48: USS Indianapolis

It was the single worst disaster in the U.S. Navy, and it was covered up by the U.S. government at the end of World War II. Learn the true story behind USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.

Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!

Buy me a coffeeBuy me a coffee

Resources

Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.

Transcript

Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

The movie begins in Okinawa, Japan on March 31st, 1945 near the end of World War II. Before we join the movie’s timeline, let’s take a couple minutes to find out more about the history of the ship.

USS Indianapolis was ordered by the U.S. Navy in 1930 as a Portland class cruiser for about $10.9 million. That’s the equivalent of about $153 million in today’s dollars. As far as her stats were concerned, she was 610 feet and 3 inches long, or about 186 meters and had a displacement of 9,950 tonnes. At max speed, she could almost hit 33 knots, or about 37.6 mphs and about 60 km/h.

Her armament consisted of 19 guns, including two 47 mm guns, eight 130 mm anti-aircraft guns and nine massive 200 mm, or 8” guns. She could also carry up to six aircraft, including two catapult planes and four floatplanes.

Even though she was ordered before World War II, she was ready for combat.

Construction for Indianapolis was finished on November 7th, 1931, but she wasn’t officially commissioned for service until over a year later on November 15th, 1932. Before World War II broke out, the USS Indianapolis served a variety of roles from training exercises to transporting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

As it did for many, everything changed on the morning of December 7th, 1941. Indianapolis was running exercises off of Johnston Atoll with five destroyers. That’s about 820 miles, or 1320 kilometers, to the southwest of Pearl Harbor.

In the chaos that ensued after the attack on Pearl, the Indianapolis immediately joined Task Force 12 to help seek out and destroy the Japanese carriers responsible for the sneak attack. That was a short-lived mission, as the U.S. Navy knew the attack was just the start.

On December 13th, 1941, Indianapolis returned to Pearl for reassignment. She was assigned to help support the aircraft carrier USS Lexington along with Destroyer Squadron One and two other cruisers, USS Chicago and USS Portland.

Collectively, all of those ships made up Task Force 11.

As a part of this task force, Indianapolis took part in operations first in the South Pacific and then the North Pacific. She was an important part of American assaults on the Japanese at Kiska Island, Amchitka, Attu, and many others as the U.S. Navy tried to take control of key Japanese staging areas in the Pacific.

This was all in 1943, and as the year came to a close she returned to Pearl where she was assigned to Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance’s 5th Fleet.

In 1944, it was much of the same for the crew on Indianapolis as they participated in conflicts like the assault on the Mariana Islands, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and the Battle of Peleliu.

As a side note here, while the men on Indianapolis were busy helping the fight during the Battle of Peleliu from September 15th to November 27th, 1944, about 500 miles to the west another battle was taking place. This was the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and while both battles were a part of the overall Philippine campaign, it was during the Battle of Leyte Gulf when the Japanese made a critical decision.

Unable to stop the advancing onslaught, Captain Motoharu Okamura declared, “I firmly believe that the only way to swing the war in our favor is to resort to crash-dive attacks with our planes…. There will be more than enough volunteers for this chance to save our country.”

And so the Japanese began their suicide runs. Pilots willfully killing themselves as they gave their lives in an attempt to stop the advancing Americans. We know them now as Kamikaze pilots, which translated means “special attack.”

Although some historians have debated this, most believe the first Japanese Kamikaze pilots attacked U.S. ships on October 25th, 1944 near the end of the Battle of the Leyte Gulf.

It was a tactic that would affect the men of Indianapolis—later.

After the Battle of Peleliu, as 1945 rolled around, Indianapolis headed back to the States to get refitted in California before joining Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s task force. As a part of this task force, she was involved in the first carrier attack directly on Japan since the Doolittle Raid right after Pearl Harbor. Like Doolittle’s attack, this was similarly seen by many as a huge morale boost for the American military.

After this attack, Mitscher’s task force made their way to Iwo Jima to support the American forces landing there. We’ve all seen the now-famous statue from the battle at Iwo Jima. Indianapolis and the rest of the task force helped make sure the men landing didn’t have to worry about being attacked from the sea, while providing plenty of support by pounding the Japanese land forces using their powerful guns.

Following the attack on Iwo Jima, Indianapolis went to help support the attack on Okinawa.

