Hell Is Highwater

The True Story Of The WWII Cruiser The USS Indianapolis

The USS Indianapolis had just completed a secret mission vital to the Allied victory in WWII when a Japanese torpedo turned the cruiser into a fiery coffin, killing hundreds of American sailors and plunging hundreds more into the oily waters of the Pacific.  They expected a swift, routine rescue but what they faced was an ordeal that lasted for five agonizing days.  Navy high command was unaware that one of its own cruisers had been sunk and that the survivors were slowly dying amidst a sun-parched hell of shark attack, madness and dehydration.  By the time the crew was found only 316 men from the original 1196 were barely alive.  This is the story of the USS Indianapolis and the unimaginable horror its men had to endure.  The shameful aftermath, and an official cover-up and the court-martial of the Indianapolis commander Captain Charles McVay III, a third generation high Naval ranking officer and the scapegoat for an unavoidable disaster.  The charges against McVay; “Suffering a vessel to be hazarded through negligence.” (Failing to steer a zigzag course.), and “Culpable inefficiency in the performance of duty” (Failing to make his men abandon ship in time.) This is the true story of Captain Charles B. McVay III and the WWII Cruiser the USS Indianapolis that he commanded and the Indianapolis’ crewmen.

The Indianapolis: July, 1945.

The USS Indianapolis.

The USS Indianapolis (Commander Spruance’s Flagship) is docked at San Francisco Naval yard and had just undergone extensive repair after a successful mission at Okinawa.  A Kamikaze pilot had released one of its missiles moments before the plane crashed into the deck of the cruiser exploding into a ball of flames.  Many of the crewmembers that were below the deck of the ship were killed.  Being newly repaired the ship had not undergone the required 3 to 4 day open water testing before returning to duty.  The Indianapolis was given new radar equipment and a new crew of men who, as of yet, had not before seen action let alone any battle experience.  Although the ship was an older vessel it had great speed for a cruiser and had been instrumental in distinctive battles at New Britain, New Guinea, the Aleutians, the Gilberts, the Western Carolines, the Marianas, and the Marshall Islands before being bombed by the Kamikaze in Okinawa.  Japan was tattered and bombed out, but the Emperor of Japan had vowed to fight unto the last man.  Japan would not surrender!

America had a new weapon, a terrible weapon that had not been tested.  But if all went as planned, the war that dragged on for years would finally come to a swift end.  The USS Indianapolis was chosen to be part of this secretive mission.  The crew was not informed of the vital role they played in ending WWII.

Admiral William S. Parnell and Navy Captain William S. Parsons had called McVay into Naval headquarters in San Franciso to give him his final orders.  The Indianapolis was to carry to Tinian Island the vital parts of a secret weapon, plutonium 235 and the warhead of the experimental atomic bomb.  They made it clear to McVay that this mission was of extraordinary importance.  Parsons was the father of the atomic bomb working under Brigadier General Leslie Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project, the code name for the atomic bomb program.  Parson was the chief engineer.  He would command the mission of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that would drop the atomic bomb on Japan’s Hiroshima, one of the only cities remaining in Japan that had not been ravaged by the war.

USS Indianapolis Officers and crew. Photo U.S. Naval Historical Center.

McVay was ordered to move the Indianapolis later that same day to Hunter’s Point Navy Yard in San Francisco where the secret cargo was to be loaded aboard.  McVay was ordered to guard it with his life.  In the event the Indianapolis was sunk he was to preserve a lifeboat for the cargo even if this meant some of the men aboard the ship were left to drown.  Thirty-nine Marines (including Private First Class Giles McCoy) were loaded aboard the Indianapolis to guard the top secret cargo along with Major Robert R. Furman an explosives engineer, and Captain James F. Nolan, a radiologist who were ordered to keep watch over the bomb components.

At 8:00 a.m. the following morning the Indianapolis passed threw the Golden Gate Bridge heading for Tinian Island and stopping only for refueling at Pearl Harbor.  The ship was given no destroyer escort because this would have slowed down the mission.  Cruisers are much faster than the huge destroyers were and the ship could make the trip in little more than three days.

As the Indianapolis rounded Diamond Head in Hawaii, Capt. McVay realized he had broken the speed record from San Francisco averaging 29.5 knots.  The Indianapolis reached Pearl Harbor in record time.  The ship had completed the journey in 74.5 hours.  Eerily, Pearl Harbor resembled a ghost town.  There wasn’t a single ship docked at the usually crowded naval port. The crew had expected hours of waiting time to refuel and expected shore leave.  They dreamed of girls in hula skirts awaiting their arrival.  What they got was strict orders not to leave the ship.  The ship immediately refueled.  Yeoman Otha Alton Havins awaited his overdue transfer orders.  They never came.  Nobody was aloud to leave the ship not even Marine Private 1st Class Robert Frank Reed, who had broken many bones in his foot and wore a thick, heavy cast.  The broken foot was the result of dropping an ammunition can on his leg.  Dr. Haynes one of the chief staff members of the Indianapolis received an urgent and confidential message.  The message read, “Indianapolis Under Orders Of Commander-In-Chief And Must Not Be Diverted From Its Mission For Any Reason.”  Under orders of the President himself.  What was this cargo that the ship was hauling?  Even the Indianapolis’ Chief officers were not privy to the importance of this top-secret mission.

Japanese I-58 Submarine.

The same morning a Japanese I-58 submarine cast off of Kure Harbor 12 miles southeast of Hiroshima.  I-58 was one of six submarines of the, “Taimon Group” that were setting out on a hunt to sink American vessels.  The submarines tattered banner proclaimed, Law Above Reason, Heaven Above Law.  The submarines Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto was a logical man and knew that only darkness lay ahead for Japan.  Hashimoto has no illusions, the American forces by now had laid waste and captured almost every island leading to Japan, now an invasion and a final suicide battle were inevitable that, or the unthinkable-surrender.  His skilled torpedo officer Toshio Tanaka was second in command and hated the barbaric American enemies.  Low on fuel rations the I-58 headed out for a short ocean stint.  Hashimoto had one last chance to make the sun shine for the Emperor if only for a fleeting moment.  Maybe his submarine would score its first hit of the war and save face for the submarine Commander?

Hashimoto had commanded one of the submarines that invaded Pearl Harbor.  He launched two men submarines that were to annihilate the fleet of the American ships docked at Pearl Harbor.  He returned from the battle without so much as landing a single hit.  He would never recover from losing face at one of the greatest moments of Japan history.  He took the failure personally.  The Japanese submarine forces played a small roll after that in the war effort for Japan.  He was given the unenviable position of sending Kaitens, men who rode torpedoes loaded with high explosives toward American targets and to their own certain demise.  This military tactic was similar to that of the Kamikaze pilots.

Mochitsura Hashimoto onboard Sub I-58, July 19th, 1945. Photo taken one day before sinking the USS Indianapolis.

July 16th

5000 miles from San Francisco, Capt. McVay stood on the bridge of the Indianapolis as the ship approached Tinian Island.  Arriving at a tiny harbor port the ship was greeted by a swarm of small vessels carrying generals, admirals and other high-ranking officers as well as squads of heavily armed Marines.  The brass climbed aboard the vessel and checked the top-secret canisters and crates.  They were then unloaded swiftly onto two Marine landing crafts.  Furman and Nolan, (the two who were in charge of the security of the cargo while onboard) jumped aboard the craft and the entourage immediately sped off followed by the brass.  McVay then announced over the loud speaker system of the Indianapolis, “You have done a great job.”  “The material you have brought here I believe will shorten the war!”  Cheers pierced through the steamy island air.  The men were still under strict orders not to leave the ship at the port in Tinian Island.  Yeoman Otha Alton Havins transfer orders still had not come.

Shortly before sailing, McVay had received his orders directly from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander and Chief of the Pacific Fleet.  The Indianapolis was to sail to Guam, where Nimitz had his headquarters.  The Indianapolis was then to sail to the Philippines island of Leyte where his men were to join ranks with Rear Admiral Lynde D. McCormick’s Task Group 95.7 and then join Vice Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf’s Task Force 95.  They would play a major role in the naval invasion of Japan.  To keep track of the Indianapolis whereabouts at all times copies of the ship’s orders were sent to Admiral Spruance, Vice Admiral George Murray, commander of the Marianas and the Port Directors in Tinian and Guam.

The Indianapolis weighed anchor and headed for the overnight trip to Guam.

About the time the Indianapolis reached Guam’s Apra Harbor the I-58 submarine nosed onto the route from Guam to Leyte.  The submarine zigzagged along its course sailing into the Saipan-Okinawa route.  They were having a farewell ceremonial dinner for the six Kaitens who were eager to die for their Emperor.  The I-58 was heading for the Okinawa-Leyte route low on fuel and hoping for a kill before returning to Japan.

