- 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
Sailors now saw their shipmates as the enemy returned to finish the kill. Fights broke out, and more than one man was stabbed.
The crewmen of the rescue vessels did all in their power to ease the suffering of the survivors. Many rescuers leaped into the water to retrieve those too weak to move or those who had left their rafts and were floundering toward the rescue craft. For many the rescue vessels were just another fantasy. Men from the U.S.S. Bassett came upon one sailor riding a pyramid of cork rings and told the seaman to come aboard. “No thanks,” he replied. “I’m waiting for a friend to come by.”
By Friday afternoon Captain McVay and those who had spent the ordeal on life rafts were picked up, and the three hundred and eighteen crew members of the Indianapolis still alive were aboard vessels bound for Leyte and Peleliu. Later, two who survived the ordeal in the water died in Navy hospitals.
Aboard the rescue ships the survivors were carefully showered and then carried to bunks and spoon-fed as much fluid as they could tolerate. One survivor remembers the water given to them as tasting “so sweet … the sweetest thing in your life.” But while those who had been plucked from the edge of death were resting and beginning their long recuperation, everywhere the bodies of those who had not survived floated face-down in the water. As he held a dead man in his arms, one young seaman broke down. “We’re sorry, Mac,” he sobbed. “If we had’ve know you were out here like this, we would’ve come sooner.”
How could the Navy not have known? This question haunted all of those immediately affected by the tragedy. It seemed impossible that an overdue warship would not be missed and never looked for. Yet the impossible had happened. Within hours of learning of the sinking, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered a court of inquiry to investigate the tragedy. On August 13, 1945, the court convened.
A week earlier the Enola Gay had dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and only then did the crew members of the Indianapolis learn the nature of their secret shipment to Tinian. While recovering from their experience, the survivors were individually interviewed to determine the sequence of events surrounding the sinking. An air of secrecy covered the proceedings: medical personnel were warned not to divulge any details of their patients’ ordeal. Wartime censorship was still in effect, and the Navy did not immediately release news of the sinking. But with the war’s end in sight, it was held especially crucial to determine who, if anyone, was responsible for the tragedy. The American public would soon learn of the sinking and would demand an explanation.
The court of inquiry met from August 13 to 20, 1945, interviewing Captain McVay and nineteen other officers and enlisted men. Other “interested parties” were questioned as well, among them Leyte’s port director and various operations officers. The court’s primary concern was determining why the cruiser had not been missed for four days.
On Tuesday evening, August 16, President Harry S. Truman announced Japan’s unconditional surrender; that same evening the Navy finally released a twenty-five-word communiqué stating that the Indianapolis had been lost to enemy action. The newspapers of August 17, 1945, heralded the news of Japan’s surrender, but the bottom of page one in The New York Times contained an article describing the greatest sea disaster in U.S. naval history: “Cruiser Sunk, 1,196 Casualties.”
While Americans celebrated V-J Day, hundreds of families received word that a son or husband was “missing in action.” Soon other publications provided accounts of the disaster, stressing the irony of the doomed cruiser delivering the weapon “which sealed our victory. ”
As the story of the Indianapolis competed with news of the war’s end, the court of inquiry concluded and recommended letters of reprimand for Captain McVay, Lieutenant Commander Jules C. Sancho, port director at Tacloban, Leyte, and Lieutenant Stuart B. Gibson, Sancho’s operations officer. McVay’s reprimand referred to his failure to order a zigzag course the night of the sinking and his not exerting “every effort at [his] command to cause a distress message to be sent.” The latter two officers were reprimanded for not alerting their superiors that the Indianapolis was overdue.