USS Indianapolis was the second ship built as an 8 inch 9,800 ton Portland-class heavy cruiser. The vessel was constructed at the Camden, New Jersey Naval Yard and launched on November 7th, 1931. By the time she was commissioned, the design was already being criticized as having limited armament for her weight limit. Her class had limits for two major reasons 1) the Washington Naval Treaty signed after World War 1 limited ship tonnage to 10,000 tons and 2) there was extensive political pressure to downsize the United States Navy after the war. The Portland-class was a class with four ships scheduled to her name but this was reduced to just the USS Portland and the USS Indianapolis by the time of construction. The remaining two ships still on the drawing board were assigned to the last of the New Orleans-class, these taking on more firepower and other improvements. Political pressure after the war had an unintended consequence for the US Navy began concentrating more on heavy cruisers after taking some time to review the building programs of other navies, subsequently mirroring best construction practices from the cruiser classes being built by the major powers. The US Navy shipbuilding program began in the 1930's and was well timed with another World War to come in a short nine years. By the start of World War 2, the US program had built eighteen heavy cruisers while Japan had finished some twelve of her own and Germany just two.
On January 10th, 1933, she left Camden, New Jersey, and steamed towards Cuba for her standard "shakedown" cruise. By accounts, all went well and she continued to train her new crew in warm Caribbean waters, mostly near the Canal Zone and then in the Pacific by the Chilean coast line. In May, she returned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for a normal overhaul. With a new coat of paint she left the yard and was routed northwards to Maine to pick up the Commander in Chief, President Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, and left for Maryland to embark a member of his cabinet. While current American presidents fly by way of "Air Force One", President Roosevelt took a liking to USS Indianapolis and chose her as his "Ship of State" to become his personal transport at sea throughout the Americas. Roosevelt used Indianapolis as a symbol of American military power against world leaders and royalty who visited Washington. In 1934, she took the President and a large party for review of the Atlantic fleet down the Hudson River, beginning the traditional of "Fleet Week". In 1936, she steamed from Charleston, South Carolina with the President to the Pan Am Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
War Comes for the Indianapolis
By 1937, Europe was falling into chaos. The Untied States Navy was keeping a watchful eye towards the military moves of Nazi Germany and began war-related training exercises with the Atlantic and Pacific fleets - the Indianapolis' days as a "Ship of State" were more or less over. She was transferred to the Pacific Fleet stationed at Mare Island Naval Yard in California. Indianapolis and the fleet trained for war and, in April 1940, tensions between the United States and Japan were reaching fever pitches. Washington transferred the fleet out of California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in an effort to help protect American interests in the Pacific. Japan, as an island nation, was always short of natural resources - especially oil - and the deployment of the American fleet to Hawaii was viewed as a threat to their envisioned Pacific sphere of influence. As a result, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, officially forcing the entry of American into the way. However, USS Indianapolis was not at Pearl at the time of the attack but on exercises off of Johnson Island just west of Hawaii. Indianapolis was ordered to join up with Task Force 12 consisting of the carriers USS Lexington and USS Enterprise as well as escorts that were carrying US Marine fighter aircraft from Pearl to tiny Midway Island, northwest of Hawaii. Indianapolis supported the aircraft carriers who launched search planes sent to hunt for the Japanese fleet, southwest of Oahu, and returned to Pearl Harbor on December 13th having not found the enemy. In February of 1942, Indianapolis was south of Rabaul, New Britain, supporting USS Yorktown's task force sent to attack Japanese shipping located near enemy-held ports at Lae and Salamaua, New Guinea. These ports had become a large marshaling area for the Japanese Navy. The carrier-based planes and anti-aircraft support from surface warships were put into action. The USS Indianapolis was credited with shooting down sixteen Japanese bombers sent to attack the task force. Heavy damage was inflicted on the Japanese shipping in the ports as well.