July 24th

The destroyer Underhill was sunk by a submarine attack, which killed 119 of its crewmen.  The ship was sunk because the Commander of the ship had rammed a Kaiten torpedo it had mistaken for a mini-sub.  The destroyer was escorting a convoy of 15 small ships from Okinawa to Leyte. Captain McVay was never notified of the submarine attack.  Nor was he notified of the danger of the four Japanese submarines that were spotted in the waters where the Underhill had been attacked.

July 27th

Admiral Spruance wanted his flagship back and ordered the Indianapolis to forego the necessary training the men were to receive and immediately head for the Island of Leyte.  McVay pressed his case that his men needed the training without delay.  He wanted to stay in Guam and instruct his men before heading into the final battle.  “At the rate we’re going my refresher course would probably be conducted in Tokyo Bay!”  McVay was ordered to the port director, Lieutenant Joseph Waldron who was the routing officer.  There was no mention of the four submarines or the sinking of the Underhill.  “What route should we take?”  The direct route, “the Peddie” route.”  The Peddie route was well known by Japanese military strategists as a heavily traveled route for American naval forces.  Any American ship that used this route was to be escorted by a destroyer.  Since Captain McVay’s men had not undergone their mandatory training he wanted to use the escorting destroyer as a training target along the route.  Waldron told the Captain that there were so many ships planning the invasion of Japan that none were available to escort the Indianapolis.  (Although two destroyers were scheduled to go to Leyte the following morning.)  No destroyer was to escort the Indianapolis on this routine run.  McVay felt secure in this decision, if there were any concerns the port director would have notified him of them.

July 28th 9:00 a.m.

The Indianapolis left Apra Harbor and cruised toward Leyte in overcast weather conditions.  Once underway Captain McVay determined this a ropeyarn Sunday which meant except for routine duties there would be no drills or work on board.  The crew was elated.  Father Conway conducted a service and Dr. Haynes had the whole crew line up for cholera shots.  Once again, Yeoman Havins inquired about his long overdue transfer, which had not come.  At the Sunday dinner for department heads Commander John Janney joked about there being a submarine report.  He mocked the young religious officer Harlan Twible who had been talking about the words of a Spiritual Advisor he had seen back in San Francisco.  She had told him that the ship was in eminent danger and would not make it back from this mission.  Lt. Charles B. McKissick was on deck duty at the time and looked through some files of radio messages and found one that seemed rather unusual, it stated that there was some sort of anti-submarine patrol that had reported contact South of the Indianapolis position.  Since Janney had joked about the sighting, nothing seemed urgent to bother the Captain about the report.  Neither, McKissick or Janney reported these messages to Capt. McVay.

July 28th 7:30 p.m.

McVay went to the bridge to give Lt. McKissick his orders for the night.  The cloud cover had gotten heavier.  In general they noted that visibility was poor.  Earlier when the weather was better the ship had zigzagged along its course in accordance with the fleet rule that in fair weather all sailing warships must zigzag.  It was presumed it would stand a better chance at avoiding a direct hit by a torpedo this way.  McVay knew the rule but ship commanders also used their discretion in deciding if and when to zigzag.  In fact the instructions from Guam specifically gave him discretion regarding this matter.  McVay felt that given the current overcast conditions no submarine would be able to zero in on his ship.  McVay left the decision up to Lt. McKissick to zigzag of not.

July 28th 10:30 p.m.

McVay went back to the bridge to check out the weather conditions one last time before retiring for the night.  Captain Edwin M. Crouch and old Annapolis classmate was along for the ride.  McVay invited him aboard since he was going to Leyte himself.  Crouch opted to ride on the Indianapolis instead of taking the planned few hour plane flight which was scheduled for him.  They had a drink and recalled some old times back when they were young cadets.  “My how time flies!”

July 28th 11:00 p.m.

McVay retired for the night in the emergency cabin near the bridge.  He had given his quarters to his good buddy Captain Crouch for the night.

At precisely the same time Commander Hashimoto awoke from his evening nap.  He dressed and went to the religious altar where he said a prayer for guidance.  He then mounted the conning tower of the I-58.  “Night action stations!”  The submarine suddenly sprang to life.  The dwindling fuel supplies were almost gone.  Soon it would be time to return home.  This was perhaps the last scout before returning to Japan.  “Stand by type 13 radar ­­- stand by type 22 radar.”  Then, “Action stations!”  Alarm bells rang throughout the submarine.  “Surface!”  Then, “Blow the main ballast!”  The submarine periscope broke the surface of the water.  Hashimoto peered tenaciously over the surface of the water.  Nothing…  Nothing…  The overcast sky broke open slightly revealing a small ray of moonlight, which shined on the ocean surface. Then suddenly he spotted a tiny shadow on the far horizon.  “Bearing red nine-zero degrees, a possible enemy ship!  Dive!”  The submarine sank to 19 yards, “Ship in sight. All tubes to the ready!”  “Kaitens stand by!”  The phone rang.  Two of the remaining Kaiten’s pleaded with the Commander, “Please send us!”  “Do not deprive us of this opportunity.”  Hashimoto kept his eyes pressed to the periscope as the dark shape gradually took the form of a ship.  He wouldn’t send a Kaiten unless it was entirely necessary.  The Indianapolis was heading straight toward the I-58 and didn’t even know it was there.  Hashimoto’s excitement turned to concern when he realized that this ship could be a destroyer and that it might be coming after them.

July 28th 11:09 p.m.

“Six torpedoes will be fired!”  At 1500 yards in less than an hour he calculated he would fire from all tubes in one salvo, fanwise.  If no torpedoes hit, he would use his Kaitens.  He ordered Number 6 and Number 5 to get into their torpedoes.  When the ship changed direction slightly and came into full view.  The Commander could see the two masts.  He now realized that the ship did not spot the submarine.  He also knew the ship was large but could not recognized what type of ship it was.  He only knew that it was a large American warship and he wanted to make a kill for his Emperor.

July 28th 11:45 p.m.

The crew of the Indianapolis was getting ready for midnight crew change.  Commander Casey Moore was scheduled to take command of the vessel.  Blum fresh on command put on his headset and asked about the night. “It’s been quiet all night.”  “Nothing to report!”

“Green 60 degrees! Range 1500 yards!”  “Set depth of the torpedoes at 6 yards and speed at 42 knots!  Firing at two second intervals fanwise!”  Finally…  Stand by — Fire!”  The signalman was standing by and counting aloud.  At sixty seconds the torpedoes would miss their target.  Five seconds… 10 seconds… 30 seconds… fifty… fifty-one!

“A hit!”  “A hit!”  Three huge explosions sent fiery walls of water into the sky.

The first explosion flung Captain McVay out of his bunk.  Undressed he groped his way to the smoke filled bridge.  “Any report on what happened?”  “No Sir, I’ve lost all communications!”  “I tried to stop the engines but I don’t think the order got through.”  “Where’s Lt. Commander Moore!”  “Where’s the Commander in charge?”  “I don’t know sir!”  McVay headed back to his cabin to get dressed and was about to enter his quarters when Lt. Commander Moore ran up to him frantic.  “I just came up from below.”  “We’re badly damaged.”  “We’re going down rapidly.”  “The compartments up forward are taking water on swiftly.”  “I couldn’t close the watertight doors since nobody would help me.”  “Do you wish to abandon ship sir?”  “No!”  The ship at this point only had about a three-degree list.

The fait of the ship depended on what Chief Engineer Lt. Richard B. Redmayne was instructing his men to do.  Redmayne opened a door and tripped as he tried to enter the engine room.  He screamed in agony as his hands hit the red-hot deck.  He tried to work his way toward the engine room past the chaos that ensued on the ship.  As he finally made it to his destination the ship was listing at 12 degrees with only one engine operating.  He ordered his men to pump the oil from the starboard tanks to the port tanks in an effort to correct the list.  He made a serious error in keeping the one working engine at full ahead.  The front of the ship was taking on great amounts of water and the engine was only helping to sink the vessel faster.

The crew formed huge human chains hoisting injured men from below the water line.  As the ship tilted men would lose their balance and fall backward in a mass pile of confusion.  Then suddenly, “Sorry, but we’re going to dog the hatch!”  Marine McCoy was the last to scurry through the opening.  Men lunged forward and clawed to be freed from the watery wreckage.  The hatch closed in and sealed the men in and to their doom.  As the water began to fill the cabin area the lights went out and men clamored up the latter as the ship list further.  Finally it filled with water with hands clasping frantically to free themselves from their watery grave and to no avail.

Illustration of the USS Indianapolis’ torpedo damage.

There was so much chaos on the deck that one officer waved his pistol shouting that if any man went over the side without orders he would shoot them on the spot.

