The story behind the ship, its crew and its captain

Our episode on the Atomic Bomb has had a tremendous response! Buzzkillers from around the world have been emailing, Facebooking and Tweeting like crazy for the last week. We’ve heard from veterans, veterans’ families, scientists, and other historians. They’ve enlightened us with their own stories and pointed us towards other important things about the Bomb.

Researchers at the Buzzkill Institute have been beavering away, following up on the leads you’ve sent. And that’s what I want to talk to you about today. We’re not going to bust many myths (although there are a few of those). Rather, I’m going to tell you a straight history story. But it’s one that also shows the value of diligence in historical research and the importance of righting the wrongs from the past.

Of the many messages sent in by Buzzkillers, one topic that kept coming up was the USS Indianapolis. Many of you probably remember the story told by Quint, the salty shark hunter in the 1975 movie, “Jaws.” It’s one of the most famous monologues in Hollywood history and some Jaws-fanatics can recite it word for word.

While drinking on the shark boat at night, Quint opens up to his shipmates and tells them of his brutal World War II experiences. He had been on the Indianapolis, which was sunk after delivering atomic bomb parts to the island of Tinian. According to Quint’s story, the Indianapolis sailors were attacked and killed by sharks while they were in the water waiting to be rescued. It’s a horrific tale and a tremendously dramatic performance by Robert Shaw as Quint.

I asked Institute researchers to look into the history of the Indianapolis because movies usually mangle history. It turns out that Hollywood only got the shark story wrong in terms of degree. In fact, the real history of the Indianapolis is more dramatic and shocking than I knew. You’ll soon learn why I had to lock myself in the men’s room at the Buzzkill Institute so no one would see me crying my eyes out.

The USS Indianapolis was a World War II cruiser that had seen heavy action in: the New Guinea campaign of early 1942, battles near Alaska in 1943, the Battle of the Philippines in 1944, and the Battle of Iwo Jima and the shelling of Okinawa in early 1945.

After having her battle damage repaired in San Francisco in July 1945, the Indianapolis was dispatched with enriched uranium and other parts for the Hiroshima bomb in her hold. They sailed to the island of Tinian, one of the bases for the bombings of Japan. (The Indianapolis was not “delivering the bomb,” as Quint says. Only parts for it. The bomb was actually assembled on Tinian.)

Mission completed, they left Tinian on 27 July 1945. Just after midnight on the 30th of July, a Japanese submarine fired two torpedoes into the Indianapolis, causing massive damage and the ship started to sink. Quint says “our bomb mission had been so secret that no distress signal had been sent,” but that’s not true. The true story is worse. Three distress signals were sent that night. None of the naval stations who received the signals responded, however. One of the station commanders thought the signal was a Japanese trap. Another one had ordered his men not to wake him during the night, and the third station commander was drunk.

The Indianapolis listed and settled towards the bow, and then sank quickly 12 minutes after being torpedoed. It went down faster than you can read this story. Roughly 300 of the crew went down with her and 880 were set adrift with almost no lifeboats. Many who survived the sinking were even left without life jackets.

A survivor of the USS Indianapolis. Photo courtesy of YouTube.

These 880 sailors were in the water for four days, but they began dying almost immediately. The Quint monologue tells us that they were killed wholesale by sharks, but most of them died of injuries from the torpedo attack, starvation and thirst, hypothermia, dehydration, desquamation (severe peeling of the skin that exposes deeper flesh), and being killed by their shipmates in moments of delirium and hallucination.

The sharks killed many, but they mostly fed off the bodies of sailors who had died from other things. Still, it is generally considered by experts to be the worst shark attack in human history. And it is still the worst loss of life in a single incident in the history of the United States Navy. Of the 880 sailors who were set adrift, 483 died. Only 317 of the original 1,192 of the crew were rescued.

The Indianapolis survivors were eventually spotted by an aerial patrol, and a massive Navy rescue operation picked them up. The rescue is its own harrowing and amazing story, but we’ll have to save that for another day.

There’s no doubt that the story of the Indianapolis was at least as tragic and awful as Quint made it sound. But I’m going to take you down a dark road for the next few minutes, Buzzkillers.

