(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Charles McVay III had a lot to live up to. His father was a U.S. Navy admiral during WWI and commanded the Pacific fleet in the 1930s. The younger McVay graduated Annapolis in 1920 and had a stellar career in military intelligence, rising to chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Combined Chiefs.
He took command of the USS Indianapolis – “The Ship of Doom!” – in 1944.
Under McVay’s command, the Indianapolis came through Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and even survived a direct hit from a kamikaze aircraft that penetrated the hull. Then it got a new job: transporting nuclear material and parts to be used in the construction of Fat Man and Little Boy.
But in the early morning of July 30, 1945, after dropping off a top-secret nuclear delivery, the Indianapolis was surprised by a ruthlessly efficient submarine attack. She sank in 12 minutes. Of her 1,195 men, 879 perished.
Only about 300 died in the initial attack. The remainder died while awaiting rescue, which didn’t come until four days later, because the Indianapolis had not been reported missing. The crew was finally rescued only because a pilot spotted them, stranded without provisions in shark-infested waters and unable even to fit everyone into the lifeboats.
The failure of those at her intended destination port to report that the Indianapolis was overdue was at first attributed in the Navy’s records to a “misunderstanding” of the protocols for communication about secret missions.
But McVay, who survived (though wounded) was never told this. His demands for an explanation went unanswered. But at least they did tell him one thing. They told him that his SOS signals had not been received.
As it turns out, there was definitely a signal that got lost in the noise, but it wasn’t McVay’s.
We now know that three separate Navy radios had received the SOS signals sent out by the Indianapolis as it sank:
- One did nothing because the commanding officer was drunk.
- Another did nothing because the operator decided it must be a Japanese ruse.
- The third did nothing because the commanding officer had given orders that he was not to be disturbed.
That is how over 500 sailors get “misunderstood” right out of this vale of sorrows.
Covering up this information was apparently not enough. The Navy felt it needed a fall guy for this catastrophic confluence of incompetence. While Admiral Chester Nimitz argued for leniency, he was overruled by a sterling sample of American manhood in the person of one Admiral Ernest King, who had a long memory. Years earlier, King had been the subject of a letter of reprimand by McVay’s father, when King was caught sneaking women onto a ship. (“King never forgot a grudge” testified the elder McVay.)
So King decided to court-martial McVay for the loss of the Indianapolis.
McVay remains to this day the only captain in the history of the U.S. Navy to be court-martialed for the loss of his ship by act of war.
McVay pointed out that he had requested a destroyer escort and had been denied, even though the Indianapolis lacked the submarine-detecting equipment that destroyers would have had. And McVay had not been informed of recent submarine attacks in the area because the intelligence was classified.
Alas, to no avail. McVay was convicted.
Although Navy Secretary James Forrestal overturned the conviction, McVay’s career was over. He was promoted to rear admiral when he left the service, but that was cold comfort to a man who knew he had been destroyed unjustly.
For the remainder of his life, as a result of his false conviction, McVay was hounded by vicious phone calls and letters from relatives of the sailors who died under his command.
He died by suicide in 1968. In his hand they found a toy sailor he had been given as a boy.
And that’s where his story would have ended, if not for another boy.
In 1997, 12-year-old Hunter Scott did something vitally important that all patriotic Americans who love truth, justice and the American Way should do on a regular basis: He saw a really well-made middlebrow pop-entertainment movie.
Specifically, he saw the classic Spielberg shark thriller Jaws, which includes a speech about the sinking of the Indianapolis. Fascinated, young Scott decided to do his sixth-grade National History Day project on the topic – and ended up launching a campaign to exonerate McVay.
Scott was far from the first to tilt at this particular windmill. McVay’s son, other survivors of the sinking, historians and others had been at it for years.
But it was the plucky lad from Pensacola who finally found the attack pattern that would sink the Navy’s injustice. He personally interviewed over 150 Indianapolis survivors and reviewed over 800 documents for his little school project – including declassified records establishing the sequence of Navy failures.
And this time, the signal didn’t get lost in the noise.
Scott contacted his congressman, who did his best impersonation of another Scott – Scott Glenn – and arranged for hearings. In October 2000, the United States Congress sent President Clinton a resolution exonerating McVay, which he signed.
Much as we honor McVay’s service, Scott is the hero to be emulated in this story. Here at JPGB, we’d rather have our mate cry on our shoulder than go to his funeral. If you have thoughts of harming yourself, reach out for help – text or call 988, or just click here.
As for the rest of us, we should all do what Scott did: Go see more really well-made middlebrow pop-entertainment movies.
And keep fighting for truth, justice and the American Way no matter how far gone they may seem to be.
Images HT Pensacola New Journal (top) and Timetoast
Thank you for the example of honesty and basic decency. They matter and, occasionally, gain some recognition.