Havins whose own brother had died in the attack at Pearl Harbor and awaited his transfer papers that never came helped a badly burned man find his way to the dressing station.  Dr. Haynes found himself on deck relieving as many men as he could from their burns and broken bones.  His own hands were badly burned as he worked to save the young men’s lives.  He began to tie life jackets around as many a patient as he could.  One young man was screaming for the doctor not to touch him.  “Don’t touch my arms!”  The ship suddenly listed about 25 degrees causing his many patients to be swept over the side of the boat.  One of them was the Marine Frank Redd.  He swiftly sunk to the bottom of the ocean fighting and flailing to stay afloat.  Redd was the Marine not allowed to leave the ship at Pearl Harbor.  The cast on his leg anchored him to the bottom of the ocean for all of eternity.

Everything loose on deck started sliding in a massive avalanche.

Seaman First Class Santos A. Pena patted at the side of the ship, “Good-bye Indamaru.”  He leaped 30 feet into the ocean followed by his friend Fireman Second Class Aldolfo V. Celaya.  When Celaya hit the water he landed hard on something.  He shouted to his friend Pena but there was no answer.  In his fall he had landed on his buddy instantly killing him.  Celaya held the lifeless corpse and turned toward the badly damaged ship, which was by now over half a mile ahead and steaming forward.  The Indianapolis was swiftly sinking and leaving a trail of men strewn across the rough 12-foot seas for several miles.

Capt. McVay was suddenly confronted by Commander Flynn, “We are definitely going down and I suggest we abandon ship.”  Finally McVay uttered the words he dreaded the most.  “Pass the word to abandon ship.”  The bugler who was to sound the alarm had long since jumped overboard.  Captain McVay complained to Orr that he was unable to determine if the distress message had been gotten out.  Orr did not know, nor did he know that at this point the first forty feet of the ship was completely severed.  The ship was taking on water rapidly as the engines pushed forward and helped to fill the giant hull.  McVay tried to contact Radio Central and could not get through.  Had the SOS gone out?  He went back to his cabin to get a life jacket.  He ran into his dear friend Crouch for one last time.  Crouch had no life jacket and McVay gave him his jacket.  “I’ve got to get to Radio Central!”  McVay raced off.  This was Captain McVay’s last conversation with his old Annapolis friend.  He would never see him again.

The vessel tilted so steeply now that the deck became a steel slide for every object not bolted down.  Yet it still raced forward.  Engineer Redmayne realized that if he slid down the deck he too, would be crushed by the falling debris.  Then he suddenly realized that his last orders to his men in the engine room were not to leave their station.  He knew that by now they were all drowned and that the ship would be their grave.  Suddenly he saw empty oxygen bottles attached to a nearby bulkhead, which had been vertical but now were horizontal.  If he could swing from them one by one he could lower himself down into the water.  He did this with sheer will power and climbed down into the rising warm eighty-degree water.  He realized he was not wearing a life jacket as he slowly moved away from the ship and watching the carnage that remained aboard.

USS Indianapolis. Final chart.

McKissick decided it was time to let go.  “All right men, over the side!”  They followed him as he calmly walked down over the lifelines and down the port side into the water.  The ship now was on its side and oddly enough still pushing forward.  With many other men, one of them Otha Alton Havins, Dr. Haynes treaded slowly down the side of the ship and across the red-painted bottom.  He too waded into the churning waters.  Ensign Donald Blum and a Filipino sailor plunged into the water without life jackets.  Never once hearing the command to abandon ship.

Ensign Twible had been the ship’s prosecutor.  He realized the ship was sinking fast and he had no life jacket.  Then he saw a young enlisted soldier passing out life preservers.  As he approached he saw that the young man was one that he had sentenced to the brig on bread and water for jumping ship.  They looked at each other briefly and then the young man handed him a life jacket.  Twible worked his way down the bulkhead of the aft cook shaft and plunged into the water.  “That young man deserves a medal for his heroic behavior he thought aloud.”  As Twible began to swim away he saw scores of men following suit but some of them dropped from the high side and struck a propeller and were either chopped to death or gravely wounded.

The officer who had threatened the men with his gun was now ordering them to abandon ship and even tossing some overboard.  All the while the sound of men trapped in the ship could be heard screaming above the sound of the flames and the sound of the flames that hit the water with a loud hissing sound.  The terrible sound of men dying and men in fear could be heard no matter where you turned.  The sound of the creaking ship was terrible.  A group of men frantically tried to hoist a twenty-six foot whaleboat into the water.  As the ship lurched forward the metal cover of the whaleboat sailed off and cut one young man into two.  At the same time the whaleboat broke free of its restraining ropes and landed onto a bulkhead crushing into pieces and killing several more below.

Wearing his life jacket, Captain McVay still tried to find Commander Janney to see if any distress signal had gone out.  He tried in vain to reach Radio Central to send out the SOS.  Commander Janney had never gotten in contact with Radio Central.  No distress call went out.  Nobody knew the Indianapolis was going down.  Captain McVay now realized this.  The men in the water were on their own until someone realized they were missing.

Captain McVay put his foot on the first rung of a ladder leading down form the bridge.  The ship suddenly jerked another 25 degrees.  He saw some of his crewmen about to jump to certain death without any life preservers.  “There’s a floater net on the Number 1 Stack!”  “Don’t jump without any support.”  “The ship should stay in its current position long enough to get the floater net off.”  Seconds later the ship flipped to 90 degrees.  McVay leaped to the forecastle deck and pulled himself up on the side of the vessel and started to walk toward the aft.  In less thank fifteen minutes his ship was floating on its side.  Then a huge wave generated by the sinking bow struck McVay from behind and swept him into the sea.  As McVay emerged back to the surface he looked up with terror.  The propellers, one still turning hovered now directly overhead as the stern poked straight up out of the ocean.  Clusters of men still clung to the lifelines and several stood on the blades of the stilled propeller.  These men hung there as the sound of equipment aboard the ship crashed about mingling with the sound of the trapped and dying men aboard the descending metal carcass.  Bodies were flung every which way as the ship plummeted down and gaining momentum.

McVay could only watch as the ship gathered speed plunging through the depths toward the ocean floor.

Marine Giles McCoy was drowning now, trapped by huge air bubbles causing him to be dragged down with the suction of the ship.  The pressure was so great that he thought his eyes would be gouged out and his eardrums would burst.  Then suddenly the ship let go a huge air pocket, like a cannon Giles was jettisoned to the surface surrounded by tons of black oily foam.  The ship was gone and the sea was now calm save for the huge 12-foor swells.  The survivors of this hellish nightmare began to scramble for any floating debris.  The wounded and dying that survived the ships sinking began to slowly pass away on the surface of the sea.  The ocean was filled with the sound of men panicking and flailing about.

Four hundred men went down with the ship including, Commander Flynn and Commander Janney, Lieutenant Orr and Lieutenant Moore.  McVay’s old friend Captain Crouch who was only along for the ride went down with the Indianapolis.  The ship would be his grave.

Hashimoto wanted to take a few survivors as prisoners and to bare witness to his hit.  Takinaka wanted to machinegun down any other survivors they found.  Hashimoto would not allow this to occur.  There might be other ships in the region.  One quick inspection of the sight and we depart.  The submarine began to rise.  “Look a ship!”  The huge dark submarine silhouetted by the moonlight surfaced and began to search for survivors.  The men in the water watched in horror as the dark shape rose to the surface and circled the immediate vicinity.  Not a sound could be heard as the submarine moved threw the water searching for survivors.  Hashimoto and Takinaka spotted nothing.  The submarine went down disappearing for the last time.

CINPAC had in fact decoded Hashimoto’s message that the I-58 had sunk an enemy ship.  Nobody tried to radio the Indianapolis.  Nobody took action to begin searching for survivors.

Day 1

“Doc!”  “Doc!”  Dr. Haynes was one of many men in the largest group of survivors.  There were three to four hundred men in this subgroup.  They were also in the gravest condition since they had no water, food or rafts.  Some men didn’t even have the luxury of a life vest.  They struggled to stay afloat without the aid of a single raft or floater net.  Haynes had the assistance of Lieutenant Melvin W. Modisher another doctor who helped tend to the needs of the injured.  Those with life jackets held up those without until men died, then the life jackets were removed and placed on the men who needed them the most.  No man could recognize another as friend or by ranking.  The water was covered in a two-inch thick coating of black oil, which had spewed from the sinking vessel.  The oil persistently burned into the eyes whether closed or opened.  There was no escaping the burning sensation caused by the black oil.  One by one the doctor paddled over to the men who had called him but there wasn’t much he could do without medicine or proper medical facilities.  There was nothing he could do except, console the frightened and injured young men.  “A doctor needs medical supplies.”  One soldier held up two men.  “Is there anything you can do for these men doc?”  “Who are these men soldier?”  No one knew.  “They’re dead let them get to it!”  The group of men watched as the soldier finally yielded and let go of the men.  Father Conway was there to perform the last rites and a to say a final prayer.  Doctor Haynes led the remnant in the Lord’s Prayer as the bodies of the deceased drifted alone and forever out to sea.

