Dec 20

The Indianapolis Tragedy: My Perspective-The Court-Martial

Thursday, December 20, 2018 12:01 AM

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Press Conference: Captain McVay meets the war correspondents when he arrives at Guam after rescue (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Press Conference: Captain McVay meets the war correspondents when he arrives at Guam after rescue (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

The search for blame for the disaster began on 13 August 1945. A Court of Inquiry was held in Guam at which Captain Charles B. McVay III was present to represent himself. The inquiry focused on the events of the night of 30 July, (1) the failure to zigzag, (2) the alleged failure to send out distress signals, (3) the mix-up in advising Leyte of the arrival time, (4) the failure of Leyte authorities to report the ship overdue, (5) the failure to provide an escort for the ship, (6) the failure to warn McVay of the known presence of submarines en route, and (7) most agonizing, the four day failure to realize the ship was missing, all of which Indianapolis by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, relates brilliantly in heart-breaking detail. Six hundred men died by drowning hunger, disease, and sharks during that unbelievable four-day collective lapse of the entire Pacific Fleet organization

To me, as an assignment officer of Task Unit 94.7.1, the answer, in hindsight, is clear. It is laid out in this crucial understated passage on page 118 of the book when, on 27 July, the day before departure, Captain McVay is being routinely “routed” on his trip to Leyte by some junior officers in Guam, just three days after the sinking of the Underhill:

McVay remarked that he would prefer to travel with another ship. He had never felt that a ship without underwater sound detection equipment should travel alone, but sometimes escorts weren’t available and the skipper had to accept the risk

 At Okinawa damage to destroyers and destroyer escorts had required Pacific Fleet commanders to rethink the deployment of escorts… so by the time Indianapolis was ready to sail, escorts were being used for merchants, for troopships and for vessels traveling in the most exposed areas. Route Peddie [the Guam-Leyte route] was not considered one of these. The routing officer told McVay he could not be afforded an escort.. [The judgment that the route to the Philippines was not one of the most exposed routes couldn’t possibly have been reviewed after the sinking of the Underhill, four days earlier].

 After McVay was gone, Waldron [ junior routing officer] called the offices of Captain Oliver Naquin…to see whether an escort was available. Waldron was told that no escort was necessary[!!] Waldron was a little surprised and he said as much to Northover [his colleague], adding, ‘at least we went though the motions’. (emphasis mine)

Waldron was not told “no escort was available” but that “no escort was necessary”. It is not clear what Captain McVay was told. How many of us will find an early grave while somebody is sitting in their office saying, “At least we went through the motions”. One has to wonder if McVay considered refusing to embark without an escort. What escort assignment in Guam on 29 July 1945 was more important than a heavy cruiser with a crew of more than 1100. What would have happened if he had insisted.

Moreover I know escorts were available on Guam on 29 July 1945. I served on one of them. I helped assign them. It has occurred to me as I write this that Captain McVay was consulting with the Fifth Fleet routers in Guam and that they may have been unaware of the Ninth Fleet forces on the same island who worked with the Port Director to assign escorts. What an awful thought if the whole tragedy could be traced to the failure to include Ninth Fleet escort vessels, moored in the same harbor, in Fifth Fleet planning and routing. We were there and why did not they call on us. We were in the wrong numbered Fleet!

Indianapolis' survivors en route to a hospital following their rescue (National Archive)

Indianapolis‘ survivors en route to a hospital following their rescue (National Archive)

After the ship was torpedoed and the survivors rescued, Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations in Washington convened a Court of Inquiry in Guam on 13 August to determine cause and blame. He was dissatisfied with the results. There were “too many unanswered questions” He had questions, leading off with “Why was Indianapolis proceeding unescorted? Why were no escorts available, and if available, why were they not provided?” He questioned the discipline and organization of the ship. He was critical of the officers at Leyte Gulf who took no action when the Indianapolis was “late”. Finally he was critical of McVay for not continuing to zigzag into the night.”

On 25 September King urged a “supplemental” investigation be undertaken regarding routing, escorts, information on Japanese submarine activity in the area. and the failure of Leyte to receive the departure information from the Indianapolis. It “might not bode well for the Navy” (p.331). He found very disturbing evidence of widespread cause for blame up and down the line.

However, at the last minute King made the decision to only pursue the court-martial of Captain McVay for failure to zigzag. The authors spend several pages (331-337) exploring the basis for King’s decision. There was a mountain of evidence pointing to negligence and stupidity, in Pearl Harbor (delay by Nimitz’ staff in initiating the search.), Guam (failure to provide an escort and notify of sub traffic in area), and Leyte (failure to initiate search for four days). The authors in a very insightful way speculate on why King focused on McVay. There was a personal reason, first, King had once been reprimanded by McVay’s father ‘while serving under him in the Asiatic fleet”. Second the unspoken bond that the senior officers on the griddle belonged to the ‘’ ‘same small club’ for decades, and King belonged to it too’, the old boy solidarity network. and third, fear of exposure of the disfunctionality of the fleet. The authors put it very baldly:

Now, in the afterglow of victory, Nimitz’s chief of staff and other leading lights of the Pacific war would be dragged out in open court to testify about….failures that had led to the death of nearly nine hundred men on the eve of victory, and more than a thousand if you tallied Underhill under similar intelligence failings (p.337)

The authors conclude King accelerated the hearings to keep the failings of his admiral friends under cover and a quick court martial would prevent the development of exonerating testimony by McVay.

