The USS Indianapolis was the last major American warship sunk during WWII. With the loss of 883 sailors, it was the worst naval disaster in American history. Returning from completing the most important mission of the war, the one that ultimately ended the war with Japan, the Indianapolis was torpedoed,and sank in less than 12 minutes. It was midnight July 30, 1945, and just six days before the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The story about the flagship of the 5th Fleet, lovingly referred to as Indy, is fraught with tragedies at every intersection.
There were 1196 men onboard, and many considered the ship to be overloaded. Quarters were tight and there was little room on deck to perform the battle drills once out to sea. Youth reigned on the Indianapolis, and, of the crew, 250 were brand-new from boot camp. Seaman Bob Grause, from Tarpon Springs, Florida wanted to see his wife one more time before the Indy left port in San Francisco. He had been so busy working as a quartermaster that he had not had time to let his wife know that the ship was leaving. Despite the captain canceling all leave, Grause managed to slip off the ship for few hours, and was barely able to jump back onboard as it pulled away from the dock. Seaman Ed Brown of South Dakota also wanted an evening off the ship, but decided it was not worth the risk. He had joined the Navy and had left for boot camp on the same day he played his last high school basketball game. They both survived the disaster, and Grause went on to run a successful lumber business, and Brown was a salesmen for the auto industry.
On July 15, 1945, the Indy began its fateful last mission. The 610 foot heavy cruiser left its port in San Francisco for the Tiniam Island in the Philippines. It was a beautiful day and there was a slight breeze as the ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. Captain McVay’s orders were in a sealed envelope and locked in the ship’s safe. He had been told to open the orders once out to sea. “Gentlemen, our mission is secret and I cannot tell you the mission, but every hour we save will shorten the war by that much,” he reportedly said . The captain ordered the crew to increase the ships speed and it traveled for the remainder of the mission under radio silence.
The crew wondered when they would see their families and sweethearts again, what the mission was, and why the ship suddenly was going at maximum speed. In fact, as the Indy got into open water it reached 28 knots and held that, and by the end of the day the ship had covered 350 miles. The biggest chatter amongst the crew had to do with the large wooden crate that was fastened to the port hangar deck. The screws holding the box tight to the deck were counter sinked and wax was poured over the screws discouraging anyone from tampering with it. An armed guard stood watch with orders to shoot if anyone was foolish enough to get too close. The box was so big that a 30’ by 30’ area was cordoned off with red tape. Rumors suggested that it was full of gold bullion, or possibly Rita Hayworth’s underwear. Inside the box, however, were the parts needed to assemble the first atomic bomb, which was called “Little Boy.”
A short distance away, a black canister was welded to the flag lieutenant’s cabin. Inside the canister was death in the form of uranium-235. It represented half the useable uranium in America, and it was enough to ultimately kill nearly 100,000 people in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Of course, no one onboard the Indy could imagine in their wildest dreams the contents, or the blackish mushroom shaped clouds that would soon hang over Hiroshima. It was all innocent that morning on the Indy. There was only the good-humored chatter and the bantering about Rita Hayworth’s underwear. After traveling 3300 miles, the Indy docked at Tinian Island on July 26th. The crate and canister were quickly removed and taken to a remote place for assembly. The Enola Gay was waiting nearby in a secluded hangar on the island.
At this point, the Indy’s final mission had been flawless. McVay had followed his orders to the letter and the ship had come close to breaking speed records for a ship her size. His concerns about running low on fuel, and having an inexperienced crew, had vanished once the wooden box and canister were taken off her deck. He was ordered to depart immediately for the Philippines. Within a few hours of docking and refueling, the Indy was back at sea.
Some have said the Indy just had bad luck on its trip to the Philippines. That would be a colossal understatement. The list of mistakes, miscommunications, misinformation, and just being in the wrong place, put the USS Indianapolis on a collision course with doomsday. McKay’s orders routed his ship through the shipping lanes in the Leyte Sea to the Philippines. He was advised on two occasions, possibly more, that this area of the South Pacific was low risk for Japanese submarine activity. That was encouraging, but McKay played it safe by requesting a destroyer escort. The request was denied, and McKay was again reassured again that there was little enemy activity to be concerned with. If the Indy did run into trouble, his supervisors advised that McVay should, at his discretion, use the standard procedure of zig-zagging his ship. What McKay did not know was that a sub had attacked and sank a Navy ship in those waters, just four days before.
What happened next is considered by many as the most fatal error ever made by the United States Navy. The Indy cabled a message to the U.S. Navy’s Philippine port with its travel orders, which included coordinates and an expected date of arrival. The message, however, was incorrectly decoded and, to make matters worse, the base did not bother to ask for another re-transmission. McKay, fully trusting the official reports and satisfied that his coordinates and travel information had been received, proceeded on the three day trip to the Philippines. On the second day, the visibility became poor, and McVay gave the order to reduce speed and to stop zig-zagging.