Indianapolis then returned to the United States for overhaul and alterations to be completed at the Mare Island Navy Yard. After the refit was complete, the Indianapolis was assigned to escort a convoy to Australia. By July of 1942, she then joined the Aleutians Fleet protecting the North Pacific island chain where the Japanese had landed ground forces along the Aleutian Islands, a collection of American holdings. The invasion itself was intended as a diversion to commit the USN carriers and force them out of their protective Pearl Harbor surroundings. The trap failed and the Japanese fleet was, in turn, ambushed themselves. During their time in the unforgiving North Pacific, the Indianapolis crew had already attained some experience with cold weather fighting from their days in the Atlantic but the Aleutians were a constant barrage of rain and storms coupled with violent winds and heavy rolling seas. When Indianapolis found an opening in the fog at Kiska Island harbor, she open up with her 8-inch guns, joining the other surface warships in the task force, and caught the Japanese defenders unaware. The end result say sinking enemy ships destroyed shore-based strongholds. US forces occupied Adak Island that month, providing a base suitable for planes that would allow attacks on Dutch Harbor and Unalaska Island. Through August 1943, she remained in Aleutians waters to support landings at Attu and Kiska. However the Japanese were able to escape under the cover of fog and darkness but their presence in the Aleutians was over by August 15th, 1943.
Indianapolis returned to Mare Island for much needed repairs and then steamed on to Pearl Harbor as the flag ship of Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance commanding the 5th Fleet. The fleet invaded the Gilbert Islands on November 19th, 1943, and Indianapolis bombarded Tarawa, in support of the invasion, with close-fire support of strong points against the 10,000 Japanese dug-in defenders. Twenty-two thousand US Marines landed and four out of every ten were either wounded or killed. In three days of heavy fighting, some 3,000 US Marines were killed by a determined defense. Indianapolis moved on to the Marshall Islands and bombarded Kwajalein on January 31st, 1944. From March through April, the task force moved into the Carolinas to support General Douglas MacArthur and, in June, bombarded Tinian, Saipan and Guam. A 120mm shell hit Indianapolis but did not detonate, thusly causing little in the way of damage. While protecting the carriers during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, she picked up a number of downed US Navy pilots and shot down a Japanese bomber herself. Through July, the mission was to bombard the island and cover Army and Marine landings, the target being Tinian on the 24th. On to the Admiralty Islands in September, the Indianapolis shelled Palau and Manus. The Indianapolis was once again in need of maintenance (this time on her 8-inch guns) and returned to Mare Island, California for repairs.
In January of 1945, CA-35 was ready to go out once again and, with Admiral Spruance onboard, she joined her sisters as part of Task Force 58. In February, she arrived at Iwo Jima as fire support for the landings, moving in as close as possible to pinpoint Japanese positions with her main guns. By February 25th, she was back with Task Force 58 as carrier protection against aerial attacks from Japan. In March, she shelled Okinawa for seven days before the ground invasion and shot down six Japanese planes. While still shelling Okinawa, a Japanese bomb pierced the main deck along the port side and exploded below causing heavy damage and killing nine sailors while injuring a further twenty-six. The ship was taking on water from hull damage which forced a to return to Mare Island in April.
After repairs were completed, Indianapolis was rearmed with new radar-guided 20mm anti-aircraft cannons fitted as twin mounts. During her time in the yard, the Navy Department decided to use CA-35 for a special mission to transport top secret components to Tinian Island, these components turning out to be parts for the American Atomic Bomb. She made her way to San Francisco to pick up the firing assembly and 132 pounds of Uranium 235 - the Uranium was to be kept in the Admiral's cabin. Two scientists, posing as Army officers, were assigned to watch the bomb parts along with a heavy Marine guard. She left San Francisco en route to Pearl Harbor without an escort. Arriving in Hawaii on July 26th, she proceeded to Tinian and unloaded the precious cargo.
No one on board had known what the cargo was, not even Captain Charles Butler McVay III, who had commanded Indianapolis since November 1944. While her was not her first Captain, he held 26 years of US Navy service and had run up a solid record to include a Silver Star, Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He was third generation Navy man and the son of an Admiral, having graduated from the Naval Academy in 1920 and seemingly born for high command. McVay had always received superior performance reports, oft-noted as being a very capable officer and his crew was generally respectful of the program he ran. The delivery mission now being over, the orders for the USS Indianapolis were relatively simple - to leave Tinian for Leyte via Guam and undergo seventeen days of training. Upon completion, the Indie was then to report to Admiral Oldendorf commanding Task Force 95. Preparing to depart, McVay made normal requests to take on additional stores, refuel and ask for an escort for the voyage to Leyte. The convoy and routing Officer, Lieutenant Waldron, told Captain McVay he would request a destroyer escort but did not know if one would be made available. Waldron rang up the office of Vice Admiral Murray, Commander Marianas, and the answer came down that an escort was not necessary - of course McVay, perhaps knowing better, did not officially complain. USS Indianapolis was an out-of-date capital ship that had no submarine detection sonar and her belt armor had been limited due to the post-World War 1 restrictions mentioned earlier. For the first time in US Naval history, it seemed that a capital ship would sail without an escort. The three day passage was laid out as a straight course at 15.7 knots.
