Military, WW2

The Tragic Story of the USS Indianapolis

The USS Indianapolis was on a secret mission to transport atomic bomb components to the isle of Tinian in late July 1945. Weeks before the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb that laid the industrial port city of Hiroshima to waste. Just before the Japanese unconditionally surrendered. After the ship offloaded the weapon, the next stop would be Leyte near the Philippines. The preparation for a possible land invasion on Japan would begin.

On its way to Leyte, the ship was hit by two Japanese torpedoes from submarine I-58. The hit would be fatal for the ship. For the 900 men that survived the initial torpedo hit and subsequent explosion, more would perish from the shark infested waters where the ship sank in twelve minutes.

When the men were rescued, only 316 survived. In total, 879 men lost their lives from the initial explosion and shark infested waters. More would lose their lives from malnutrition, injuries, and other illnesses.

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Despite the bravery of Captain Charles B. McVay III, he would be placed under a court-martial for the disaster. The survivors also came in support of their commander, agreeing that he did nothing wrong and did everything in his power when the ship was hit. Captain McVay would be cleared of any wrongdoing in 2001. However, he took his own life after years of dealing with the guilt and shame in 1968.

The Fateful Mission

The secret mission, as Ensign Harlan Twible recalled, had dozens of “brass” or high Navy leaders, entering the ship when docked in Tinian on July 26th. Ensign Twible and the other men on board the “Indy” had no idea what the cargo was and its ultimate power. The ship had components of the atomic bomb, destined to be built and used on Japan to end the war. The bomb’s components were for the Little Boy bomb that would be destined for Hiroshima. This was bombed weeks later on a sunny August day.

USS Indianapolis
The USS Indianapolis in 1944. The dazzle camouflage pattern was supposed to help the ship from submarine attack.

The Indianapolis was led by Captain Charles B. McVay III, who served valiantly during the war as the Executive Officer of the USS Cleveland as he led the North African and the Solomon Islands campaigns in 1942 and 1943. McVay took command of the ill-fated Indianapolis in 1944, overseeing invasions on Iwo Jima and Tokyo.

Shortly after the ship was hit by kamikaze bombers. During the refitting in California, the ship was given its secret mission. The atomic bomb’s parts for the B-29s on Tinian. The ship left California on July 10th, bound with its precious cargo.

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On July 26th, the Indianapolis dropped the bomb parts off on Tinian. It then sailed off for Leyte after joining with other ships destined to Leyte from Guam. The transport began on July 29th, but the ship sailed alone. This made it vulnerable to an attack from a Japanese submarine below the sea.

The early morning hours of July 30th would shock the men on board.       

The Fatal Hit

 The Japanese submarine I-58 received sounds of a nearby ship that was American. Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto gave the greenlight to fire six torpedoes on the Indianapolis. Two would hit the ship at around 00:05, and suddenly the men only had about twelve minutes before the ship sank. The bow and powder machine exploded, leading to a gaping hole that exacerbated a quick sinking.

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Amidst the chaos, Ensign Twible saw no leader calling the shots as the men frantically looked to find an “abandon ship” call. With the men surrounding him, he gave the immediate call to abandon the sinking ship fast, and most men followed suit with about 900 men on the seas once the ship went under the Pacific Ocean. The remnants of the men who died in the explosion floated on the sea’s surface.

Japanese submarine I-58
The Japanese submarine I-58 that sank the USS Indianapolis.

During the crisis, Captain McVay, after realizing that any attempts to save the ship were in vain, attempted to send distress calls to other U.S. ships and command centres. By 00:12, the recommendation to abandon ship was called. McVay would be swept to the sea by the sudden listing, and was able to use a life raft with a few other sailors. He would lead his men through the days and nights before rescue.

When the USS Indianapolis finally went down, the men were grouped together in the moonlit night. Dozens of floating sailors were found dead or began to group together. Eventually, sharks would come soon to pick off the carcasses of the dead sailors from the USS Indianapolis.

Surviving the Seas

Ensign Twible led his men to group together against any shark attack as the days and nights passed. Once a sailor was dead, they would be thrown aside from the group to ensure that the survivors would not be reminded of a possible fate that could befall on them at any moment. By the fourth day at sea, many of the survivors began to lose hope of survival.

USS Indianapolis
Some of the 316 survivors of the USS Indianapolis at Guam in August 1945

 In an interview with the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Twible recalled that “My fear was really for the men, not for myself. My biggest concern was that the people we could save, we saved them.”

The Sharks Arrive

With the risks of sharks picking away at sailors drifting away from groups, Twible recommended “shark watches” to keep the men energized and alert for any shark attack. By the time of the rescue, Twible’s group had been gnawed away by the sharks. No exact estimate has been given to the number of men that died from the shark attacks.

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Four days and five nights the men dealt with the fear of death coming at any second. Suddenly, a U.S. Navy PBY seaplane saw the floating sailors and gave an immediate call to provide any assistance as soon as possible. The seaplane under the leadership of Lt. Adrian Marks would drop water rafts and taxi the plane to pick up any of the survivors despite the orders to not taxi. 56 men would be rescued by Marks’ quick thinking.

One of the first ships to answer the distress call after Marks’ first rescue was the USS Cecil Doyle. This was one of the eleven ships that came to the rescue. By August 4th, the men would soon head for hospitals for quick recoveries.