The group of men kept a vigilant watch for strays who might float past or those too weak to hold on.  Some men on constant watch were Edward L. Parke Commander of the Marine detachment, and Ensign H.C. Moynelo, Jr.  Wounded and without a life jacket, Lt. McKissick was another and so was Seamen First Class Garland Lloyd Rich.  Lt. McKissick had been the young man’s football coach from a small town from back home in Texas.  Rich still called him coach.  The men would break off and bring a drifter back into the “herd.”   One man floated past clutching onto a long lifeline.  A group of about 150 men took hold of the life line and formed a circle putting the most wounded men in the middle so they couldn’t drift off and end up a meal for the hungry sharks that had already began to circle.  One man, First Class Anthony Francis Maday held up the wounded Commander Lipski for almost 24 hours.  Lipski’s hands were so burned the tendons were exposed and his eyes were blown out of their sockets from the torpedo explosion.  By 10:00 a.m. most men began to suffer from severe photophobia.  Whether the eyes were opened or closed one could not escape the burning sun.  During the daylight hours the sun would burn so intensely the men would scream to be relieved from the burning rays.  Then the shroud of darkness would fall and the men would suffer from hypothermia.  During the day they would scream for night and at night they would scream for the light.  Haynes began to count the survivors in his group.  There were about fifty less than only hours before.  Searing screams filled the night air as men would die from their wounds or from the relentless sharks attacks that would pull them down one by one never to return to the surface again.  Some men succumbed to exhaustion and could not hold on any longer.  They would drift off and the sharks would immediately attack the lone and helpless dying man.  One man would be spared while the man next to him was ripped apart in a feeding frenzy.  So they watched and wondered who would be next.

Then suddenly a plane could be heard overhead.  The men would begin thrashing and screaming for help.  That plane and many more would pass over and never see the hopeless pitiable men.  Eventually they would stop thrashing as the planes passed.  Some would give up hope while others tried to keep up morale.  “Any minute now we’ll be rescued!”  “They know we’ve been hit.  They’re out looking for us right this very minute!”  Nobody was looking for them.  It would be days before anyone knew about the Indianapolis.  “Doc!”  “Doc!”  “Please!”  “Hold on sailor.”  “I’m comin’!”

Adolfo Celaya was drifting alone still traumatized by the ship’s sinking and the death of his friend Pena.  To his surprise he noticed a raft that was floating by.  As he tried to climb aboard the two sailors already on the craft wanted no part of him.  “Get the hell away!”  “You’re gonna turn this thing over!”  Celaya let go and clung to a rope that hung from the raft.  Once again the Mexican was cast from the brood.  Several other men swam to the raft and began to fight their way aboard.  Men kicked and fought rigorously for any space they could get.  They struggled so savagely they overturned the raft and then the battle would ensue again.  Celaya realized it was not prejudice this time that had set him apart from the other men, it was mans base animalistic instinct for survival.

Shortly after dawn two other rafts and floater nets supported by corks passed by.  These two groups of frantic men joined together, one hundred and fifty in all covered in black oil and consumed in chaos.  The battle for space continued as the strongest survivors tossed the weaker man overboard until they were too exhausted to fight.  Then they too were thrown into the water.  Soon there would be no more battle in the men at all.  The scores of men on the lifelines verbally fought over whether to thrash at the sharks as they attacked or to play dead.  “Look over there!”  A corpse was being torn to pieces by a school of frenetic sharks.  “He’s not moving at all!”  “The dead don’t move!”  Then as the sharks approached the men would thrash wildly.  In the twelve-foot seas, one moment men were staring up at a mountain of water they were sure would consume them and the next moment they were riding high over the horizon.  One of the fieriest topics in this wild group of men was that of the officers of rank for getting them into this fix.   “Who’s the officer in command here?” one man would shout.  Lt. Redmayne was.  He did not want to admit his rank for fear of being killed.  There was no rank now, only men with black faces in a floating society of anarchy.  “Some son of a bitch on this raft is wearing shoes!”  Redmayne looked around at the mostly barefoot legs.  Some men wore stockings.  He didn’t realize it at the time but he still had his shoes on.  Without a word he took his prize possession shoes off and dropped them into the water.  There were cans of Spam, biscuits and malt tablets and wooden barrels of fresh water aboard.  He knew that these provisions would need to be rationed.  At the right time Redmayne would assert his authority and rank.  But not now lest he be ravaged by the angry mob!  Harlan Twible tried to take command although he was ranked under Redmayne.  He bobbed in the great swell fully dressed with his khaki uniform fully buttoned.  Whenever things got too out of hand he would lead the men in prayer or spiritual song.  This would quiet the men down for a while.  Twible was a spiritual man and believed his great faith in God would get the men through this hellish nightmare.  But Twible couldn’t help reflecting upon the words of the spiritualist back in San Francisco.  In this same group was Ensign Blum who was not willing to give up his anonymity either.  “As soon as we’re rescued.”  “Which shouldn’t be much longer!”  “We’ll finally get our liberty men!”  Blum, an agnostic wished he had faith in God.  He wished he could pray, pray for a miracle.  He just wanted to wake up and find out it was just a bad dream.

Navy Chaplain Thomas M. Conway.

“Over here!”  “Over here!”  Yeoman Otha Havins wondered where the voice was coming from.  Havins thrashed about the sea.  His brother had died during the attack of Pearl Harbor and he joined the Navy against the wishes of his parents.  They had wanted him to become a minister.  Now he wondered if he too would break his parent’s hearts by losing his life in a sinking ship as well.  Then suddenly a man without a life vest sprung up from under him.  The man was choking on oil and grabbing at him wildly.  Havins went down with the man as he struggled now for his own life.  Gasping for breath and dizzy from the conflict he clawed to the surface for a badly needed breath of air.  The man was now quieted and held onto Havins waist.  Havins tried his best to calm the young enlisted man.  The man couldn’t hold on.  The sailor began to slide toward Havins ankles.  “Don’t give up!”  “They’ll be after us shortly!”  The man released his hold and slid into the sea never to surface again.  Once again Havins heard the cries, “Over here!”  “I have a cargo net!”  Machinist Mate First Class John Muldoon was hanging onto a cargo net.  The cargo net was being pulled along by a raft, which had three men aboard it.  Havins grabbed at the net and pulled his way toward the raft.  He climbed in and now there were four.

Captain McVay was floating alone on a potato crate.  The captain of a great American cruiser was now content to be the occupant of a potato crate.  Two rafts floated toward him and then he was alone with two rafts. He thought aloud about the possibility that he alone might have survived.  Alone, and with two rafts.  “Help us!”  “Help us!”  With one eye blinded by the fuel oil he searched the horizon for the voices.  Three men swam up to the rafts, Quartermaster Third Class Vincent J. Allard, Jay Glenn and one other.  McVay doubted they would last the night and watched over them as if they were his own children.  McVay also discovered food, signaling devices, and other emergency items aboard the rafts.  He wished he had died when the propellers passed him on their way to the ocean floor.  He too wished he had joined her on the bottom of the sea.  He did not want to face the families and loved ones of the men who had died while under his command.  He no longer resembled that of the captain the men had known.  He was wearing a canvas hat he had put together and tried to fish with some of the emergency equipment.  The terrified men looked about and saw several large sharks as they bumped the boat.  They began to swipe at the sharks with knives, boards anything they could get their hands on.  Every time McVay lowered the line to try and catch a fish the sharks would eat his bait.  McVay calmed the men and led them in a prayer.  They sang many songs to pass the time and he tried to keep up the moral of the men.  They sang, “Oh! Susanna,” “Down In The Valley,” and other popular songs of the time.  McVay began to get intimate and ask the men about their families and loved ones.  They were surprised when he would talk about very personal matters.  After all this was their skipper.  “Louise was quite a woman!”  “She could catch anything!”  Suddenly, “Another raft!”  At about 1500 yards there appeared to be one person aboard.  “Maybe there are other survivors as well!”  “Maybe as many as twenty-five of thirty out of almost 1200 men!”  He hoped.  They began to paddle toward the raft.  “Captain!” one of the men asked, “How long will it take for the rescue to get to us?”  Knowing full well that the SOS never went out and that they were not expected in port for two more days.  “It shouldn’t be much longer son!”

Tacloban, Leyte

Lt. Stuart B. Gibson the port director operations officer at Leyte Gulf port glanced through a stack of daily dispatch records from the Harbor Entrance Control Post (HECP) to see which ships have arrived.  One expected ship the Indianapolis had not arrived at 11:00 a.m. as scheduled.  “Ships were often 8 or even 12 hours behind schedule.”  “Perhaps it may have been diverted altogether!”  But it was now late afternoon.  “After all it was the Fleet Commanders job to keep after war ships.”  “This wasn’t the port directors headache.”  Fleet Commanders headache?  Not according to Frontier Command Captain Alfred M. Granum operations officer of the command.  He dealt mainly with merchant ships and auxiliary naval ships, technically the Indianapolis would fall under Frontier’s wing with its base in Leyte.  Granum never checked to see if the Indianapolis had arrived in Leyte Gulf.  Nobody did.  If any ship was in danger surely if would have sent out an SOS?  Granum did not trouble his new superior Commodore Norman C. Gillette who had been temporarily replaced by Vice Admiral J.L. Kauffman only a few days earlier.  Meanwhile Admiral Oldendorf on failing to receive word of the Indianapolis arrival in Leyte was not concerned.  He thought that the ship’s orders were changed.  After all, the last he had heard the ship was under direct orders of the President himself.