Despite being wounded during the torpedo attacks, Charles McVay, the captain of the Indianapolis, survived the sinking and the days floating in the ocean. After being rescued, he was brought to Guam for an investigation. That didn’t go well and Captain McVay was eventually court-martialled back in Washington DC in November of 1945. Specifically, the charge of failing to “zig-zag” in dangerous waters was very damaging, even though McVay’s orders were to zig-zag at his discretion, depending on the weather and visibility (which was not great on that night).

McVay was found guilty in a humiliating and controversial trial. It was the only time a captain had been court-martialled for the loss of his ship due to enemy action in wartime, despite the bulk of the evidence showing his innocence. The head of the Navy, Admiral Chester Nimitz, remitted McVay’s conviction in early 1946 and restored him to active duty. But, technically, the verdict of the court-martial stood. McVay served in the Navy until 1949, and reached the rank of Rear Admiral before he retired.

This back-and-forth of blaming and “clearing” of McVay was only made worse by the fact that he had long been receiving hate mail from some of the parents of those who died in the Indianapolis sinking. “Merry Christmas!” read one card, “Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son.” McVay never got over feelings of guilt for the tragedy. He spent his retirement being tormented by memories of the Indianapolis, and he fell deep into depression. Captain McVay shot himself with his Navy-issued revolver in 1968, clutching a toy sailor that his father (a Navy admiral during World War I) had given him decades before.

McVay’s family, historians, and surviving Indianapolis sailors tried throughout the 1970s and 1980s to have his name completely cleared by the Navy, but no one seemed to want to listen to a complicated story. This apparent injustice continued until the late 1990s when a young Florida boy sat down to watch Jaws with his father.

Hunter Scott was so intrigued by Quint’s re-telling of the Indianapolis story that, encouraged by his parents, he looked into the history of the sinking and entered a project on the topic in his school’s History Day competition in 1997. Along the way, he read very widely on the subject, including original material that had not been seen since 1945. Scott also interviewed nearly 150 Indianapolis survivors, and came to the conclusion that Captain McVay had been wrongly convicted.

Along with members of the Indianapolis Survivors Organization, Scott appeared before a Congressional committee in early 1998 to make the case for a reversal of McVay’s conviction. I’ve read the transcript of his testimony. His evidence was detailed, and he presented it in a serious and convincing manner. He was 12 years old.

In addition to the testimony given by the Indianapolis survivors, Scott’s work convinced Congress to pass a resolution exonerating Captain McVay of any responsibility for the Indianapolis tragedy. President Clinton signed it in October 2000.

If nothing else, this part of the story should convince you that historical research should never stop. There’s almost always new evidence to uncover, or old evidence to re-evaluate. But there’s one final thing in this whole Indianapolis story that really floored me.

Lieutenant Hunter Scott is now an aviator in the US Navy. I’m not stalking him for an appearance on the show or anything, but I did an internet search. Among a few other things, I found his LinkedIn page. LinkedIn, as you know Buzzkillers, is the popular business and career networking site. While most LinkedIn pages trumpet even the most minor personal accomplishments, Lieutenants Scott’s page is an absolute model of directness and modesty. No mention of the great work he did on Captain McVay and the Indianapolis. Just the very basics of his college life and Navy career. It makes all boasters and self-promoters (like yours truly) look like real jerks.

If you know a true story better than that one, Buzzkillers, I’d love to hear it.

Further Reading:

Doug Stanton, In Harm’s Way: the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors (2003)

Edgar Harrell USMC, Out of the Depths: an Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival, Courage, and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis (2014)

Pete Nelson and Hunter Scott, Left for Dead: a Young Man’s Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis (2003)

Dan Kurzman, Fatal Voyage: the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis (2008)

Quint’s USS Indianapolis Speech from “Jaws”

“Swimming with the sharks: USS Indy survivor recounts disastrous 1945 sinking”

“Edgar Harrell, USS Indianapolis Survivor”

“Sea Tales: Missing! The USS Indianapolis (WWII Documentary)”