It’s here that the movie timeline picks up, seven days after the Indianapolis and the rest of the task force had arrived and started pounding the beaches with shells.

In the movie, the text on the screen says it’s March 31st, 1945 near Okinawa, Japan. It’s here when we first see Captain McVay, who’s played by Nicholas Cage, on USS Indianapolis.

We’re thrust into the action right away as the men on Indianapolis are under attack by what appear to be Mitsubishi Zeroes. They manage to hit a few of the attacking Japanese planes, but one of them crashes into the bow of the ship after being hit by the anti-aircraft guns.

The implication here is that it’s a Japanese Kamikaze flying into the Indianapolis after getting hit. We already learned that Kamikaze’s were a tactic the Imperial Japanese Navy was using at the time, so that’s a plausible scenario.

Except we know that’s not what happened.

The date and location are correct, but instead it was a Nakajima Ki-43 fighter that dive bombed Indianapolis. The plane crashed into the sea near the ship, but not before a bomb was released only about 25 feet above the ship. The explosion rippled through the ship, killing nine instantly and flooding some of the compartments in the bow of the ship.

Despite this close call, they managed to survive. Limping, Indianapolis sailed all the way from where she was hit to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, California for repairs.

Back in the movie, the next scene doesn’t have a time or a place, but it’s in a dark smoke-filled board room where men are discussing dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In the film, these men are cast as Man #1, Man #2, and so on through Man #5, so they’re obviously not supposed to be real people.

Which makes sense, because we don’t know exactly who was the first one to have the idea to drop the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II. But obviously, history shows the idea did originate from somewhere. Although I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say it wasn’t someone named Man #1.

In the movie, the text on screen says it’s July 15th, 1945 in San Francisco and we see Indianapolis getting repaired under the watchful eye of McWhorter, who’s played by Tom Sizemore.

After this, we see Nick Cage’s version of Captain McVay chatting with James Remar’s character, Admiral Parnell. 

The Admiral tells McVay he’s been chosen for a top secret mission. No escorts. Just one ship taking cargo to Tinian.

The movie doesn’t mention this, but the Pacific island of Tinian is tiny. Really tiny. It’s only 39 square miles, or about 101 square kilometers.

By comparison, the city of Los Angeles is massive—over 500 square miles. Chicago is about 235 square miles. Even a more compact city like Boston is about 90 square miles.

So, yeah, Tinian was a pretty small island. Really a spec in the ocean. But it’s location under 1,500 miles from the Japanese mainland made it prime real estate.

Anyway, Admiral Parnell was a real person. We don’t know if the specifics of that scene happened, but what we do know is that the United States successfully produced three atomic bombs for use in World War II. Oh there were plenty more developed over the course of the war, but there were three that were actually used.

The first one was detonated in New Mexico at the Trinity test site on July 16th, 1945. It worked, and it was devastating.

So the United States decided to move forward with their plans for the other two atomic bombs, called Fat Man and Little Boy. Although they each were developed differently the plan was to drop them on Japan to try to force surrender. The bombers delivering this deadly cargo would launch from the tiny island of Tinian.

The U.S. didn’t waste any time. The first atomic test detonated in New Mexico on July 16th, 1945. Only a few hours after that test, Indianapolis left San Francisco with parts for Little Boy, including about half of the world’s Uranium-235 on board.

While we don’t know the exact timing here, it’s probably safe to assume it took at least a few hours to prepare Indianapolis to leave with its new cargo. So I’m interjecting a bit of my own speculation here, but that’d mean it’s likely the order to start loading all of the parts and Uranium-235 onto the ship even before the test occurred.

That gives you an idea how eager the U.S. military officials were to use the atomic bomb—a bomb that they truly thought could end the war.

Back in the movie, the next scene shows an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine named simply I-58. The text on screen explains it’s now three days later, July 19th, 1945 and the sub is patrolling the Philippine Sea.

In this scene, the movie tricks us into thinking the sub is attacking Indianapolis as it releases a Kaiten. Then, just as the moment of impact is near, the Kaiten misses. It turns out to be a merchant ship, and the scenes we saw from Indianapolis were just a drill.

Kaitens, if you recall from the movie, are basically manned torpedoes. More on these in a bit.

As best as we can tell, this is plausible. For one, the movie doesn’t tell us what merchant ship I-58 attacked. And the Kaiten missed in the movie anyway, so the merchant ship was never harmed.

