevated the danger to “more than average.” However during the trial itself he reversed himself by saying that the risk of submarine attack was of “a low order.” Naquin should have been challenged for his contradictory statements. (Leche pp. 144-145).
McVay was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag.” He was acquitted of the charge of failing to sound abandon ship in a timely manner. (The charge of failing to send an SOS had been previously dropped.) He was demoted 100 points, which meant he could never be admiral. He would never command another ship.
In 1946, at the request of Admiral Nimitz, Secretary Forrestal remitted McVay’s sentence and restored him to duty. McVay served in the New Orleans Naval District and retired in 1949 with the rank of rear admiral. On November 6, 1968, he committed suicide by shooting himself at his home in Litchfield, Connecticut.
Harrell, Edgar, Out of the Depths. 2014.
Kurzman, Dan, Fatal Voyage. 1990.
Leche, Raymond, All the Drowned Sailors. 1982.
Nelson, Pete, Left for Dead: A Young Man’s Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis. 2002.
O’Reilly, Bill and Dugard, Martin, Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan. 2016.
Stanton, Doug, In Harm’s Way. 2001.
William Weston has been researching and writing articles on assassinations and other conspiracies for over twenty-five years. He has recently been a guest on “The Real Deal” discussing the role of the Texas School Book Depository in the JFK assassination.
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