Day 2

“Doc, if I hold this water in my hands up to the sun and evaporate it a bit, will it be safe to drink?”  “No, son that will only make it more salty!”  You must not drink it!”  But how long could thirsty men hold off from drinking water especially when they were surrounded by so much of it.  Water as far as you could see!  Doc Haynes began to strike the men, “Don’t do it.”  “Do you want to die?”  Man after man would begin to drink the deadly water.  Delirium would soon follow.  Haynes was now holding up his friend Commander Lipski one of the last of the severely wounded to still be alive.  “I’m going now Doc.”  “Please tell my wife that I love her and that she should marry again!”  Lipski died in Haynes arms.  He hugged his dear old friend and then removed the life jacket.  Life jackets were after all for the living.  His friend had moved on.  Doc Haynes watched as Lipski’s body floated off and then, under the waves.  He was glad he didn’t have to witness the sharks devour his friend.  Death began to claim lives steadily.  The men began to value things spiritual and had less care for the things of this world.  One man tried to wipe the black oil from his face.  “I don’t want to meet God looking all dirty like this!”  “Heaven is a holy place.”  It’s all white and clean and shiny.”  “There ain’t no room for a dirty fellow in heaven!”  Father Conway was exhausted and beginning to show signs of deterioration.

Conway was about to float away to his death when Garland Rich the young Texan grabbed him.  “Doc!”  “Come quick, I can’t hold him any longer!”  Haynes moved toward Conway and put his arms through his lie jacket to hold him up.  The priest laid his head on Doc Haynes shoulder.   Father Conway was now dying too.  The father was a man who had served all man and now there was not one man who could save him.  Then Garland Rich began to weaken.  His head fell into the water.  Doc called out for someone to help him.  There was no one strong enough or sane enough to help.  “Coach, come and help me!  Coach come and get me quick!”  From somewhere in the rising see McKissick could here Rich’s frantic plea.  “Garland!”  “Garland!”  “Where are you?”  “Coach!”  “Coach help me!”  McKissick swam aimlessly, frantic to find him.  Rich fell off into the water and began to drift away.  “Garland!”  “I’m coming for you!”  The cries for help ceased.  “Garland!”  “Coach is here boy.”  “I’m comin’ for ya Garland!”  Shortly after this Father Conway stopped thrashing and blessed Dr. Haynes.  In a matter of minutes Lipski, Rich and Father Conway were gone.  Conway was one of the few men who were able to keep Haynes sane in this sea of madness.

In Redmaynes group there was plenty of rations.   A small group of men stole some of them and began stuffing themselves.  Ensign Twible became enraged.  He swam over to Redmayne and began to tell of the breakdown in moral and the, “every man for himself mentality.”  Redmayne finally began to take control of the situation.  “Listen up men, I’m Chief Engineer Lt. Redmayne and the senior officer of this group.”  “To hell with you!”  “Why didn’t you do something!”  “Those damn propellers were still churning away at the sea when the ship was going down!”  “Why the hell didn’t you do something about it?”  “Listen up!”  “Leyte must have been notified about our situation by now.  You men must cease eating those rations, there are plenty to go around for all.”  The men ignored him and kept gorging themselves.  Twible swam over to them and began to shout.  “Give it back!”  “Now!”  The others in the group began shouting and cursing the small group of men who would defy their orders.  They stopped eating the rations and did what they were told.  Twible gathered the grub and brought it to Redmaynes raft.

Giles McCoy was ready to die.  He did not want to go without a clear conscience.  He fondled a string of rosary beads as he would repeat the Lord’s Prayer over and over.  “What’s that?”  “It’s a Rosary!”  He began to say the words aloud and the dwindling group of men began to say the prayer as well.  Day after day the men would succumb to death either from the sharks, dehydration, their injuries, or by madness.  McCoy began to play a morbid game with another survivor, Seaman First Class Felton J. Outland.  This game probably saved both of their lives.  “I may not live through this but I will outlast you.”  “Don’t count on it!”  “A Marine is twice the man that a sailor is!”  “I’ll be the last to go.”  “Well, I’d make you a wager but how do you collect a debt from a dead man?”  “We’ll see who’s the last to go!”  Edward Payne began to go stark raving mad from drinking in the mixture of salt water and oil.  McCoy grabbed Payne and kept him from lashing out as he convulsed from the poisonous mixture.  “Let him go!”  “Let him die!”  “Not while I’m around.”  “Not while I’m alive!”  Payne calmed down and began to weep.

Haynes group suffered terribly from this catastrophe.  Without rafts or food and fresh water they began to suffer severely.  Dehydration, nausea, photophobia and other ailments became too overpowering.  Dementia and hallucinations began to be common place.  “There’s a Jap here!”  He’s trying to kill me!”  “There he goes!”  “Get the Jap!”  “Kill him!”  Most of the men began to shout and wail.  Both Haynes and Marine Captain Parke pleaded with the men to come to their senses.  Then two men grabbed Haynes and pushed him underwater.  These were the same men he felt compelled to save.  Finally able to break free and seized with fear he began to swim away from the group.  He swam from them, further and further, feeling as if the men he had tried to keep together were now out to kill him.  “To be rid of him!”  Then he heard a soft voice.  He had not realized that he was now far from the group.  “Who’s there!”  He swam toward the voices.  “Easy.  Relax!  I’ve got you!”  Corporal John Schmueck towed him over to his subgroup.  There was Ensign Harold C. Moynelo, Pharmacist Mate Harold Robert Anthony and Yeoman Second Class Victor R. Buckett.  Doc Haynes new group of men cried out not for blood.  They cried out for only a few drops of clean fresh water.

Day 3

One man swam toward the group.  “I found an island nearby.”  “It’s a beautiful island with fruit trees and clean fresh water that flows in a rocky stream.”  “There’s even women and some look a lot like Rita Hayworth!”  Some of the men began to follow after him in search of the island.  One of them was Ensign Moynelo, who had gone mad trying to keep others from going mad.  “You don’t have to swim to an island for fresh water!”  “If you just swim down real deep the water gets less salty.”  “No!”  Haynes would say.  “There is no fresh water down there!”  But the men didn’t want to here this.  Some began to swim below never to come up again.  Then someone burst up from the sea.  “I found her!”  “The ship hasn’t really sunk, she’s right below us.”  “Do you remember the scuttlebutt in the after living department?”  “The one that was always cold?”  “I dove down and turned on the scuttlebutt.”  “Honest!”  “It works!”  “There’s plenty of good water down there!”  “Fresh water men.”  “Fresh water for all!”  Many men hooted and hollered and dove down in search of the cool fresh water.  Even Haynes could see the ship under the surface.  Yes, there it was.  But he refused to go down.  Then one man dove up proclaiming, “I had a drink from the scuttlebutt!”  One man came up claiming to have drunken tomato juice after swimming to an island where he found barrels of it.  Others found beds to sleep in.

There was a long line of men hanging onto a lifeline as it floated aimlessly.  McKissick swam over to see what was happening.  “What are you men doing?”  “Shh, there’s a hotel up ahead.”  “It’s got a bed.”  “But there’s only one room.”  “Just get in line and wait your turn.”  Each guy gets fifteen minutes.”  “Alright, that’s a good deal.”  McKissick joined the pathetic line of men who waited their turn for a few minutes in a soft dry bed.  McKissick stated, “are you sure about the facts sailor?”  “Not long ago you told me about a floating dock not far away that service seaplanes.”  “Yes, but they wouldn’t give me a drink of water.”  “The Chinese mess boy refused to help me.”  “He said they only gave drinks to officers.”  “And I’m only an enlisted man.”  “They turned me away.”  “I’m an officer.”  “You show me where that floating dock is and I’ll get you a drink of water!”  “Then we can find help!”  “Yes Sir.”  “I’m positive we can get us a drink of water there.”  The two men swam off to find the floating dock.  They rested awhile when they came upon Doc Haynes.  They relayed the story to Haynes.  “This is not true.”  “It’s only a hallucination!”  “I rather doubt it myself but I don’t see what we have to lose trying to find it!”  So they swam off in search of the floating dock that didn’t exist.  After a while McKissick told the man he needed to rest.  He fell asleep and when he awoke he was alone floating somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Of the 150 men or so who had originally gathered in this group only 35 remained.  Blum was determined to be the last survivor of his group.  He found three officers who were still relatively sane.  He devised a plan.  They would borrow one of the rafts and take some of the food and try to sail to Leyte for help.  The matter was brought forth to Lt. Redmayne.  Redmayne decided to take a vote.  There was argument over there being a vote.  There was no voting in the Navy.  An officer made a decision and that was final.  “In a show of arms, who here would like to give these men a raft and some rations?”  “They will try and get to Leyte and bring us the rescue we need.”  “Alright men, a show of arms.” The first vote was all for it.  Except for six men.  Then the men began to argue how insulting it was.  “We know what these men were up to!”  So they took another vote.  This time only about half a dozen voted to let them try.  Once again an argument broke out and another vote.  Finally Blum and the others were able to convince the group to let them leave.  They paddled off a distance and began to eat the rations.  Redmayne watched as the four men dug into the grub realizing he had been deceived.

