Dec 18

The Indianapolis Tragedy: My Perspective-The Sinking

Tuesday, December 18, 2018 12:01 AM


USS Indianapolis )CA-35) ca. 1943-1945 (NHHC)

USS Indianapolis (CA-35) ca. 1943-1945 (NHHC)

On 30 July 1945 the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), proceeding alone at a leisurely 15.7 knots, unprotected by sonar-equipped vessels, or vessels of any kind, en route from Guam to the Philippines, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the waters near Leyte Gulf. At least 879 of its crew of 1157 perished, many of them badly burned, most of them floating without food or water, some without rafts, without radios or flares, in the shark-infested waters of the western Pacific. Tragically, the search did not begin, despite the fact that they were overdue, at their scheduled destination in Leyte Gulf until four days after the sinking. The survivors were only found by a strictly fortuitous sighting by a plane that was not looking for them.

I have just finished reading Indianapolis by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, described on its cover as the “True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man.” The “innocent man” was Captain Charles B. McVay III who was court-martialed in 1945, found guilty, and finally vindicated more than fifty years later, and 33 years after he committed suicide. It is the finest book, most meticulously researched, about the naval war in the Pacific, of the legion of WWII books that I have read.

I write this to add my personal perspective as a former junior naval officer, stationed in Guam, aboard the USS Spangler (DE-696) a destroyer escort, at the time of the sinking, with some knowledge and understanding of the situation in the waters around Guam on 30 July 1945. I believe we were berthed no more than 1,000 yards from the Indianapolis at the time she sailed. As the title of the story suggests I have something to add to the long debate over Captain McVay’s innocence and the cause of the disaster. I never noticed the Indianapolis in the harbor and I have no direct connection with any of the events discussed in the book. I did not know the Indianapolis was lost until the world knew on 15 August. I also write this as a lawyer for 56 years recoiling from injustice. I wonder about the use of the term “Innocent” in the title. This was no crime in the traditional sense. This is no who-dun-it mystery. It was a question of leadership and judgment on which reasonable persons can differ. All my sympathies are with Captain McVay, his family, and his crew, but there are two sides to the story. It is indeed significant that the effort to “exonerate” Captain McVay did not truly begin until after his retirement and death. I personally believe that he did not wish to grapple with the host of factors which led to the loss.

Charting of the western Pacific, showing Indianapolis' track from Guam to her reported sinking location (National Archives)

Charting of the western Pacific, showing Indianapolis‘ track from Guam to her reported sinking location (National Archives)

Let me outline my shadowy connection to the story. I enlisted in the U.S. Navy on 1 March 1943, aged 17. I went to midshipman’s school, became an ensign at 19, and wound up as a Combat Information Center Officer on the Spangler based in the Marianas in early 1945, the youngest officer on the ship. The Spangler was essentially an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) vessel. We had World War I torpedoes, which we never fired, and probably would not have worked if we had. We had two useless 3” 50 guns for surface warfare, which we never encountered, and a slew of 20 and 40 millimeter anti-aircraft guns which were kept in superb condition to be ready for kamikaze attacks. No, we were not the jokers who put the big arrow on our deck advising the kamikazes, “This way to the carriers”; I’m sure that was an apocryphal story . The essence of our mission was antisubmarine warfare. We escorted warships, transports, freighters, and landing craft of every description, singly and in convoys. Our flank speed was 23.7 knots and our normal full speed was 20 knots. That limited our ability to escort faster ships, mainly the large aircraft carriers which operated and launched at more than 30 knots. But we did escort light carriers which launched at much lower speeds. At 15.7 knots we could have escorted the Indianapolis.

Ensign Author Mason, aged 19 (Courtesy of the Author)

Ensign Author Mason, aged 19 (Courtesy of the Author)

It is relevant to this story, that, in addition to our escort duties, while in port, we served as the flagship of Task Unit 94.7, which meant Ninth Fleet, Task Force 94, and Task unit 94.7. (The Ninth Fleet was originally based in the Aleutians but when we reclaimed the islands of Attu and Kiska from the Japanese in 1943 that sector became quiet and the Ninth Fleet was transferred to the Marianas.) We had a Commodore aboard, useless from age and alcoholism, a figurehead commander of our destroyer escort squadron, (DESRON 39). Our mission was to supply sonar equipped escorts for ships leaving, operating into or out of the Marianas. When in port I spent my day in CIC, communicating over the harbor frequency to ships in the unit, as directed by the captain, assigning them to various convoys as requested by operational authorities or Port Director. Our calling code was “Halloween”, later changed to “Plantation”.

To the best of my knowledge nobody ever sailed out of the Marianas or even operated between Guam, Saipan and Tinian, or beyond, without a sonar-equipped escort. It was a dangerous time. There was even a ship patrolling the narrow entrance to Apra Harbor to ensure against an enemy submarine sneaking in to attack the hundreds of vessels moored or anchored there. On the date the Indianapolis was torpedoed the Spangler was moored in a nest in Apra Harbor with five other destroyer escorts. Five years ago I wrote my first story, entitled “The Bomb” in which I relate how I first heard about the bomb dropped on Hiroshima when we were in that nest. That was only eight days after the sinking. At least one of the ships in that nest was available. The availability of escorts was an issue in the aftermath.

Destroyer escorts were important components of the operations of the Pacific Fleet. As the book states:

The ships, [destroyer escorts] were small, fast, equipped with five-inch and three-inch guns, as well as 20mm and 40mm antiaircraft defenses, Destroyer escorts sailed in company with slower, less defensible ships, such as transports, as well as cruisers, which were not equipped with underwater sound gear. (p.106)

An LCVP from one of teh rescue vessels comes alongside one of the USS Indianapolis rafts (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

An LCVP from one of the rescue vessels comes alongside one of the USS Indianapolis rafts (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

The phrase “slower, less defensible ships“ needs some clarification. We often escorted ships and convoys composed of faster ships but which were for various reasons proceeding at a speed under our full speed limit. Actually that was the case with the Indianapolis which made its final voyage at 15 knots to ease the strain on its engines and save fuel. The words “less defensible” relates only to its sonar equipment and antisubmarine weaponry. Cruisers had much heavier armament and armor, but lacked sonar and were “less defensible” against submarine attacks, sailing alone.

On 24 July the USS Underhill,(DE-683) a destroyer escort, was torpedoed and sunk by two kaitens, suicide submarines, newly introduced into the Japanese fleet, just north of the route of the Indianapolis. It was an important event which should have sharply increased the precautions of the routing authorities.

The Indianapolis was sunk 6 days later. It sank in 12 minutes.

The crew who survived the blast was thrown into the water and most of them without rafts, nets or even life jackets. Over a period of four and a half days 500 men were drowned, eaten by sharks, lost their minds, starved, or died of drinking salt water. The description goes on page after page . At times I had to put it down, it was so horrible. The rescue of 300 survivors, was, by contrast, heart-lifting and in a strange way joyful. You have to read it to believe it.

Ambulances lined up at Guam, awaiting arrival of USS Tranquility (AH-14) with survivors of the sunken Indianapolis (National Archives)

Ambulances lined up at Guam, awaiting arrival of USS Tranquility (AH-14) with survivors of the sunken Indianapolis (National Archives)

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