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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
When Captain Mc Vay came home to Washington in September, he began the sad task of answering the letters and calls of bereaved families. Dr. Haynes also helped console those who wanted to know how and why the tragedy occurred. But their explanations did not suffice. Soon letters poured forth to President Truman, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, and members of Congress. All wanted to know how it could have happened. One heartsick mother wrote: “How can we draw any comfort from their sacrifices when we know his life … could have been saved if the Navy had been alert. I have tried hard not to shadow the sacrifices these boys made … but those agonizing hours my child suffered will not let me rest.”
The clamor for an explanation continued, and on November 28,1945, the Navy announced that Captain McVay would be court-martialed upon recommendation of the court of inquiry. Of four hundred and thirty-six American commanders whose warships went down during World War II, only Captain McVay was brought to trial for losing his vessel to enemy action.
The unprecedented event began December 4,1945. The charges against McVay were: “Failure [to zigzag] during good visibility after moonrise on the night of July 29” and failure “to insure and see effected such timely orders … to cause said vessel to be abandoned.” The Navy explained that an investigation into the affair was continuing with “other courts-martial “ possible.”
McVay pleaded “not guilty” to the charge of negligence and inefficiency. The trial continued through December with the Navy trying to determine conditions of visibility at the time of the sinking. Lieutenant McKissick, one of the cruiser’s few surviving officers, testified that visibility was limited when McVay ordered the zigzag course halted, and he did not think the order unusual. Yet the prosecution cited the captain’s own written disposition of July 29, in which he remembered “intermittent moonlight at which time visibility was unlimited.” McVay, however, sought to amend that document, stating he had been under duress and still suffered from his ordeal while composing it.
The prosecution also pressed home the allegation that McVay’s “inefficiency” in issuing the order to abandon ship had “contributed to the high death toll.” Many crew members of the cruiser rallied to their skipper’s defense. Testifying that he had given the order but that the sound system had failed to perform, seamen told the court how they passed the word from man to man. Several witnesses stated they would gladly serve under McVay’s command again.
Halfway through the trial, in a most dramatic and controversial move, the prosecution summoned Commander Hashimoto from Japan to testify as to whether McVay’s decision not to zigzag was justified. Bringing a fallen enemy to bear witness against an American officer ignited a storm of protest, including several condemnations from Congress.
Hashimoto’s testimony both before and during the trial indicated that he would have been able to sink the Indianapolis whether or not she was zigzagging. Later, one of the U.S. Navy’s most decorated submariners, Captain Glynn R. Donaho, substantiated Hashimoto’s claim. Submarines expected ships to zigzag, Donaho said, and he stated before the court that the maneuver was of “no value to surface ships.”
The final witness was Captain McVay himself. The cruiser’s skipper testified upon his own request, reiterating his claim that poor visibility prompted him to rescind the order to zigzag. McVay also testified that his officers had standing orders to resume zigzagging or report any weather changes to him. The captain also related the impossibility of passing the “abandon-ship order by other than word of mouth.”
Acquitting him of the charge of untimely orders to abandon ship on December 20, 1945, the court later found Captain McVay guilty of negligence in the loss of the Indianapolis because “he failed to cause a zigzag course to be followed in dangerous waters.” The court sentenced McVay “to lose 100 numbers in his temporary grade of captain and also his permanent grade of commander” but recommended clemency “in view of his outstanding previous record.” Secretary Forrestal remitted the sentence upon the recommendation of Admirals Nimitz and King.
At the same time McVay’s sentence was announced, the Navy released its “Narrative of the Circumstances of the Loss of the U.S.S. Indianapolis ,” a forty-five-hundred-word document representing the Navy’s final statement on the tragedy.
In the narrative four Navy officers were publicly reprimanded: Commodore N. C. Gillette, former acting commander of the Philippine Sea frontier; Captain A. M. Granum, Gillette’s operations officer; Lieutenant Commander Jules C. Sancho, former acting port director at Leyte; and Sancho’s operations officer, Lieutenant Stuart H. Gibson. These officers were cited for their “failure to report that the ship had not arrived in Leyte as scheduled.”