Celaya, while holding up a weak man was suddenly pushed under the waves.  When he finally surfaced he watched as the man he had been holding onto drifted away.  Ceyala didn’t have the strength to go after him.  He watched as the man began to wave good-bye and then finally he disappeared.

In McCoy’s raft there had been seventeen.  Now there were five.  Only he and Outland were conscious.  The other three lay in comas and would probably die he thought.  “We’ll see who’s going to die first.”  “Yeah, we’ll see!”

Day 4

Lt. Redmayne was visiting his aunt in England.  He began to mumble how good the water would taste.  Twible shook him trying to snap him out of it.  “Let me go.”  “Let me go I tell you I’ve got to get to the engine room!”  Twible picked up an empty water can that floated by and knocked the officer unconscious, thus saving his life.  Twible stared at the empty can that had once contained fresh drinking water.

In Haynes group the men began to drift off one by one.  A group of twenty-five men decided they were going to swim to Leyte.  “That’s sheer madness!”  “No we can do it.”  “It will only take about a day and a half!”  The group of men swam off into the depths of the sea.  They were never found.

McKissick discovered another group of men that were swimming off toward a different island.  This time they found one with shallow water.  “This is it!”  “This is it I tell you.”  “The island!”  “We found the island!”

Although Captain McVay’s group had plenty of rations they had lost all hope of being rescued.  Three of his men were already crying out about dying.  Otha Havins was determined to stick it out.  He proclaimed aloud, “Alright God I don’t know why you’re taking it out on all of these men.”  “But if you still want me.”  “I’ll join the ministry.”  “But you’ve got to save these men.”  “If you do I’ll forget all about those transfer orders.”  Suddenly there was the sound of a plane buzzing.

A Ventura scouting the waters for enemy subs was flying overhead.  First Pilot Wilbur C. Gwinn was on a routine mission under Vice Admiral Murray’s Mariannas Command.  The antenna had lost its weight and was flapping against the plane.  “That damn antenna!”  He got up and left his co-pilot Lt. Warren Colwell in control.  He opened the hatch and ordered Machinist Joseph K. Johnson to reel in the antenna.  Suddenly as he gazed at the sea he saw a long oily streak covering the surface for miles.  “Do you see what I see?”  “The radar hasn’t picked up anything.”  “Arm the depth charges!  We have an enemy sub on our hands!”

Many of the men in the water could see the plane as it swooped low over their heads.  Most were too far-gone to give it much thought.  Some could see the open bomb bay doors.

Just as the plane dove to 150 yards and was about to drop the depth charge, Gwinn spotted little black spots dotted across the pacific.  “Abort!”  The plane made another pass.  “What if those are Americans!”  “Sir, we could’ve killed Americans!”



Gwinn decided to follow the oil slick.


Captain Granum read the message back at port.  Check to see if any ships are overdue.  The report came back.  The Indianapolis!  He cabled McCormick.  Has the Indianapolis Reported To You?  He was baffled when he read the message.  NEGATIVE!

Gwynn radioed, “I count about 150 survivors.  This couldn’t be a Japanese submarine!”

W. Graham Claytor who could make out the garbled messages from the Ventura’s radio message was by now radioing his Commanders.  “There are no ships missing!”  “Continue on your present course!”  Claytor ignored his command and turned the vessel around heading for the disaster scene.  Ironically Captain McVay’s wife Louise, was Claytor’s niece.  He did not know he was heading to the scene where days earlier the Indianapolis was sunk.


The Ventura landed on the surface of the water and began picking up as many of the single men as possible.  It was a tough decision to pass up many men in rafts who were in terrible condition, but the men in the water without rafts needed to be assisted first.

Shortly seven vessels were racing toward the scene but they were a day away.  The survivors of the Indianapolis couldn’t hold out.


Even thought Gwynn was under direct orders not to land his plane on the ocean for any reason he believed (he hoped) that his commanding officers Lt. Commander Ricketts had not taken into account the current emergency and the grave situation.

“WILL ATTEMPT OPEN SEA LANDING.”  His commander back at base was furious.  They had no idea that they were about to rescue American sailors lost at sea for five days.

McKissick heard the plane overhead and saw packages falling from the sky and crashing all around him.  “Leave it alone!”  Don’t touch it!”  “Why not soldier!”  “The plane is dropping mail sacks!”  “This is an experimental mail operation and we shouldn’t interfere with it!”  McKissick examined the lift raft.  “I don’t see how this thing has anything to do with the mail soldier!”  “Leave it alone!  Its Mail!”  “Well soldier, I don’t want to go to jail!”  McKissick swam off.  “I wish those plans would go away!”  “This is a hell of a time to run an experimental mission.”

Other men watched in horror as canisters of fresh water would hit the surface of the ocean and disintegrate upon impact.  Most men did not have the strength to pull open the cords to inflate the rafts.  “Pull!”  “Pull damn it!”  The sharks continued to circle the area.  From above the co-pilot could see a shark with a dead or dying man in its jaw.

Haynes could not pull himself into the life raft.  Suddenly he found himself being lifted into it.  Men found new strength and began to toss weaker men into the rafts.  Haynes found water and began to divvy it out to the men.  The sun baked down so intensely on his severely burned skin that he returned to the water and would remain there until his rescue.

“Grab the ring!”  McKissck looked up and saw a strange sight.  A plane was drifting on the water within yards of him.  “Go away!”  “Leave me be!”  “Grab the ring!”  Suddenly McKissick was yanked aboard the plane.  “Welcome aboard!”  A man handed him a cup of water.  McKissick gulped it down.  “What ship were you on?”  He passed out.  One by one the plane picked up the single men who were mostly in need of assistance.  There were bodies stacked one aside another.  “What ship were you on sailor?”  Finally one very weak man uttered the word, Indianapolis!”

To the surprise of all in command at Guam and Leyte, Gwynn radioed the news.


Meanwhile night fell over the Pacific Ocean as the ships Doyle, Bassett, Ringness, Register, Ralph Talbot, Dufilho and the Madison raced to the scene.  Under the cloak of darkness they raced against time and more death at sea.

Claytor was the first to arrive at the scene.  With one spotlight searching the water he had the other one aimed at the sky as if it was a beacon of light to the survivors still afloat in the ocean.  The men could see the ship moving toward the area with its beam of light shining brightly.  Claytor feared moving through the water in the darkness of the night.  He did not want to kill any men who might have made it this far.  He set out whalers to go after the men.

By now the word was out.  An enemy submarine had downed the Indianapolis, 5 days earlier!

One naked sailor would not board the whaler if he could not be guaranteed a glass of water.  “Son, I guarantee you this, you can have all the water you want!”  “We have plenty to go around!”   “Enough for all!”  “Well if you don’t have any drinking water just shove off and leave us alone!”


Ensign Blum and the men on his raft were very close to death when a beam of light they mistook for God shined over them.  “Who are you!”  “What ship were you on?”  “We’re from the Indianapolis!”  These were the crewmen of the Basset’s first encounter with the survivors.  They couldn’t make out an American sailor from a Japanese soldier.  Their faces were jet black.  The crew onboard the whaler feared an attack from the Japanese.  “Where do the Dodgers play!”  “What’s that again?”  “Where do the Dodgers play ball?”  “All over the country.”  “If they always stayed in Brooklyn they’d have no other teams to play!”

The Basset’s whaler ran a shuttle to the ship.  Celaya had learned a great lesson at sea.  The quality of man was not determined by rank, class, wealth, or color but by the nature of his soul.  Lt. Redmayne was unconscious as he was lifted from his raft.  He was carried aboard the Basset and placed in a cot.  “Sergeant are we in heaven?”  The Sergeant wiped tears from his eyes.  “No sir, you’ve been rescued!”  “That’s good because my oily skin is messing up these nice white sheets and it wouldn’t be a good thing to start off your first day in heaven dirtying the place all up!”  Redmayne fell asleep.

One by one the ships began to converge at the sight of the disaster.  Planes swooped over head crisscrossing the sky continuously scouring for more survivors.

