Last week a search team found the final resting place of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Her remains lie at the bottom of the Philippine Sea, more than 3 miles below the surface. A sad reminder of the greatest loss of life from the sinking of a single ship in the history of the U.S. Navy, and a mournful coda to a narrative of sacrifice, bad luck, misjudgment, dereliction of duty, and tragic unfairness.
The story has been told before, so I’ll be brief. The Indy, as her crew knew her, was a heavy cruiser that had just delivered to Tinian components of the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima. Her captain, Capt. Charles McVay, took her to Guam for replacement of some of the crew, then headed her for the Philippines. Two days later, just minutes after midnight, a Japanese submarine fired two torpedoes into her flank, and she sank within minutes. Some 300 men went down with her, while about 900 were left floundering in the sea.
Procedures were in place to monitor the status of ships. Had the procedures worked in this case, higher command would have known quickly of the Indy’s loss. If radio signals weren’t received, at least the command would have known when the ship failed to arrive at its destination on time. No one noticed. Later, a handful of low- to mid-level commanders and staff officers were given relatively minor punishments for dereliction of duty that had led to massive loss of lives that could have been saved, had rescue teams been dispatched quickly.
A scattering of life rafts could not support the roughly nine hundred men in the water, and many did not even have life jackets. They helped each other as much as possible, and when a man died, his life jacket went to someone who didn’t have one. Bits of wreckage served as makeshift floats for some, but many had to keep treading water until they either could claim the life jacket of the dead or until they gave up and slipped beneath the surface.
Men suffered from sunburn, consumption of oil from the surface, fever, and hallucinations brought on by all of this and sometimes from drinking sea water. Some thought they could see their ship, still whole, not far below the surface, and they wanted to go down and board her and drink cold water from her fountains. Some tried it. As if all these horrors were not more than enough, the sharks came. Their dorsal fins could be seen as they circled the area, and at night men felt the beasts bump their legs. Some men were killed by the sharks, but the animals soon seemed to concentrate more on the dead bodies floating among them than on the living.
It was only by sheer luck that an air crew spotted large numbers of men in the vastness of the Philippine Sea after their four days of unimaginable horror and pain in the water. A frantic rescue effort was launched. When it was over, 317 men of the original approximately 1,200 had survived.
In the course of World War II, the Navy lost scores of ships in combat. No ship’s captain was ever court-martialed for losing his ship. Until Captain McVay. Not only was he tried, but the Navy, in another unprecedented move, brought the former enemy Japanese submarine commander over to testify against him, in an effort to prove that McVay, by not zig-zagging, had doomed his ship. The Japanese commander testified that zig-zagging would have made no difference. He had been in position to sink the Indy regardless. But the court-martial still found McVay guilty. The highest levels of the Navy, whom one might presume to have shared any guilt if guilt there was, only sat in judgment.
To its credit, the Navy high command later set aside the court’s finding. Captain McVay continued to serve and was eventually even promoted to admiral. But command is a special gift, sought after by those who are drawn to its demands and rewards, granted to the fortunate few. An accusation of having lost lives through negligence, carelessness, or incompetence in command has to be incredibly devastating to any commander. At long last, retired Admiral McVay went out on his front lawn and shot himself to death, joining in spirit the many lost in the Philippine Sea in July, 1945, and the bones of the Indianapolis, waiting in her watery grave.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”