Indianapolis arrived at Guam where a number of the crew who had completed their tours of duty and were replaced by other sailors. At 9:10am on July 28th, 1945, (Saturday morning) the Indianapolis dropped her moorings and left Guam, sailing towards Leyte. Soon after she cleared the harbor, a standard message was sent from the port directors office to the 5th Fleet and CINCPAC, the Navy command in the Pacific, that USS Indianapolis CA-35 departed Guam 2300z 27 July SOA 15.7 knots, ETA Leyte 0200z 31 July. The ship was at ease knowing the mystery cargo had been delivered and everyone knew the war was almost over - Germany had already capitulated back in May and the Japanese Empire was a fighter "on the ropes".
On Sunday, the weather had turned for the worse and became heavy seas covered over in dark clouds. The ship continued the customary anti-submarine practice of "zig-zagging" on course at 262 True. The screws were making staggering turns to confuse any submarine that might be listening. The forward engine room made 167 turns per minute on the two outboard screws and the aft engine room made 157 revolutions per minute on the inboard two screws. This averaged out to be 162 turns in making the scheduled 15.7 knots to Leyte at 0200z July 31. Before retiring for the evening, Captain McVay cancelled the zigzag order based on the current weather conditions and left word on the bridge to contact him if events had changed.
Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto felt unworthy as Captain of the Japanese submarine I-58. It was already 1945 and he had not destroyed a single enemy ship or even had the opportunity to die for his Emperor. He had entered the Naval Academy in 1926 and, after other assignments in submarines during 1944, was assigned as captain of a new boat - the large I-class - a vessel of 355 feet in length and twice as large as German submarines though only slightly larger than American boats. Now he was patrolling between Guam and Leyte hunting Allied warships. Visibility was improving and Mochitsura brought I-58 to periscope depth and, in front of the rising moon, appearing was a black dot some 10,000 meters away about five miles, dove the boat in preparation for action. The crew completed their tasks but Hashimoto felt the tension. It was now 11:35pm when I-58 resurfaced back to periscope depth. The black dot was taking shape and Hashimoto new it was a battleship or cruiser and it was coming straight on. The decision was to attack with six standard torpedoes fired at 3-second intervals. At 12:02am, the order to fire was given and the torpedoes fanned out towards the USS Indianapolis now just 2,000 meters away.
At 12:14 am, July 30th, 1945, the first torpedo hit forward of Turret Number 1 and blew off a portion of the bow in the process - a second torpedo hit just under the bridge. The second hit took out most of the electrical power and communications on the ship now deteriorated to solely verbal while pockets of men did what they could. However, Indianapolis was mortally wounded and started to list. Captain McVay took time to gather as much information as he could in the dark, knowing his ship could not be saved, and ordered a distress signal be sent - ultimately giving the order to abandon ship. Indianapolis sank by the head in just twelve minutes. Loud cheers greeted Hashimoto who was trying to verify the attack but saw nothing through the periscope. I-58 surfaced later and, seeing floating debris, radioed back home to the IJN that she had sank an American battleship, Iowa-class. This incorrect observation was common throughout much of the war on all sides. To this point, the USS Indianapolis - a cruiser - had been awarded 10 Battle Stars but had seen the last of her fighting days. While she sank to the bottom of the ocean, her crew would have to fight on in desperation for their own lives.
Bad to Die, Worse to be a Survivor
The men hit the water over a long distance due to the Indianapolis continuing to make turns as she sank. The true number of sailors going down with the ship was never known but official reports indicated some 300 of the 1,196 men on board went down while the remaining 900 went into the water. None of the life boats or 26-foot whale boats could get off the ship in time. Captain McVay had found an overturned life raft when he hit the water lashed three such rafts together. McVay had no idea how many men were in the water because hundreds of men went in the water over the twelve minute time from the first torpedo strike. With two screws turning the whole time, the men were separated by a few thousand yards depending on when and where they abandoned ship. Swimmers were moving at 1 knot southwest due to the small wind resistance area in the water. Rafts with men aboard, on the other hand, would travel about 10 knots in a northeast drift with wind having a much larger area to effect. By morning, the groups of men were miles apart, drifting in a southwest or northeast axis. Swimmers had minimal vision even at the top of a 12 foot swell so men that were even close to each other had great difficulty seeing each other with sun and spray in their eyes.