History doesn’t really help us, either, because we don’t know of a specific merchant ship being fired upon by I-58 on July 19th, 1945.

But then, the Imperial Japanese Navy surrendered just a few months after this, so who knows how many records were lost.

What we do know is that I-58 most certainly was a real submarine. And she was equipped with Kaiten—six of them to be precise.

As a quick side note, the Kaiten project for the Imperial Japanese Navy was one of four suicide projects they had at the end of the war in a desperate attempt to stop the Allies. The most popular of these projects were the Kamikaze planes we learned a bit about earlier. What the Japanese Kamikaze pilots were doing in the air, Kaiten operators were doing underwater. But there were also the Shinyo suicide boats and Fukuryu, or essentially human mines.

What makes the scene we see in the movie on July 19th plausible is that we know from history I-58 was ordered to sail east of the Philippines along with five other submarines. Their mission, collectively, was search and destroy.

Although it’s worth pointing out that in the movie we only ever see one ship on the horizon. Of course that helps play up the idea that it’s Indianapolis since we know she’s alone. But in truth, I-58 did launch two of their Kaitens, not one like we saw in the film. It was on July 28th, 1945 about 300 miles, which is just over 480 kilometers, north of the island of Palau, when I-58 saw a cargo ship named Wild Hunter.

So maybe this is the scene the movie is trying to replicate. Except the cargo ship wasn’t alone, though. She was escorted by a destroyer named Lowry. Wild Hunter saw the periscope of I-58 and opened fire. Soon after, Lowry saw one of the Kaitens and managed to ram it before it exploded.

Submerged, the men on I-58 heard a couple explosions. They lay silent for a few hours, but finally surfaced and when they didn’t see any ships around they assumed the explosions were the two ships sinking.

We don’t know what the explosions really were, but they weren’t the Wild Hunter and Lowry sinking. We know this because Lowry would continue to serve during World War II, the Korea war and Vietnam before finally being decommissioned in 1973 and ultimately sunk as a part of target practice in 1996 by the Brazilian Navy.

Back in the movie, Nick Cage’s voiceover lets us know Indianapolis is successful in delivering their cargo to Tinian.

This is true, although there’s more to the story we don’t see in the film.

After Indianapolis left San Francisco with her top secret cargo, she didn’t go straight to Tinian. On July 19th, while the scene in the movie with the submarine was happening, Indianapolis arrived at Pearl Harbor.

It was from Pearl that Indianapolis then raced to Tinian, which is about 3,700 miles, or just under 6,000 kilometers, across the Pacific Ocean to the west of Pearl Harbor. Immediately upon arrival, her cargo was unloaded on July 26th.

The next scene in the movie says it’s July 27th, and Indianapolis is leaving Tinian with 1,197 on board.

That’s mostly true, but again it’s not the full story.

After Indianapolis delivered her cargo on Tinian, she hopped she hopped the 100 miles or so south to the American-held island of Guam.

We don’t know the exact number, but we know there were a few crewmembers who disembarked here at Guam after completing their tour of duty in the U.S. Navy. But these men were also replaced at Guam, so it’s very likely the same number of men were on board when she left. There’s no way they could’ve known how fortunate these few were who got off the ship.

Or could they? Surely they couldn’t foresee exactly what was to happen, but it was still war—each day you survive in war is a blessing.

The next day, on July 28th, Indianapolis left Guam with what most historians agree was 1,198 men on board, not 1,197 like the movie says. But then some historians do say it was 1,197. Anyway, it was almost 1,200 people on board.

Indianapolis was given orders to head to Leyte, about 1,300 miles, or roughly 2,000 kilometers, further to the west. The Allies didn’t know for sure what effect the atomic bombs would have, but they knew it would be devastating. And they wanted to take advantage of that devastation by launching even more devastation.

Leyte was the staging area for the United States’ planned attack on the Japanese home islands. Indianapolis would be supporting the landing forces in this new operation as she had done at Iwo Jima, the Mariana Islands, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and many other battles throughout the war.

Except this time was different. This time the Americans would be landing on the beaches of the Japanese homeland. If this assault was a success as the others before had been, surely this would be the final major offensive of the war. This had to have boosted the morale for the soldiers on Indianapolis. Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel.

