“Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man” by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic; Simon & Schuster (592 pages, $28).
Published in July of 2018, Indianapolis by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic is an in-depth true account of the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the court-martialing of Captain Charles B. McVay III, and the decades long legal battle to clear his name. The sinking of Indianapolis resulted in the greatest loss of life at sea from a single ship in the history of the US Navy. Of 1,195 crew, only 316 survived, including Captain McVay.
Indianapolis departed San Francisco’s Hunters Point Naval Shipyard on July 16, 1945 on a top-secret mission of utmost significance to national security: to proceed to Tinian island carrying about half of the world’s supply of uranium-235 as well as other parts required for the assembly of the infamous atomic bomb codenamed Little Boy, which would be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan a few weeks later. Indianapolis set a speed record of 74.5 hours from San Francisco to Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, averaging 33 miles an hour. Indianapolis arrived at Pearl Harbor on July 19th, then raced on to deliver the atomic bomb components to Tinian island on July 26th. Indianapolis next went to Guam, where crew who had completed their tours of duty were relieved. Leaving Guam on July 28th, the ship began sailing toward Leyte, where its crew was to train before joining Vice Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf’s Task Force 95.
At 12:15 a.m. on July 30th, the Indianapolis was torpedoed twice by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58, sinking within 12 minutes. Of its 1,195 sailors, approximately 300 went down with the ship. The remaining 890 faced the hardships of exposure, dehydration, saltwater poisoning, and shark attacks while stranded in the open ocean with few lifeboats and almost no food or water. The US Navy learned of the sinking four days later, when survivors were spotted by the crew of a PV-1 Ventura on routine patrol. In total, only 316 sailors had survived, little over a fourth of the crew.
In November 1945, Captain Charles B. McVay III, who had commanded Indianapolis through several battles, was court-martialed on two charges: failing to order his men to abandon ship and hazarding the ship. Cleared of the charge of failing to order abandon ship, as he was one of the last to leave it, McVay was successfully convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag”. Several aspects of the court-martial were controversial. There was evidence that the US Navy itself had placed the ship in harm’s way. McVay’s orders were to “zigzag at his discretion, weather permitting” but McVay had not been informed that a Japanese submarine was operating in the vicinity of his route to Leyte. Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, the commanding officer of I-58, testified that zigzagging would have made no difference. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz remitted McVay’s sentence and restored him to active duty. McVay retired in 1949 as a rear admiral.
Many of Indianapolis‘s survivors didn’t blame McVay for the ship’s sinking, but some families of men who died felt otherwise. “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son” read one letter. The guilt placed on him mounted until he died by suicide in 1968, using his Navy-issued revolver. McVay was found in his front lawn by his gardener with a toy sailor in one hand, and his revolver in the other. He was 70 years old.
In 1996, a sixth-grader by the name of Hunter Scott began his research on the Indianapolis’s sinking for a class history project, stirring public interest in the process as well as catching the attention of certain officials, including Senator John Warner III (R/VA). This culminated in Congress passing a resolution that Captain McVay’s record should state that “he is exonerated for the loss of Indianapolis.” President Bill Clinton signed the resolution in October 2000. The resolution noted that, although several hundred ships of the US Navy were lost in combat during World War II, McVay was the only captain court-martialed for the loss of his ship. In July 2001, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England directed Captain Toti to enter the Congressional language into McVay’s official Navy service record, clearing him of all wrongdoing.
Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic’s Indianapolis is an emotional and informative retelling of the tragic sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the injustices that followed for its captain, and the eventual clearing of his name in far more detail than I could hope to capture here. I highly recommend the book for history fans, Navy fans, and aspiring lawyers alike.
Lynn Vincent is an American writer, journalist, and author or co-author of 12 books. Her work focuses on memoirs, history, and narrative nonfiction. She also wrote a 2001 book called The Military Advantage which focuses on how one can best take advantage of a military career. Sara Vladic is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker and one of the world’s leading experts on the USS Indianapolis, having met and interviewed 108 of the ship’s survivors.
Donavon Anderson is a reference library assistant at May Memorial Library. He can be reached at email@example.com.