- 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
Admiral Nimitz, holding a press conference upon release of the Navy’s findings, stated it would be “unlikely that Captain Mc Vay would again have a command of great responsibility. ” Nimitz read one letter of the many received from families of those lost in the sinking; it questioned whether the tragedy was “being whitewashed.” Nimitz expressed his sorrow and said, “I must bear my share of the responsibility for the loss.” The admiral explained that the cruiser’s course was on the plotting boards in the Philippines and Marianas, but “plotting ceased at the time of her expected arrival at Leyte, without verification that she had in fact arrived.” Operations officers Sancho and Gibson had failed to keep themselves informed of such matters, Nimitz continued, and he blamed Commodore Gillette and Captain Granum for not giving “sufficient supervision” to their subordinates.
Damaged by the rough landing and taking on water, the PBY managed to taxi through the heavy swells while the copilot plucked in swimmers.
The narrative was released on a Saturday, and Sunday newspapers and newscasts were full of the story. The publicity painted a picture of four officers at Leyte idling on the beach while hundreds of men died in agony. Commodore Gillette, in a letter to the Navy chief of personnel, defended himself and eloquently summarized the true cause of the disaster. Navy directives, he pointed out, provided that “Arrival Reports shall not be made for combatant ships” and “since the directive was not explicit, it led to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.” Indeed, after the tragedy this proviso was altered to require reports of overdue combatant vessels. Gillette concluded:
“I do not blame anyone. There is no definite clear-cut fact that points in one direction. The investigations disclosed many interrelated circumstances … incompletely defined or misunderstood responsibilities, matters subject to more than one interpretation … and the activities of many organizations and persons. It was the almost impossible that happened. It was the unbelievable coincidence of many circumstances that combined in an unbelievable manner to produce delay in rescue.”
On December 9, 1946, the Navy withdrew the letters of reprimand, this time without public fanfare. Captain McVay never held command of a ship again and retired from the Navy in 1949, after thirty years of service.
In August, 1960, at Indianapolis, Indiana, most of the cruiser’s survivors gathered together for the first time in fifteen years. The reunion was highly charged with emotion; many saw shipmates they thought had perished long ago; all were moved by Captain McVay’s address to his former crewmen. And the parents of those who had not survived went from man to man asking, “Did you know my son?”
As he held a dead man in his arms, one young seaman sobbed, “We’re sorry, Mac. If we had’ve known you were out here like this, we would’ve come sooner.”
On August 2, 1980, ninety survivors met for the thirty-fifth anniversary of the sinking. The youngest men are in their fifties now, while others are unable to attend because of age or ill health. There is little remorse or bitterness among them, though many still bear scars, both physical and emotional, from their ordeal, and many quickly refer to the “raw deal” given their skipper. Also attending this most recent reunion were crew members of the new U.S.S. Indianapolis , a recently commissioned nuclear submarine. Wives and children of the survivors were there, too, many listening in awe as a husband or father related his harrowing experience.
Thirty-five years later they still remembered and supported each other, much as they did during those days in the water. The story of the Indianapolis is one of tragedy, pathos, and brutal irony. Yet above all, we should remember the courage and perseverance of those who survived and the sacrifice of those who did not.