In the movie, around this point there’s a few sailors who start talking about sharks. We don’t know if this sort of conversation took place, but it’s not likely. Instead it’s more likely the filmmakers used this as a sort of an indicator to predict the facts to come.

The text on screen says it’s the Philippine Sea on July 30th, 1945 at zero dark hundred.

As a quick side note, zero dark hundred is military slang term for just saying it’s dark outside and they don’t really know what time it was.

Anyway, it’s here in the movie when the fate of I-58 and Indianapolis collide. I-58 launches four torpedoes, two of which hit Indianapolis and cause massive damage.

While the specifics of the events we see on screen in the movie was fictionalized, the gist is very true.

It was at 12:14 AM local time on July 30th, 1945 when I-58 launched two conventional torpedoes that sank Indianapolis. And just like the movie shows, it took hardly no time at all for her to sink. For a bit of context, it took over two and a half hours for Titanic to sink.

For Indianapolis, it took only 15 minutes.

In the ensuing panic after the torpedoes hit, and without any time to know the full extent of the damage, there’s no way to really know exactly what happened on board Indianapolis.

Remember, she had survived substantial damage before when she was bombed earlier in the war. So I don’t think we could fault anyone if their first reaction wasn’t that the ship was going down.

Despite this, the movie does a pretty good job of showing what it could have been like. One moment, it was business as usual. Fifteen minutes later, the ship was headed to the bottom of the Pacific along with 300 souls.

Left alive at the surface of the water were 896 sailors. The movie mentions there were 902 men remaining, so there’s a bit of a discrepancy here, but we also have some conflicting reports throughout history—although most agree the number was 896.

But remember, the only way we know who survived are from counting those who eventually survived. The only way we’d know how many went down with the ship would be to subtract those who survived from those who didn’t.

There’s no way to really know how many survived the initial blasts but didn’t survive the entire ordeal. For that, we have to rely solely on the reports of the survivors after they were rescued. While I’m not saying they can’t be trusted, after Indianapolis went down and the rest of the sailors were scattered for miles around, I highly doubt their first order of priority was taking roll call.

Then again, we have some pretty specific numbers and it’s not like they had much else to do as they tried to survive. So maybe they did.

Anyway, the point here is that there’s some leeway we’ll have to give since we have conflicting reports.

In either case, we know most of the sailors survived the initial blast.

Most of what we see in the movie during the next couple of days rely solely on the testimony of the survivors. Just like the discrepancy with the numbers, there’s no way to prove or disprove any of it.

With that said, it’s pretty safe to say that while the dialog and specifics of what we see in the film were made up, the truth had to have been fairly close—if only much more terrifying.

We know there were shark attacks. According to one survivor, the attacks started the morning after Indianapolis sank. Like the movie shows, all it took was one sailor to be attacked for there to be the scent of blood in the water.

The men were in open water, trying to stay afloat by hanging onto any debris or, if they’re lucky, in a raft. But there weren’t enough rafts for everyone. Those who weren’t in rafts were nearly helpless to fight back.

Another survivor would comment the only means of fighting back they had was to kick at the shark when it got close.

That didn’t work for everyone.

Oh, and there’s one scene where one of the officers pulls out a gun and orders any able-bodied men to join him as they head off to an island they saw.

According to one of the survivors, that actually happened. Well, we don’t know if he pulled a gun on his fellow sailors, but we know there was a group that left the group to head toward an island. No one ever heard from them again.

Like the movie says, the men had a few meager supplies that had floated to the surface after Indianapolis sank. The average human needs at least a pound of food per day, not to mention the water. And that’s just to barely survive.

We don’t know how many supplies there were, but with over 800 men that’d mean there’d need to be literally tons of food and water to survive for very long.

Most of the supplies sank with Indianapolis.

The average human can survive about three days without water.

Remember this was the dead of summer in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where the average temperature back then would be around 90° F, or about 32° C.

Heat. Hunger. Dehydration. If the sharks didn’t kill the men, one of those three did.

In the movie, there’s a glimmer of hope when a man named Lieutenant Chuck Gwinn, who’s played by Max Ryan, accidentally notices the stranded men. The movie shows it happening when the radio operator on Lt. Gwinn’s plane has issues and he goes to the back of the plane to try to fix the antenna.

We don’t know if it happened exactly like we saw in the film, but the major plot points are correct. Lieutenant Chuck Gwinn and his co-pilot, Lieutenant Warren Colwell, were on a routine patrol when, at about 10:25 AM on August 2nd, 1945 they happened to notice the men in the water.

