The Indianapolis: The Worst Disaster in U.S. Naval History.

February 9, 2024

Last photo of officers of USS Indianapolis before leaving California with A bomb. L to R – front row: Commander Page Hill, Captain McVay, CDR. Joe Flynn, CDR. Glen F. DeGrave L to R – back row: LCDR. C.M Christiansen, LCDR KC Moore, LCDR. Dr. L. Haynes, LCDR. Earl Henry, LCDR. Charles Hayes – U.S. Navy picture, Public Domain.
The summer of 1945 was a hot one in San Francisco. The war in Europe was officially over, and the word was that the Japanese would soon surrender. America’s military power had been the defining factor, and the young, prideful sailors boarding the heavy cruiser were anxious to see some action before the end. The mission was top secret and made for widespread rumors amongst the raw and recently trained recruits. The rumors stretched the bounds of fantasy and reality, all having the same ending, with the ship returning safely. That was not to be.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis was the last major American warship sunk during WWII. Returning from completing the mission that ultimately ended the war with Japan, the Indianapolis was torpedoed and sank in less than 12 minutes. It was midnight on July 30, 1945, just six days before the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The loss of 883 sailors was the worst naval disaster in American history. The story about the flagship of the 5th Fleet lovingly referred to as Indy, is fraught with tragedies at every intersection.

On July 15, 1945, the ship left the naval yard in San Francisco. It was a beautiful day with a slight breeze as the ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. Indy was visibly overloaded; typically, she had a crew of 807, but on this trip, 1196 men were onboard. Quarters were tight, and there was little room on deck to perform the battle drills once out to sea.

U.S.S. Indianapolis leaving San Francisco Bay. U.S. Navy picture, Public Domain.

Youth reigned, and of the crew, 250 were brand-new from boot camp. Seaman Bob Grause, from Tarpon Springs, Florida, wanted to see his wife again before the Indy left port in San Francisco. He had been so busy working as a quartermaster that he had not had time to tell her that the ship was leaving. Despite the Captain canceling all leave, Grause managed to slip off the boat for a few hours and could barely get back onboard when the ship pulled away from the dock. Seaman Ed Brown of South Dakota also wanted off the boat for the night but decided it was not worth the risk. He had joined the Navy and left for boot camp the day he played his last high school basketball game. Luckily, they both survived the disaster, and Grause went on to run a prosperous lumber business. Brown was a successful car salesman.

The destination of the 610-foot heavy cruiser was the Tiniam Island in the Philippines. 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 ship’s speed and traveled for the remainder of the mission under radio silence.

The crew wondered when they would see their families and sweethearts again. Many wondered why the ship was going at maximum speed. 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. There was quite a chatter amongst the crew about the large wooden crate fastened to the port hangar deck. The screws holding the box tight to the deck were counter-sink, 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. Inside the box were the parts needed to assemble the first atomic bomb called “Little Boy.”

The first atomic bomb “Little Boy” was
dropped on Hiroshima by the plane the Enola Gay on August 6, 1945. Courtesy U.S. Navy, Public Domain.

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; the grim reality was 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 plenty of good humor and bantering about the box’s contents – “filled with gold bullion or maybe Rita Hayworth’s underwear.”

After traveling 3300 miles, the Indy docked at Tinian Island on July 26. 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.

MARIANAS: CREWS
The ground crew of the B-29 “Enola Gay” which atom-bombed Hiroshima, Japan. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the pilot is the center. Marianas Islands. Courtesy, U.S. Navy, Public Domain.

McVay had followed his orders carefully and with speed, so fast that the ship had come close to breaking speed records for a vessel her size. The Captain’s concerns about running low on fuel or having an inexperienced crew vanished once the wooden box and canister were removed from the ship. McVay was still worried about enemy submarines and not having an escort. He was ordered to depart immediately for the Philippines. The Indy was back at sea within a few hours of docking and refueling. It would be a tremendous understatement to suggest that the U.S.S. Indianapolis had bad luck on its return journey. The mistakes, miscommunications, misinformation, and being in the wrong place put the ship 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 at 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 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 to be 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 travel orders, including coordinates and an expected arrival date. 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 ordered a speed reduction and a zig-zagging stop.

As the Indy quietly began passing through the Leyte Sea, two miles away, Mochitsura Hashimoto also thought about the poor visibility. Hashimoto was the Captain of a Japanese submarine, one of the elite Temont submarine fleets. 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, who had never proven his ability. Hashimoto was worried about his military reputation. He felt the war was nearly over, and 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 p.m. to 4 p.m. crew had just taken their stations, and the rest were asleep. It was midnight on July 30, 1945.

Both torpedoes struck the starboard bow, blowing it completely off. All communications had been destroyed, making shutting down the four massive Parsons turbine engines impossible. 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 waited in silence at their stations for orders. Within minutes, the warship began listing, and the Captain had no choice but to order the ship to be abandoned. Before half past midnight, the Indy had disappeared beneath the blackness of the sea. Survivors clung to a few lifeboats, life jackets, and one another.

Billy Cantrell, John Cadwallader, and Chaplain Thomas Conway were some of the crew who perished. Eighteen-year-old Cantrell lived with his parents in his hometown of Dallas, Texas. Before 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 married and father of two children under four. He left home on the 4th of July 1945 to join the crew of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and never saw his family again. His family, however, still remember him. Recently, Cadwallader’s now grown children, John and his sister Donna Hyland, honored their father at the U.S.S. Indianapolis Memorial in Indiana.

Father Thomas Conway was asleep in his berth when the first torpedo struck. Soon afterward, he and hundreds of his shipmates were afloat in the shark-infested water. The 37-year-old swam to the aid of his shipmates, 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.

0060621 / WWII Chaplain02 / Photo by Courtesy of Diocese of Buffalo Archives / Navy Chaplain Lt. Thomas M. Conway. Died while ministering to the survivors of the USS Indianapolis. Diocesan chaplains who served in World War Two

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. Fire erupted beneath the deck, injuring many in the water. Many heroes, such as Captain McVay, Chaplain Thomas, and others, were swimming around, helping and encouraging the wounded and the scared. 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 Lord’s Prayer.

To this day, “I can’t say the Lord’s Prayer without crying,” recalled 85-year-old Dr. Lewis Haynes, the ship’s 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 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, only 316 survived the tragedy.

Survivors of Indianapolis on Guam, in August 1945. Courtesy U.S. Navy, Public Domain.

Some said they survived because they had closed their minds off from thinking about dying. Others hoped that the Navy would finally discover their ship was missing. They were all inspired by acts of heroism and countless displays of courage. The tragic story of the U.S.S. 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 there was little risk of
enemy submarine activity. The Captain had even requested a destroyer escort, but
his request was denied.

After removing its cargo, the Indy was immediately ordered to leave the
Tinian Islands.The ship had just finished traveling 3500 miles in ten days. A
couple of rest was customary. Two days’ rest may have saved Indy from its
ultimate fate.

The U.S. Navy made a fatal decoding error in the Philippine port.

There were visibility issues on the night of July 30, 1945, and because
of that, McVay suspended zig-zagging operations.

Captain Hashimoto had not sunk an enemy ship in his military career.
Still, 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 miles of oil slick.

The story of the worst disaster in US Naval history was overshadowed by the
Japanese surrender. It 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 Secretary of the Navy remitted McVay’s charge, 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 wrongdoing connected with the sinking of his ship.

The tragedy of the U.S.S. 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.

Resources:

In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the U.S. Indianapolis, by Doug Stanton

Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, by Dan Kurzman

Ordeal By Sea: The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, by Thomas Helm

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at: allencornwell@mac.com

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