Minimal rations and water were available due to no life boats making it off the ship. Men who were burned and bleeding were among the injured, some covered in oil. Some swimmers had life jackets on while some did not - most of the seriously wounded died on the first day in the water. When a man died, his life jacket was removed and given to a swimmer without one - nothing ceremonious here for survival of the living took first place. The United States Navy was unaware of the events that had befallen the mighty Indianapolis as at least three parties failed to act on the distress call and no rescue patrols had been sent aloft.
By the second day, it was a staggering 100-degrees F in the Pacific. Some men began to drink the salty sea water, only furthering their dehydration cause. Some survivors hallucinated that that they had found a fresh water spring in the middle of the ocean while others had convinced themselves that their ship had not sunk, it merely sat just below the surface of the water, within reach of swimming down to and collecting fresh water and ice cream. Many tried such a venture and never came up while others started swimming to islands that did not exist, never to be seen again.
By this time, collections of urine and vomit in the water began drawing the attention of sharks. At first, their targets were the floating dead but this soon turned into attacks on the living - within time, several hundreds of sharks were feeding on the sailors. Lost and forgotten by the Navy, the men of the Indianapolis were in the water for 100 hours. Some became resigned to their fate, knowing that the Navy had not seen the Indianapolis as overdue. Around 4pm on the 4th day of the ordeal, a non-descript USN PBY happened to be in the area on patrol and accidentally stumbled upon the vast range of men in the water. The word immediately went out to Leyte and a massive rescue effort by any means was launched. Some 326 men were saved that day, the rest sunk with the ship, died of their combat wounds or were taken by sharks. For the survivors, the ordeal was finally over. For Captain McVay, however, it seemed that his problems were just beginning.
The War Ends But the Trial of the USS Indianapolis Begins
Within days the Atomic Bomb was dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a pair of USAAF Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, forcing the surrender of the Empire. For thousands of family members and friends related to the Indianapolis, the question remained: why did the Navy not mount a rescue mission for the surviving men of the Indianapolis? Thousands of letters and phone calls were sent to the Navy Department and Congress was looking for answers. So the Navy Department investigated the issue and decided to Court Martial Captain McVay. Despite the fact that some 436 USN warships were lost, 700 ships overall, throughout the whole of World War 2, only one captain was Courts Marshaled - Captain McVay. The two charges were 1) negligence by not continuing the common USN practice of "zig-zagging" and 2) by not giving the order to abandon ship, causing additional lives to be lost. The Navy decided it was necessary to have the Commanding officer of the I-58, Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, testify against Captain McVay in court - a first in American naval history. This decision indicated the Navy was feeling heat from the families.
During the trial crew members testified that communications system on the ship was out due to the attack and some heard the order to abandon ship and others did not. US Navy submarine commanders testified that zig-zagging made no difference in attacking ships and Lt Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto also testified that the outcome would have been the same if the Indianapolis had been zigzagging or not - only minor course changes would have been necessary on his part. However, the court found Captain McVay guilty on both counts. McVay did not challenge the verdict for he was an Academy man from a Navy family and accepted his fate. McVay stayed in the Navy but continued to receive hate mail from grief-stricken family members of sailors lost on the Indianapolis. McVay retired in 1949 and, per custom, was promoted to Rear Admiral. On November 6th, 1968, having lived a tortured and stained existence after the war, McVay received yet another letter from a family member of an Indianapolis casualty. He took his service revolver and committed suicide.
True Justice Finally Comes - the in Form of a 12-Year Old Boy
In 1998, a twelve-year-old school boy by the name of Hunter Scott had watched the movie Steven Spielberg motion picture "Jaws" and began wondering if the reference to the Indianapolis was true. As a school project, Scott interviewed 150 survivors and became aware of the court martial and the miscarriage of justice concerning Captain McVay. Scott and many survivors testified before Congress and, in 2000, the Congress passed a resolution to exonerate Captain McVay for the loss of the Indianapolis. While the correct measure, it proved too little, too late for Captain McVay.
Though she will always be remembered for her misfortune, one can never forget the true value of the Indianapolis as a fighting ship of the United States Navy. Her dedicated crew and her design made much possible in containing, and ultimately defeating, the Empire of Japan - bringing World War 2 to an official close. Considering the situation, no one can fault the actions of McVay today and the sailors of the Indianapolis - either living or dead - are all heroes for their commitment, dedicated and self-sacrifice. Their actions served a nation more than any politician's words ever have. May Captain McVay and his men forever rest in peace.
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