At about 10:30 a.m. the following morning Captain McVay noticed a ship in the distance.  “Look over there!”  “Is that a ship?”  “I must be hallucinating!”  “If you’re hallucinating then so am I because I see it too!”  “I told you we’d be saved.”  “Louise!”  Havins looked up to the heavens.  “A deals a deal!”  Shortly the ten men found themselves aboard the Ringness.  William C. Meyer was the skipper of the ship.  McVay stumbled to the bridge and stammered out his report.  “This can wait Captain.”  “You must rest!”  “No this cannot wait!”  Meyer drafted his report to Guam, but McVay added two words.  “Not Zigzagging.”  “Why mention this in the initial report?”  McVay insisted.  The message was sent to CINPAC.


Survivors of the USS Indianapolis aboard a rescue vessel. 

Survivors of the USS Indianapolis sinking.

McCoy and Outland watched as ship after ship circled the area.  “They missed us again.”  They were sure they would not be rescued.  Then a plane flew by and the men aboard waved at the raft.  “They saw us!”  “I know I saw them too!”  Shortly a ship went to retrieve the last remaining survivors.  A line was tossed to the raft as one of the men aboard jumped in to assist.  The three unconscious men were carried aboard the ship.  A sailor jumped in the sea and swam to help McCoy and Outland.  He was pushed away.  “I can walk on my own!”  “So can I!”  They tried to walk under their own power each trying to out-do the other.  Neither one of them could stand up or pull themselves to the ropes though they tried in vain.  The sailor tried to lift each of the men and was refused again.  “Don’t help me.  I can do it myself!”  “Me too!”

The Doyle had ninety-three survivors and was heading for the port in Peleliu.  One of the passengers aboard was the Ventura Pilot Gwynn.  “Doc I couldn’t get my plane off of the water this morning.  She was too badly damaged to fly.  They had to sink her by gunfire.  I’m in hot water with my superiors.  Can I quote you in my report saying that my open-sea landing was necessary to save you fellows!”

The Bassett carried 151 survivors and landed in the naval port on the island of Samar.  Redmayne awoke to the sounds of other survivors wailing from pain.  He felt the huge lump that was on his head.  “I did it!” said Twible who lay next to him.  “What the hell did you do that for?”  “You went nuts and wanted to dive down to the engine room.”  “It was the only way I could stop you!”  “You saved my life!”  Now he pat at the wound on his head with admiration for Ensign Twible.

In private the investigators already had begun to question the ship’s survivors.  They needed a scapegoat to prevent marring the Navy’s record.  Especially since it wanted a lion’s share of credit for its involvement in the bombing of Hiroshima and helping to bring the war to a swift end.

August 5th

While naval officers on the island of Samar were trying to forestall public criticism of the naval disaster, Capt. McVay held a press conference on the island of Peleliu in Base Hospital 20.  Base Station 20 was the way station for the men picked up by the Ringness, the Doyle, and the Register.  Two men had already succumbed to death in the hospital and this did not help the situation.  Admiral Spruance pinned purple hearts on the chests of the survivors of his beloved flagship. McVay lashed out, venting his frustration at his superiors.  “We were due at our anchorage in Leyte at 1100 hours, I should think by noon or 1300 hours they would have started to worry.  A ship that size practically runs on train schedule.  I should think that by noon they would have stared to call by radio to find out where we were, or if something was wrong?  This is something I want to ask somebody myself.  Why didn’t this get out sooner?  Many fine young men lost their lives unnecessary.  Why wasn’t I warned of the danger?  Why hadn’t anyone known that the ship had gone down?”  In a heightened frenzy the reporters scrambled to ask questions inquiring to the Captain about the severity of the situation.

It didn’t take long for the report of McVay lashing out at his superiors to reach the Navy Secretary James Forrestal in Washington.

Capt. McVay discussing the tragic sinking. Photo National Archives.

August 6th

Forrestal’s phone conversation with Fleet Admiral King:  “I’ve got two reports on my desk at the present.  One is from Navy Captain Parsons concerning the success of the flight of the Enola Gay.  This is possibly the final blow to Japan and a great moment in naval history.  Then there is this report on the Indianapolis.  This will badly tarnish our image in the midst of our greatest triumph.  We need to find a way to clear the Navy’s good name.  You do understand what I am saying?  Captain McVay losing his ship and triggering and unprecedented disaster has jeopardized the good name of the Navy!  Now get on it.”  He slammed down the phone.

King sent a letter of reprimand to Admiral Nimitz, “Reporting the arrival of ships lies with the Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet.  Assume that unescorted ships or convoys are not being routed over known positions of enemy subs with assigned offensive mission but recent loss of Indianapolis appears to be a case in point.”  Upon receiving this message, Nimitz realized that he had to do anything in his power to turn the heat away from himself.  McVay seemed the likely target.

August 9th

The Americans dropped its second atomic bomb on Nagasaki as the Russians invaded Manchuria.  Reports began to leak out.  A report from the USS French concerning the remaining bodies found at sea reached the press.

“Medium size, medium build, appears to have been partially eaten by sharks.

“Body unclothed except for a pair of socks unstenciled.  Very badly mutilated by sharks.

“Body clad in dungaree trousers only.  Badly mangled by sharks.

“Fully clothed with dungaree shirt and trousers, skivvy drawers, shoe and sock on left foot, right foot missing.”

August 13th

McVay was ordered to appear in court for an inquiry on the Indianapolis incident.  Charles A Lockwood Jr. who commanded the pacific submarine fleet would be head of the court.  He would see to it that no blame fell on his shoulders.  Forty-one men from all over the pacific sat in CINPAC headquarters waiting to testify.  They included Lt. Redmayne, Ensign Twible, Admiral McCormick, Captain Granum, Ensign Blum, Lt. Waldron, and Captain Naquin.  Missing from the courtroom was Admiral Murray, Commander of the Mariannas who was one of the most notable witnesses and Naquin’s superior officers.  He was also the man in charge of the area where the Indianapolis was sunk and one of the three judges to preside over the inquiry.  He wasn’t about to take any heat for the incident either.  Thomas D’Arcy Brophy Sr. a prominent advertising executive lost his son to the tragedy.  He wanted McVay’s hide and he relentlessly hounded the naval heads and kept up the pressure in the press. Brophy swore with a vengeance to get McVay, “If it is the last thing that I do.”  Naval high command did all they could to stack the deck against McVay.  As the first witness before the court of inquiry McVay was asked if he had been zigzagging along his route.  “No, but the weather conditions did not merit it.”  Also, he was not warned about any submarines being in the area.  He was asked if he had given the order to abandon ship.  “Yes, but I wasn’t sure if it had reached many, all communications had gone out.”  McVay’s officer’s testimonies would support his statements. One by one the military officers were called to the stand.  The responsibility was tossed about from one officer to the next.  “CINPAC was at fault, for although it issued an order not to report arrivals of combatant ships, it never mentioned what to do about non-arrivals– so it did nothing.”  “My subordinate never told me that the Indianapolis was overdue!”  “True an order of non-arrivals had not been issued, but as a matter of commonsense they should have been reported by Gibson’s office as well as by Admiral McCormick’s command.”   McCormick lashed out, “Why didn’t they keep track of the ship?   The message decoded by my command was incorrectly decoded and the message never delivered to me.  It’s certainly not my fault!”  Even Admiral Murray testified, “Naquin knew of the threat of the four submarines spotted in the area but he thought that the threat was negligible.  Therefore I was never notified of the threat.”  Others would blatantly lie under oath.  “Lt. Waldron said he had warned Captain McVay himself of the submarine menace.  “I can’t understand why he would have such knowledge and not zigzag!”  Another testified, “Visibility was good on that night, it was essential to run a zigzag route!”  And still another, “Captain McVay delayed sending out the SOS until the ship was too badly damaged to send out an SOS at all!”  Over 700 American ships had been sunk during WWII and not one person in command of those ships had charges brought up against them, especially to be court-martialed.  The Captain listened in shock as the court read aloud its recommendation.  McVay was to receive a Letter of Reprimand and the case should be brought to trial by general court-martial for; performing his duties inefficiently and endangering lives through his negligence.  McVay’s father had never showed emotion during his career as an admiral.  He now sat weeping.

McVay began to receive stacks of hate mail daily.  He would see huge stacks of the letters piled on his desk everyday.  The phone rang constantly from family members of the men lost at sea.  Every holiday that would pass, McVay would receive greeting cards, “Merry Christmas you bastard.  Our son won’t be with us this year.”  “Why did you survive and my husband didn’t.”  “I hate you more and more as the days pass!”

August 15th

A glowing White House President Truman, his wife and his Cabinet announced the unconditional surrender of Japan.  Newspaper headlines would read in large bold text, THE WAR IS OVER.  On the same front page would be an article about the upcoming court-martial trial of Captain McVay.  Brophy kept true to his word.  The trial would be public.  This was the first court-martial trial ever held in the eyes of the public.  The court-martial would be held at Washington’s Naval Yard where Admiral Charles B. McVay II had been officer in command.

