Sunday, November 05, 2006
Charles McVay Dies, November 6, 1968
Today in 1968, retired Rear Admiral Charles McVay died at his home in Litchfield, Connecticut. McVay was the captain of the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser that was torpedoed and sunk on the morning of July 30, 1945. We discussed the sinking of the Indianapolis in some detail in July, 2005, so we will only summarize the incident here. But the story of the Indianapolis is more than just a sinking at its immediate aftermath. It is a story of betrayal, cover-up and finally, redemption, all taking place over the course of more than 50 years.
Charles McVay was from a naval family; his father had been an admiral during the First World War. The younger McVay spent the early years of the Second World War as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in Washington, DC. After receiving command of the Indianapolis, he led the ship and her crew through the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. On March 31, 1945, the ship was struck by a kamikaze and was forced to leave the battle line for repairs in California. Thus, she was in the right position when the Navy needed a ship to sail to Tinian Island from the West Coast carrying a cargo that would end the war: parts for two atomic bombs.
The Indy delivered her cargo without incident and was on her way to Okinawa when she was sunk on July 30. 300 men died in the sinking, leaving 900 men floating in water for the next five days. The ship was not immediately reported “overdue” and the survivors were only discovered during a routine patrol flight by Navy aircraft. Only 316 men survived; the rest had died from shark attack, thirst, or from injuries received during the sinking. Captain McVay was one of the survivors, and it would haunt him for the rest of his life.
After seeing to the rescue of his men, McVay’s first question was why it had taken five days for help to arrive. The Navy claimed that the Indianapolis did not send an SOS message because of the rules concerning radio silence, but this was not the case. At least three SOS messages were received by different sea commands: one captain did not order a response or action, one had ordered the bridge crew to not disturb him and the third captain thought the signal was a Japanese trick.
In November, 1945, McVay was court-martialed and found guilty of causing his ship to be in grave danger because he failed to zigzag and, thus, confuse any enemy submarines in the area. Since the war was over at the time of the court-martial, the commander of the submarine which sank the Indy, Mochitsura Hashimoto, was called to testify as to his view of the event. According to Hashimoto, his position with regard to the Indy was so good that zigzagging would have made no difference. Regardless, it soon became clear that the Navy needed a scapegoat for the incident, and McVay was the man. The US Navy lost more than 700 vessels of all types during the Second World War. Charles McVay was the only captain court-martialed for his loss.
McVay’s career in the Navy essentially ended the day the Indianapolis sank. He left the service as a Rear Admiral, only receiving that rank upon his retirement. For the rest of his life, he was blamed for the loss of the ship and nearly 75% of her crew. On November 6, 1968, Charles McVay shot himself with a Navy-issued sidearm at his home. When he was found, he was holding a toy soldier in his hand.
While the world at large soon forgot about Captain McVay, the survivors of the Indianapolis’ sinking did not. They spent the next 50 years trying to clear their captain’s name. They wrote their Congressmen and appeared in any media outlet who would interview them. But in the end, redemption would be found in the heart and mind of a 12-year old boy.
Hunter Scott attended school in Pensacola, Florida, a town with a long attachment to the Navy. Scott was assigned a history project and he chose to write about the USS Indianapolis. He interviewed nearly 150 of the survivors and read over 800 official documents related to the sinking. His report received national attention and was eventually noticed by the US Congress. He, along with survivors and others, was called to testify before the body, during which he made the following statement:
"This is Captain McVay's dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis."
In October, 2000, 55 years after the sinking, Congress passed a resolution, signed by President Bill Clinton, stating that Admiral McVay was “exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis.”