- Historic Sites
The Agony Of The Indianapolis
She was the last major American warship sunk during World War II, and her sinking was the single worst open-sea disaster in our naval history. How could it have happened?
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
On July 16, 1945, the heavy cruiser Indianapolis departed the California coast for the Pacific island of Tinian. On board was a heavily guarded top-secret cargo destined to end the war. Only hours before the Indianapolis began her high-speed journey, the first successful atomic detonation had ushered in the nuclear age. The cruiser itself carried vital elements of the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima. Even Captain Charles B. McVay III, in command since November 1944, did not know the contents of his mysterious shipment. He had been assured, however, that every hour he cut from travel time would shorten the war. Captain McVay took this admonition seriously, and the vessel made the five-thousand-mile voyage in only ten days.
After delivering her lethal cargo to the American base at Tinian on July 26, the Indianapolis proceeded to Guam and prepared for the final leg of her voyage across the Pacific to the Philippine island of Leyte. There the ship was to complete two weeks of training in preparation for joining Naval Task Force 95 at Okinawa, where plans were under way for the expected invasion of Honshū in November of 1945.
While at Guam, Captain McVay inquired about an escort for his ship to the Philippines; naval headquarters replied that none was needed. The response was not considered unusual: the Indianapolis was a fast cruiser and had traveled alone before; she would be sailing through a rear area where danger was considered minimal; and in any event, escort vessels were scarce, due to heavy kamikaze attacks at Okinawa and the extensive preparations for the invasion of Japan. On the other hand, the cruiser had no sonar gear to detect enemy submarines; she had to rely solely on radar and lookouts. And during a recent inspection, Admiral Raymond Spruance had warned that were the ship torpedoed, her “topheaviness” would make her “sink in short order.” The Indianapolis left Guam on July 28. She was due to dock at Leyte July 31.
On Sunday evening, July 29, the Indianapolis was traveling at seventeen knots through the Philippine Sea, thirty-nine hours out of Guam. The day had been overcast, and by evening the sea had become rough. Just before 8:00 P.M. Captain McVay instructed the officer of the deck, Lieutenant Charles B. McKissick, to cease the zigzag course the ship was maintaining, because of poor visibility. Although zigzagging was of dubious value—many submariners claimed a ship could be sunk despite it—standing fleet orders specified that a ship should zigzag during good visibility. Usually, zigzagging ended at twilight “except on clear nights and in bright moonlight.” Lieutenant McKissick thought nothing unusual of the captain’s order; he too believed visibility was limited. When Mc Vay retired to his emergency bunk twenty feet from the bridge at 11:00 P.M. , he noted that visibility was still poor despite the moonrise. Nevertheless, he issued orders that officers could resume zigzagging at their own discretion and were to wake him if there were any weather changes.
Aboard the Indianapolis that torrid Sunday evening, most crew members slept on deck. Commissioned in 1932, the cruiser originally had been intended for service in the Atlantic. Therefore, the ship did not have air conditioning as did other vessels in the Pacific, and many crew members preferred a hammock or blanket above deck to their sweltering quarters below.
By 11:30 P.M. individual watches began to change throughout the ship, some men heading above deck or below, some making for the showers before turning in. Commander Stanley W. Lipski replaced Lieutenant McKissick as officer of the deck. The cruiser sailed on into the night on true course, with more than one hundred men on watch, while officers on the bridge remarked on the lack of visibility.
That same Sunday evening Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, skipper of the Japanese submarine I-58, decided visibility had so deteriorated by 7:00 P.M. that his vessel could not continue on the surface. Hoping for improved conditions at moonrise, Hashimoto raised his periscope at 10:00 P.M. , but his view “was pitch black,” and the Japanese commander, like his American counterpart, retired to his bunk for a nap. Returning to the conning tower at 11:00 P.M. , Hashimoto found the visibility improved; in his own words he “could almost see the horizon.” Ordering the 1-58 to surface and bringing his crew to battle stations, the Japanese skipper made for the bridge just in time to hear his navigator exclaim, “Bearing red 9-0 degrees, a possible enemy ship. ” Despite the heavily overcast sky, Hashimoto could see the black spot on the horizon silhouetted by one of the intermittent rays of moonlight. The Japanese immediately ordered his vessel to dive.KeepKeeping close watch on his target through the periscope, Commander Hashimoto ordered torpedo tubes and his one-man human torpedoes, called kaitens , readied for firing. The time was 11:08 P.M.