At 12:14 a.m. on July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea and sank in 12 minutes. Of 1,196 men on board, approximately 300 went down with the ship. The remainder, about 900 men, were left floating in shark-infested waters with no lifeboats and most with no food or water. The ship was never missed, and by the time the survivors were spotted by accident four days later only 316 men were still alive.
The ship’s captain, the late Charles Butler McVay III, survived and was court-martialed and convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag” despite overwhelming evidence that the Navy itself had placed the ship in harm’s way, despite testimony from the Japanese submarine commander that zigzagging would have made no difference, and despite that fact that, although over 350 navy ships were lost in combat in WWII, McVay was the only captain to be court-martialed. Materials declassified years later add to the evidence that McVay was a scapegoat for the mistakes of others.
In October of 2000, following years of effort by the survivors and their supporters, legislation was passed in Washington and signed by President Clinton expressing the sense of Congress, among other things, that Captain McVay’s record should now reflect that he is exonerated for the loss of the Indianapolis and for the death of her crew who were lost.
In July of 2001 the Navy Department announced that Captain McVay’s record has been amended to exonerate him for the loss of the Indianapolis and the lives of those who perished as a result of her sinking. The action was taken by Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England who was persuaded to do so by New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith, a strong advocate of McVay’s innocence. The survivors are deeply grateful to Secretary England and Senator Smith and also to young Hunter Scott of Pensacola, Florida, without whom the injustice to Captain McVay would never have been brought to the attention of the media and the Congress.
Unfortunately, the conviction for hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag remains on Captain McVay’s record. Never in the history of the U.S. military has the verdict of a court-martial been overturned, and there is no known process for doing so.
It can be stated unequivocally, however, that, if the Indianapolis had arrived safely at Leyte without incident, Captain McVay would never have been court-martialed. Thus, by exonerating him for the loss of the ship and the death of 880 of her crew members, the Navy Department has at last conceded that he was innocent of any wrong-doing. His exoneration is tantamount to an admission that he should never have been court-martialed in the first place.
The survivors are thankful that after 56 years the good name of their captain has been cleared.