Captain Thomas J. Ryan Jr. a short and cocky forty-four year old judge advocate would be the prosecuting attorney.  He was a graduate of Annapolis as well.  He was one of the navy’s most decorated men.  Two Navy Crosses, a victory in this case would escalate him and his career to the top.  The Navy needed a high profile man like Ryan to prosecute Captain McVay.  The first person he interrogated was Marine PFC Giles McCoy.  “No you’re wrong.”  “He is my skipper and I’m not going to testify against him!”  “Did you here the call to abandon ship?”  “No I didn’t.”  “But there was so much noise I couldn’t have heard a bugle if someone had blown it in my ear.”  “You’re still in the service boy, and I’m a Navy officer.”  “You’ll do as I say!”  “Now, this is what I want you to say!”  “No sir!”  “I won’t!”  “Then get out!”  “I’ll see you in court when you are under oath!”  Ryan could not get one of McVay’s crewmen to testify against him.  Not a single man.  So he placed a call to Admiral King, “Find me the commander of the submarine that sank the Indianapolis and bring him to Washington immediately!  And tell him if he won’t come voluntarily and testify on our behalf, I’ll bring up war criminal charges against him!”  Captain Henry Smith-Hutton, an intelligence officer in Tokyo was ordered to find Hashimoto.  “Prepare for a trip to Washington to appear at military trial as witness, leave for Tokyo urgently with all battle reports!”

December 3rd

McVay’s court-martial began.  His wife Louise made sure that his Navy blues were pressed and that he appeared in court impeccably.  He arrived at Washington Navy Yard at Building 57 where the trial would begin.  There would be throngs of reporters and family members of the deceased that would stare at him filled with hatred and contempt during every minute of the trial.  He chief counsel would be Captain John. P. Cady, a tall, congenial man with a pleasant but forced smile.  Cady did not want to take the case, he was ordered to represent McVay anyway.  Cady was an Annapolis graduate receiving his law degree in 1932 from George Washington University.  He had failed his law exam and didn’t really want to be a lawyer, especially not for a high profile case like this.  On the other hand prosecutor Ryan was the best naval attorney available.  The Navy was obviously railroading McVay.  McVay faced the seven judges and pleaded not guilty on all counts against him.  As soon as the trial began the chain smoking Cady objected, “The accusation that McVay did not give the order to zigzag was only a conclusion, not an offense.”  He argued bitterly against this charge.  “Overruled!”  The first witness to take the stand was Lieutenant Waldron who had given Captain McVay his routing instructions in Guam.  He also had lied under oath in the court of inquiry.

December 7th

At midnight Hashimoto stepped off of a C-54 in Washington DC as a prisoner and escorted by a naval officer.  By the time Hashimoto appeared in court there was much public outcry.  There was also great concern for the safety of his life.  The prosecutor called its next witness to the stand Mochitsura Hashimoto.   Cady objected, “If the court please, I wish to make formal objection to the idea of calling one of the officers of the defeated enemy who, as a nation, have been proven guilty.  Guilty of every despicable treachery of the most infamous cruelties and of the most barbarous practices in violation of all the laws of civilized warfare, to testify against one of our own commanding officers on a matter affecting his professional ability and judgment.  I am sure I express the feeling of every American citizen, especially those who so recently fought against the Japanese, in protesting at this spectacle.  The objection is not, and cannot be based on any legalistic grounds since our lawmakers have never imagined through the centuries of Anglo-Saxon law any such grotesque proceedings!”  The bitter argument between the two attorneys went on and on until finally the court made their decision, “Overruled!”  The stunned courtroom bustled in anticipation of what this small and meek man might have to say.  Immediately upon being ushered into the courtroom Hashimoto was questioned about his credibility and competence.  He was questioned about his background, what kind of torpedo he used, what was the visibility on that night and mostly, was the Indianapolis zigzagging.  “I didn’t see any radical zigzag movement!”  “But there was apparently some small movement.”  “It was night and it was difficult to make an accurate judgement.”  Cady asked Hashimoto flat out, “Would it have made any difference to you if the ship was zigzagging or not!”  “No!”  “It would not have made any difference!”  The prosecutor’s case did not look good at all.  Cady had wondered why he so vehemently objected to the prosecutions witness.  He after all turned out to be a good witness for the defense.  But this courtroom trial was already rigged.  McVay would never take his eyes off of the man who had killed so many of his sailors.  A man, who admitted on the stand that the end of the war was eminent, a man who wanted the taste of blood one last time before surrendering to the enemy.  Hashimoto would smile at the sight of the model of the Indianapolis that sat on the prosecution’s desk.  Yes, that was the ship he had sunk.

December 19th

Closing arguments.  The defense argued greatly that most men were not killed from the sinking of the ship, but lost their lives waiting for the rescue that would never come.  Even the newspapers wrote that after hearing the facts, “McVay should be exonerated.”  The court recessed.

McVay sat in the courtroom awaiting the decision.  His wife Louise held his hand.  “This whole thing will soon be over and we can get back to living our normal lives!”  “Our lives will never be the same again.”  “Everywhere I look I see the faces of those boys lost at sea!”  Before the court convened again there were already newspapers released, claiming that McVay was found innocent of all charges against him!

The court convened.  “Would the accused please stand!”  McVay stood at attention in his perfectly starched uniform with a shining Silver Star medal attached to his chest.  He stared straight ahead at the seven stern men before him.  “The specifications of the second charge not proved.  And that the accused, Charles B. McVay III, Captain of the U.S. Navy, is of the second charge not guilty; and the court does therefore acquit the said Charles B. McVay III, Captain of the U.S. Navy, of the second charge.”  Most of the spectators present were jubilant.  The court had to be brought back to order.  But McVay had been found guilty of the first charge.  He would never operate a naval ship again.

Back Home.

“Lunch is ready dear!”  “I’ll be right down!”  Charles’ wife continued to set the table for lunch as he entered the room.  “You are going to play bridge today aren’t you dear?”  “Yes.”  “You are going to have lunch before you go?”  “Yes!”  Louise returned to the kitchen as she continued to talk to him.  Upon returning from the kitchen, Charles was gone.  “Charles?”  There was no answer.  She went upstairs and called for him.  Again there was no answer.  She entered the bedroom and on the nightstand saw his holster with no pistol.   “Oh my God!”  Rushing down the stairs she heard the shots.  Suddenly the caretaker hastily entered the house.  “Don’t go out there!”  “Don’t look at him!”  She rushed to the dining room window and saw her husband lying in the crystal white snow with blood seeping from his self inflicted gunshot head wound.  At his side was his pistol.  In his left hand he clutched a little toy sailor.

President Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton have all received renewed requests by the Indianapolis survivors headed by Marine Giles McCoy for a Presidential Unit Citation to have the charges against Captain Charles B. McVay III formerly overturned.  The Navy had intervened in every appeal to deny McVay’s survivors this Citation.

If the American Democratic System and the U.S. Navy are so inflexible that an injustice cannot be rectified; then the case of Captain Charles B. McVay III, will continue to be a black mark permanently marring the Navy’s record.  If the court decision will not be overturned, then Captain Charles B. McVay III, will continue to be a victim.  A victim, not only of the worst naval sea disaster in the history of the U.S. Navy, but Captain Charles B. McVay III will also continue to be a victim of the Navy’s worst moral disaster as well.

Captain Charles B. McVay III.

A brief history of the McVay Naval tradition:

In 1890, Charles B. McVay I had been made an honorary member of the Naval Academy making large donations in support of the Naval Institution.

Charles B. McVay II fought victoriously as an ensign in the Spanish-American war and during WWI had commanded the Saratoga, the New Jersey, and the Oklahoma.  After the war he headed the Washington Navy Yard (where his son would be tried and court-martialed).

Charles B. McVay III had already served as Chief of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the combined Chiefs of Staff before being assigned to Commander of the USS Indianapolis.

Charles IV had very bad eyesight, which required the use of contact lens and against naval policy he joined as an enlisted man during WWII.


On May 14, 1999, Hunter Scott, an 11-year-old student from Florida filed H.J. Res. 48 for consideration by the House to exonerate Capt. Charles McVay of any wrongdoing in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. Scott had seen the movie Jaws, in which there was a brief soliloquy about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

Language to exonerate Captain McVay was inserted in the Defense Authorization Act of 2001. The legislation expresses the sense of Congress that Captain McVay should be exonerated because some facts important to the case were never considered by the 1945 court-martial board. Classified data were not even made available to the board.

Captain McVay’s record was modified to reflect this exoneration.

“Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to call to the attention of the House of Representatives a decision by the Department of the Navy that exonerates the late Charles Butler McVay III, captain of the heavy cruiser, the USS Indianapolis who was court-martialed, and convicted 56 years ago after his ship sank in the closing days of World War II.”

“The survivors of that tragedy, Mr. Speaker, have relentlessly sought to have Captain McVay vindicated; and those who remain are relieved by the Navy’s long-delayed yet justifiable decision.”

Of the 317 survivors of the USS Indianapolis disaster, less than 120 remain alive today.

© 2015. All rights reserved.

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