Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Indianapolis, Sinking of (July–August 1945)

The sinking of the U.S. heavy cruiser Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea two weeks before the end of the war remains controversial to this day. Built in Camden, New Jersey, and commissioned in 1932 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the Indianapolis (CA-35) displaced 9,800 tons and was 610' in length. The engines drove her at a maximum speed of 32.5 knots, and she mounted 9 x 8-inch and 8 x 5-inch guns. She had carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a passenger during three cruises in the 1930s, and she served with distinction in the Pacific Theater throughout the war.

While shelling Okinawa prior to the invasion of the island, the Indianapolis was severely damaged by a Japanese bomber in late March 1945, necessitating a voyage to Mare Island, California, for repairs. After the work was completed, the ship, under the command of Captain Charles B. McVay III, was ordered to carry to the island of Tinian the internal components of the two atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Indianapolis subsequently departed on a high-speed voyage from San Francisco, arriving at Tinian 10 days later, on 26 July. She next stopped at the island of Guam and departed on 28 July with orders to proceed to Leyte. While traveling without escort—under radio silence at 17 knots in moderate seas with good visibility—she was torpedoed twice by the Japanese submarine I-58 in the early morning hours of 30 July; she sank in only 12 minutes. Survivors were spotted by a U.S. Navy aircraft on 2 August. Of some 800 members of her 1,199-man crew who initially survived the sinking, only 316 were eventually rescued. The vast majority of those who died fell victim to sharks and exposure. The incident remains the worst case of shark attacks in history.

Following a court of inquiry into the loss of the Indianapolis, Admiral Chester Nimitz proposed reprimanding McVay. Instead, however, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal followed the advice of the chief of naval operations, Fleet Admiral Ernest King, and ordered McVay to stand trial by court-martial. McVay was subsequently found guilty of an error of professional judgment in unreasonably placing the Indianapolis at risk by failing to steer a zigzag course; he was acquitted of inefficiency in ordering his crew to abandon ship. The court unanimously recommended clemency, and Forrestal remitted the sentence of the court-martial. McVay retired as a rear admiral in 1949; he committed suicide in 1968.

In recent years, crew members of the Indianapolis have endeavored to clear McVay's name. They have pointed out the poor visibility at the time the ship was sunk, the ship's engine problems, and the fact that McVay had not been informed of Japanese submarine activity. Also, McVay's request for escorts had been refused, even though the Indianapolis lacked antisubmarine detection devices. In 2001, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution exonerating McVay of any wrongdoing.

Glenn E. Helm


Further Reading
Boyd, Carl. "Attacking the Indianapolis." Warship International 13, no. 2 (1976): 15–25.; Kurzman, Dan. Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the USS "Indianapolis." New York: Atheneum, 1990.; Lech, Raymond B. All the Drowned Sailors. New York: Stein and Day, 1982.; Newcomb, Richard F. Abandon Ship: The Saga of the U.S.S. "Indianapolis," the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
 

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