As the Indy began quietly passing through the Leyte Sea, two miles away Mochitsura Hashimoto was also thinking about the poor visibility. Hashimoto was the captain of a Japanese submarine, one of the elite Temont submarine fleet. There were only four subs in this group and they had all been outfitted with the most advanced radar and torpedoes. Only the best captains were picked to skipper these subs, except Hashimoto had never proven his ability. Hashimoto was worried about his military reputation. He felt that the war was nearly over, and that he had not earned the distinction of sinking an enemy ship. His reputation would be lost. Finally, the moon peeked out from the night’s blackness for a second, and Hashimoto saw a dark spot moving through the water. He gave the order to launch two torpedoes at the moving object. Suddenly the quiet of the night was interrupted. Onboard the Indy the 12 to 4pm crew had just taken their stations, and the rest were asleep. It was midnight July 30, 1945.
Both torpedoes struck the starboard bow blowing it completely off. All communications had been destroyed making it impossible to shut the four huge Parsons turbine engines down. The ship continued to move forward – – taking on enormous amounts of water. Fire was raging below and men were screaming, desperately clinging to one another and trying to escape the inferno. Despite the abject horror, others patiently put life jackets on the wounded, and those on deck quietly waited at their stations for orders. The ship quickly began listing and the captain issued orders to abandon ship. Before half past midnight the USS Indianapolis had disappeared from sight and the survivors clung to a few life boats, life jackets, and one another.
Billy Cantrell, John Cadwallader, and Chaplain Thomas Conway were a few of the crew who died. Eighteen year old Cantrell lived with his parents in his hometown of Dallas, Texas. Prior to joining the Navy, he worked as a bicycle messenger for Western Union. Decades after the disaster Cantrell’s cousin said that Billy’s parents were never the same after their son’s death. John Cadwallader was young, married, and father of two children under four years old. He left home on the 4th of July 1945 to join the crew of the USS Indianapolis, and never saw his family again. Father Thomas Conway, was asleep in his berth when the first torpedo struck. Soon afterwards, he and hundreds of his shipmates were afloat in the shark infested water. The 37 year old swam to the aid of his shipmates and offered them comfort and prayers, and reassured them that they would be rescued. After three days, however, Father Conway succumbed to exhaustion and disappeared beneath the blackness of the Philippine Sea.
In the beginning, 900 men were afloat in the water. Sadly, the others were either directly killed by the torpedoes, or were trapped and then drowned as the ship went to the bottom of the sea. Of those in the water, many were injured from the fire that erupted from beneath the deck. There were many hero’s who were swimming around helping and encouraging the wounded and the scared, such as Captain McVay, Chaplain Thomas and others. As hours turned into days many of the survivors began to die, either from their wounds, exposure, exhaustion, or from shark attacks. “For each person as they died they took their life jackets off, and let them go. We then said the Lords Prayer. To this day I can’t say the Lord’s Prayer without crying,” recalled 85 year old Dr. Lewis Haynes, the ships doctor.
The flagship of the fleet had been forgotten. After three days the survivors were clinging on to miracles. Only half of the original survivors were still alive, and they were spread about 20 to 25 miles from each other in the sea. It wasn’t until the fourth day that the survivors of Indy were rescued — and, by accident. A Navy pilot looking for Japanese submarines spotted a 20 mile oil slick. It is unlikely that the remaining crew would have lasted another day. Out of the original 1196, then reduced to 900 after the torpedoes hit the Indy, only 316 survived the tragedy.
Some said they survived because they had closed their minds off from thinking about dying. Others held out hope that the Navy would finally discover that their ship was missing. They were all inspired by the acts of heroism and countless individual displays of courage. The tragic story of the USS Indianapolis sounds like a fictional tale, in that everything that could go wrong, did go wrong:
The ship was overloaded, and had an unusually high
number of inexperienced crew members.
Captain McVay was advised at least twice that their was
little risk of enemy submarine activity. The captain had even
requested a destroyer escort, but his request was denied.
The Indy was ordered to leave the Tinian Islands
Immediately after removing its cargo. The ship had just
finished traveling 3500 miles in ten days, and a day or two
In port was customary.
A fatal decoding error was made by the U.S. Navy in the
There were visibility issues on the night of July 30, 1945,
and because of that McVay suspended zig-zagging
Captain Hashimoto had not sunk an enemy ship in his
military career, but, despite the visibility problems he
successfully torpedoed the Indy.
Navy planes had flown over the site for days and never
noticed the survivors or the 20 mile’s of oil slick.
The story of the worst disaster in US Naval history was
over – shadowed by the Japanese surrender, and was
buried in the back pages of newspapers.
To complete the perfect storm, Captain McVay was unjustly court-martialed for failing to zig-zag in hostile waters. The charge was remitted by the Secretary of the Navy, and he was restored to duty. He retired from the Navy in 1949, and committed suicide in 1968. In 2001 Captain McVay was exonerated of any wrong doing connected with the sinking of his ship.
The tragedy of the USS Indianapolis is deepened when considering that the war was only days from being over. If the ship had been sunk before its historic rendezvous with the Enola Gay, the components of the bomb would have been on the bottom of the sea. Hiroshima would not have happened, and history would have certainly been altered.
In Harm’s Way : The Sinking of the U.S. Indianapolis, by Doug Stanton
Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis , by Dan Kurzman
Ordeal By Sea: The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis,by Thomas Helm