They radioed it back, and Lieutenant Adrian Marks was ordered to fly his PBY to help the stranded men. The airplane we saw Lieutenant Marks flying was a PBY, essentially a plane that could land in the water.

Oh, and Lt. Marks in the movie is played by Thomas Jane.

The movie doesn’t show this, but as the real Lt. Marks was flying to where he was told there were men in the water, he flew over a destroyer escort named USS Cecil J. Doyle. He radioed the captain of the Cecil J. Doyle, a man named W. Graham Claytor, Jr., and let him know where he was going.

The ship was much slower than the plane, but immediately upon hearing of those in the water Captain Claytor made the decision to abandon his orders and follow Lt. Marks to lend assistance.

In the movie, when Lt. Marks circles he sees the men are in dire shape. He defies his orders and lands his plane in the open ocean.

That’s true.

Lt. Marks was dropping supplies for the stranded men when he saw sharks attacking the men right before his eyes. It was then that he disobeyed the standing orders to never land his plane in the open ocean and did exactly that.

It was then that Lt. Marks learned the men were from Indianapolis. This he relayed back to Captain Claytor, who passed it on.

Meanwhile, just like the movie shows, Lt. Marks was determined to get the men out of the water so they wouldn’t be attacked by sharks.

In the movie, you see the PBY plane start sinking.

That didn’t happen right away like the movie implies.

In truth, Lt. Marks picked up so many men, they had to start lying on the wings of the plane. Many of them were too weak to keep from slipping off, so Lt. Marks used parachute cords to tie the men to the wings. The weight of the men was too much for the wings, though, and caused permanent damage. The plane didn’t sink, but it also couldn’t fly anymore. So after USS Cecil J. Doyle came to help pick up the men, the plane had to be scuttled.

The movie doesn’t really show much of the sailor’s rescue from the water. All we see are some ships coming and Nick Cage’s voiceover listing off their names: Bassett, Ringness, Talbot, Register, Dulfiho and Cecil J. Doyle.

That’s true, although as you might’ve guessed, thanks to Captain Claytor’s quick reaction and decision to abandon his current orders to follow Lt. Marks, it was Cecil J. Doyle who made it to the survivors’ location first. When she got there, Captain Claytor had to go incredibly slow and eventually stop out of fear the ship would hit survivors in the water.

Once stopped, the men from Lt. Marks’ PBY were pulled onboard, and they began pulling more men over. Captain Claytor then ordered the largest search light they had be pointed straight in the sky as a beacon for the other ships.

The other ships ordered to help with the rescue, as the movie correctly names, were the destroyer escorts Dulfiho, Basset and Ringness along with the destroyer Ralph Talbot. The movie doesn’t mention it, but two other destroyers who joined the rescue were Helm and Madison for a total of seven ships helping pull survivors from the ocean.

So we haven’t talked much about the timing since the men were first discovered, but it was August 2nd when Lt. Gwinn first saw the scattered men. That same day, Lt. Marks was able to save some men when he landed his PBY nearby. It was shortly after midnight on August 3rd when Cecil J. Doyle showed up, carefully navigating near Lt. Marks’ PBY to rescue the men strapped to the wings.

Over the next few days, the remaining ships arrived and helped with the rescue effort until August 8th, when it was deemed that everyone that survived had been rescued.

While the numbers vary slightly depending on the source, some estimated numbers say that of the 1,198 men who were on Indianapolis, 317 were rescued.

Remember how many were estimated to survive the initial blasts? 896. 317 survived.

That’s 579 who managed to escape Indianapolis only to die in the open ocean. Most estimate about 150 of these were killed by sharks, but realistically, there’s no way to know for sure.

In the movie, the next scene we see is when the news is delivered to the Capitol building in Washington DC.

This scene never happened, but it’s purpose is only to let us, the viewers, know that 317 men survived. But it’s here, in the movie, we find that politicians want to bury the news in something positive.

Sadly, this is true. We already learned about the numbers, but it would seem the U.S. government wanted to cover up this disaster—one that is officially the worst maritime disaster in the history of the U.S. Navy.

The tragedy in the movie doesn’t end with the men who didn’t survive the sinking of the ship. Nick Cage’s character, Captain McVay, is tormented after the events on board Indianapolis and in the ocean afterward.