The 316 men that survived the ordeal were saved swiftly; in the case of the USS Alvin C. Cockrell, it arrived at 0600 on August 4th; others arrived at the scene as early as August 2nd after the oil slick had been detected by close ships and the previously mentioned seaplane.

The survivors were safely transported to nearby military hospitals in Leyte, Guam, and the Philippines. Here they’d recuperate from the tragedy, only two days before the bombing of Hiroshima and a few weeks before Imperial Japan finally surrendered, ending World War II.

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For the survivors, many were given the Purple Heart for their survival and contributions for the war effort. With the war now over after Japan’s surrender, the Navy halted any mention of the disaster to not shock the American public after victory was achieved in four long years.

For Captain McVay, his ordeal would continue with a court-martial for negligence leading to the USS Indianapolis sinking. While the court-martial marked the end of his naval career, it did leave rumours of him being the fall guy for the disaster. The public had an uproar with the “Indy” disaster, and would pummel McVay for it until he took his own life decades later.

Captain McVay is Court-Martialled

Captain McVay would be the only military leader to be court-martialled for losing his ship to the enemy. A trial was called for September 1945, with the commander of the I-58, Mochitsura Hashimoto. He believed that if McVay called for a zigzag procedure, it would have not saved the “Indy” from sinking.

Mochitsura Hashimoto
Lt.Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto gave evidence at the court-martial of McVay

Since the ship sank so quickly, the Navy could not charge McVay for not abandoning the ship in a timely manner. McVay’s admission to not zigzagging, or steering in diagonal lines, was the only possibility of a conviction.

Admiral Chester Nimitz only saw a letter of reprimand justifiable for McVay as it was only “an error in judgment.” Admiral Ernest King and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal disagreed and placed a charge for court-martial. Forrestal would eventually rescind his decision with the lacking evidence to prove McVay had any wrongdoing.

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Nevertheless, after Hashimoto’s testimony, it did not deter families of the victims and other Americans enraged by the naval disaster to send out “hate mail”, as survivor Granville Crane, Jr. noted, to Captain McVay. To note, most of these letters were sent to the outcasted Captain on Christmas, a heavy blow to his psyche.

Captain McVay would continue to serve in the U.S. Navy until 1949, when he retired as a Rear Admiral. His reputation tarnished, he would commit suicide on 1968 with a toy soldier in his hand and in full uniform.

Captain McVay is Vindicated

The survivors would fight for decades after McVay’s suicide to clear their captain’s smeared name. Ensign Twible recalled when McVay was court-martialed, “Once the captain was court-martialed, my first thought was, ‘How can we get these guys for doing this?’”

Captain McVay would be vindicated in 2001 after a resolution was passed by President Bill Clinton that pardoned Captain McVay of any wrongdoing that led to the Indianapolis disaster. The myth of McVay becoming the “fall guy” for the disaster has been disproven by not only a lack of evidence, but because of the unique situation that came to McVay, there was little evidence to place a serious conviction except halting any promotion.

Captain Charles McVay
Captain Charles McVay would be placed under a court-martial for the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

In the end, Captain McVay became an unfortunate pariah at a time when the war was nearing its climax. An article from the U.S. Naval Institute written by Ensign Samuel Paparo titled “Lessons in Accountability: Charles McVay and the USS Indianapolis” argued that the accountability standard was unique to McVay’s case, and was not seen in other instances of commanding officers losing their ships.

In the case of the USS Indianapolis, Captain McVay did everything in his power to hold accountability in the disaster and while the men were surviving on the seas. Besides any legal arguments, Ensign Paparo argued that there is no moral responsibility that Captain McVay had over the disaster. He mentioned that the Captain did lead his men. In the end of the article, Paparo dutifully noted that the Navy should have not held any selective judgment over leaders in extreme circumstances.

The Story Lives On    

Dozens of films and books have mentioned about the harrowing survival of the 316 men and the disaster. In the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic Jaws, the hardened Quint, played by Robert Shaw, recalls the sharks that ate his fellow men with “those black eyes” and the high pitched squealing as the Pacific sea turned red.

In 2016, the film USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage was released, starring Nicolas Cage as Captain Charles B McVay III and Tom Sizemore as Chief Petty Officer McWhorter. Film consensus argued the film was unwatchable with it not fatefully showing the harrowing story. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 17% and iMDB rating it a 5.3 out of 10.

Men of Courage poster
The poster for USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage. The film was a flop.

A year later in 2017, the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis was found. A full 72 years after the ship was lost at sea. Previous attempts had failed to find the wreck. This time, the effort was helped by a R/V Petrel that could dive deep into the range of 6,000 meters. The wreck was found at 18,000 feet or 5.5 kilometres. This new discovery came after two Axis warships, the Japanese Musashi and Italian Artigliere, were found under the tutelage of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. He marked the discovery of the Indianapolis, as he told the BBC, “truly humbling.”

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In 2018, a luncheon was held in Indianapolis, the namesake city of the lost cruiser. It recognized the surviving men with a few words from historians and certificates of appreciation from the U.S. Navy.

 As of March 2023, only one survivor of the 316 men that survived lives on. His name is Harold John Bray, Jr., who served as a Seaman 2C.