Then Captain McVay gets called to a trial for failure to zig-zag. One of the witnesses is the captain of I-58, the Japanese submarine who sank Indianapolis.

The specific conversations, of course, were made up for the film, but sadly, this is all true.

Journalist Malcolm Johnson was a Navy-accredited war correspondent in the Pacific for the North American Newspaper Alliance during the war. After Captain McVay was put on trial in early December, 1945, he wrote a very eye-opening article.

 

New York, Dec. 29—This concerns a Japanese submarine commander’s testimony at the recent court-martial of Captain McVay in the sinking of the cruiser Indianapolis. In my opinion, the spectacle of an enemy alien testifying against an American naval officer is a national disgrace, an insult to the American people.

I believe that the Navy’s motives in permitting such a shameful thing are certainly open to question. What is the Navy trying to hide? Is it trying to make Captain McVay a scapegoat? Is this part of a studied attempt to distract attention from some embarrassing questions which might point to dereliction elsewhere in connection with the sinking of the Indianapolis?

I was among the first to interview Captain McVay and other survivors of the Indianapolis who were rescued after four nightmarish days in the open sea, many of them without rafts or even life jackets. This was at Peleliu in the Palau Islands, in August, immediately after the rescue had been effected, some 10 days before the Navy saw fit to release news of the disaster.

 

Navy Sabotaged Story

To obtain that story (later sabotaged by the Navy), correspondents had flown to Peleliu from Guam. The sight of that pitiful handful of survivors, all suffering from the effects of their frightful experience, many of them in no condition to talk, is still fresh in my memory. As is known now, the Indianapolis sustained 100 percent casualties, dead, injured and missing. There were only 315 known survivors of the ship’s complement of 1,198 men.

In the hospital at Peleliu we talked with Captain McVay for the better part of an afternoon. He told a vivid story, describing in detail the terrific explosion which sent the proud Indianapolis to the bottom in 15 minutes and the horrors of the ensuing days in the open sea. Aware that there would be a court inquiry into the sinking, Captain McVay had the forethought to have a stenographer present at the interview. The transcript of his statement that day, together with the many pointed questions put to him by the correspondents, should make good reading.

 

Search Delay Questioned

It soon developed that although the Indianapolis was long overdue at her destination in Leyte gulf, no search was instituted for her and presumably no inquiry was made as to her whereabouts. Then, as now, this was the big mystery concerning the Indianapolis. Why, we asked Captain McVay that day, was no search begun?

The captain’s reply was firm, emphatic and to the point. “That,” he said—and there was more than a trace of indignation in his voice—”is my $64 question, and I intend to ask it.” He left no doubt that in his opinion, a search should have been instituted within 24 hours after the Indianapolis was overdue.

He told us that he was due in Leyte gulf at 11 AM on Tuesday, July 31, and that, furthermore, he had asked for target planes to meet his ship at 8 AM on that day to provide sleeve practice for his gunners.

Presumably those planes went to the rendezvous and saw that the Indianapolis was missing. Yet, so far as is known, no inquiry was then made about her! So far as the public knows, the Navy to this day has not yet answered that “$64 question” of Captain McVay’s. Why?

 

Discovery is Delayed

Captain McVay told us that when his damage-control officer first recommended that he give the order to abandon ship he, the captain, had demurred. The ship at the moment was on a fairly even keel, he said, and he wanted to find out, if possible, the extent of the damage. This, he said, was within a very few minutes after the explosion. A few minutes later, however, on the advice of his executive officer, Captain McVay said that he did give the order to abandon ship. But the ship’s intercommunication system had been knocked out and it was necessary to pass this order along by word of mouth.

Returning to Guam, the correspondents prepared their stories, all inquiring extensively why no search had been made for the ship, and all pointing out that the first survivors were sighted, quite by accident, by a Navy plane on a routine flight. This was on August 2, and the first survivors were picked up by a destroyer early the following morning.

 

Washington Takes Over

In my opinion, the peculiar manner in which the Navy finally released the Indianapolis story is certainly open to question. Through official channels Guam asked the Navy department in Washington whether the stories could be released from Guam, if and when Washington gave the word. No, Washington replied, the copy would have to be sent to Washington. The correspondents prepared their stories accordingly, and in due time these were en route to Washington by air.

Then came VJ Day. Almost simultaneously with President Truman’s announcement of Japan’s capitulation, the Navy department in Washington suddenly released the Indianapolis story, to the utter astonishment of the correspondents involved and even of high Navy officials at Guam. The correspondents protested bitterly, but to no avail. Even Guam protested, pointing out that the stories were even then en route to Washington. Couldn’t the release be held up until the stories could reach Washington? The reply was cryptic. “Sorry,” Washington said, “but we can’t possibly hold up the story.”

 

Story is Overshadowed

As a consequence, it was necessary to intercept the mail planes, retrieve the copy and fly it back to Guam. The story was being released at 11 AM that day (Guam time), PM the previous night in New York. Now most of the correspondents, myself included, were packed and ready to embark for Japan that day. In fact, the trucks were loaded and waiting to take us to our ships when word reached us that the Navy was releasing the Indianapolis story. Thus, for many of us, there was no time to revise our copy, or to do anything about it. As a result, most of that copy never saw the light of day.

Well, was all this accidental on the part of the Navy? I do not believe so. The Navy released that story on VJ Day, of all days, knowing full well that by doing so, the newspapers, full of surrender news, would not be able to give it the prominence it deserved.

In my opinion, the Navy deliberately sabotaged the efforts of the correspondents to get the complete, detailed story to their newspapers. Had the war not ended suddenly, I venture to say that the story of the sinking of the Indianapolis would still be on ice in Washington.

 

 

You probably noticed the different numbers reported in the article than what we’ve talked about here. If anything, that shows there have always been some conflicting reports about the details surrounding Indianapolis.

But the majority of Malcolm Johnson’s article seems to tell a story of cover-up by the U.S. Navy. Oh, and the transcript Malcolm mentions? As far as I can tell, it’s never been released publicly by the Navy.

 

Maybe it’s a conspiracy. Or maybe there’s something to Malcolm Johnson’s theories.

Let’s look at a few of the facts.

On July 24th, mere days before Indianapolis was sunk, a destroyer escort named USS Underhill was sunk by a Japanese submarine along the same path Indianapolis was to take. Captain McVay was never told about this until after the fact.

Naval intelligence had even broken Japanese codes that named I-58 as a submarine operating in the area. Captain McVay was never told.

Throughout the entire duration of World War II, there was only one U.S. military ship without anti-submarine detection devices that was ordered to go from Guam to the Philippines without a destroyer escort. You guessed it: Indianapolis.

Captain McVay asked for a destroyer escort, but he was denied.

On December 19th, 1945, Charles McVay was found guilty of hazarding his vessel by failing to zig-zag. As the movie shows, he was found not guilty of sounding a timely order to abandon ship. Still, the guilty verdict effectively brought an end to his military career.

One of the last scenes in the movie shows Nick Cage’s version of Captain McVay lay his wife to rest. Then, we see a scene with him in his home. There’s a pistol. The camera cuts to a view from outside of his house, then we hear a single gunshot.

These events are true.

Charles McVay received death threats through letters and phone calls to his home for—well, we don’t really know how long because he chose not to let anyone know how bad things were for him. To give you an idea of the sort of bitterness Charles had to live with, we know of one letter Charles received around Christmas in 1945 from the family of a crewmember who didn’t survive Indianapolis. It read: “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son.”

Can you imagine? The horrible guilt he already must’ve felt, only to receive letters like that.

After the sinking of Indianapolis, Charles didn’t leave the Navy right away, instead he quietly spent the rest of his career in the New Orleans Naval District. Four years later, in 1949, he retired from the Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral.

Then his wife got cancer and passed away just a few years after they moved to the small town of Litchfield, Connecticut.

Without his wife’s support, the guilt was too much. Using his service pistol, he committed suicide on November 6th, 1968. His body was found in his front yard later by his gardener. In one hand was his pistol. In the other, a toy sailor he was given as a good luck charm as a child.

In October of the year 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a resolution exonerating Charles McVay for the loss of USS Indianapolis. A few months later, in July of 2001, the Secretary of the Navy, Gordon R. England, ordered Charles McVay’s official Navy record to be purged of all wrongdoing.

Share:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on reddit
Reddit
Share on email
Email
Go behind the podcast

Stay updated

with the weekly newsletter

Get notified about what’s new and what’s upcoming for the podcast.

Latest episode