So it came about that suddenly on 29 November 1945, less than three months after the sinking, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal at the request of Admiral King, over the opposition of Nimitz, ordered Captain McVay be court-martialed commencing 3 December 1945, — four days’ notice. I am sure all the lawyers reading this will find this astonishing beyond anything they have ever encountered. “Due process of law” did not exist in the Navy of 1945.

That is only the beginning. McVay was assigned a lawyer, whom he had never met, a Navy Captain named John Parmelee Cady. Let me quote from the Vincent-Vladik book about Captain Cady.

In his plebe year, Cady’s go-to rule book was his Bible. . .,by his third year, he had become, according to his peers, ‘well encrusted with salt’. So salty was he that in the summer of 1921 his exploits during a midshipmen’s practice cruise became the stuff of legend . In the Norwegian city of Christi, Cady drank too much pilsner with a fetching blond , ‘Norske’, then nursed the resulting hangover by hanging his head out a porthole all the way to Lisbon.

We are further informed that after graduation Cady attended law school at George Washington University. He flunked the bar exam the first time and later passed, but showed no further interest in practicing law. He was assigned to defend McVay on 29 November. The trial was to begin on 3 December, four days, including a weekend, for Cady to prepare. The prosecutor, Captain Thomas V. Ryan had been preparing for weeks.

The court martial was convened on two charges: 1) negligence for failure to zigzag and 2) failure to order Abandon Ship on time, a charge later dropped. Zigzagging is a common naval maneuver intended to disguise a vessel’s “base course” from enemy observers in the air, on the surface or submerged. If your base course, for example, is 270°, due west, a simplified zigzag plan could have you travelling on a course of 300° for ten minutes and 240° for ten minutes; most plans were far more complex than that. Zigzagging was generally terminated at darkness when visibility is poor; however with the invention of radar zigzagging was frequently continued into the night.

Captain McVay tells War Correspondents about the sinking of his ship (National Archive)

Captain McVay tells War Correspondents about the sinking of his ship (National Archive)

On the opening day, prosecutor Captain Ryan, made his opening statement and then the Court asked Cady if he was ready for trial. He accurately said “no”. When asked how much time he needed to be ready he unbelievably said “one day”. One day is what he got. He was still not ready and never was ready, and never could have been ready. I hate to criticize another lawyer in a difficult case but I have the feeling Captain Cady was the Navy’s instrument to be certain Captain McVay was found guilty.

On 19 December, after a two-week trial Captain McVay was indeed found guilty for the death of 879 men and the loss of the ship, ostensibly for ”failure to zigzag”. The evidence on this point was confused by the fact that the best witness for the defense was the captain of the Japanese submarine that torpedoed the Indianapolis. Commander Mochitsura Mashimoto, testifying through an interpreter, thought he had said:” I was in a perfect position. I would have hit the target no matter what.”. That could have been damaging to the case against McVay as it made it clear he would have been sunk even if he had zigzagged. Unfortunately his answer was mistranslated and Cady who knew the correct translation, let it pass. The point was zigzagging would not have helped. That is just one sample of the totally inadequate defense. There was other evidence of the total irrelevance of the zigzagging that was lost in the shuffle.

Captain McVay was found guilty and sentenced to a demotion which would have ended his career. Admiral Nimitz, my idol as my commander-of the Pacific Fleet, succeeded Admiral King as Chief of Naval Operations and immediately annulled the demotion but he could not remove the stain of guilt. Nor could he further pursue the finding as to the real fault in the death of 879 men. (I never met Chester Nimitz but my feelings for him trickled down to my son, Tom, who named his cat, Admiral Nimitz and Nimitz terrorized every dog in the neighborhood.)

Now that I have brought up Tom’s name he is a fine lawyer in Washington, and an outstanding historian of World War II and he reviewed this story and made some helpful comments. He says, quite accurately that it is Navy tradition that the captain of a ship that is lost in collision, going aground, fire, or other disaster is routinely court-martialed for loss of the ship. The authors recognize this point in a very enlightened discussion on pages 399-400. Captains are unconditionally accountable for the safety of the ship. The recent spate of collisions in 2017-2018 has resulted in routine court-martial proceedings against the captains. Moreover, McVay should have argued strenuously for a sonar escort, or for air cover, or for non-sonar escort to rescue the crew if the ship were torpedoed. We do not know about the training of the crew to abandon ship. The failure to zigzag may not have been crucial but it was a failure. In short, Tom argues, there was a lot of guilt to go around and some of it belonged to the Captain. The relatively light sentence indicates that the Court in1945 understood that too. The fact that Captain McVay never publicly complained about the trial is further evidence of this point.

Loss of the USS Indianapolis, July 1945 (National Archive)

Loss of the USS Indianapolis, July 1945 (National Archive)

Most of what I written here I learned from the comprehensive Vincent-Vladic book . However, I had my first inkling of the movement to clear Captain McVay in 1999 at a Labor Day party where I shared a moment with an old friend, Mike Monroney, Jr., son of Senator Mike Monroney, one of the most respected men in Washington on a bipartisan basis. Mike Jr. told me he was taking up the cause for Captain McVay, that it was imperative for his family and the fairness of the entire system of military justice for the truth to come out. Incredibly the process was sparked by an 11-year-old student in Pensacola , Florida, Hunter Scott writing a term paper. He could not let go. He got major support from Senator Smith, maverick Republican from New Hampshire, his Congressman, Joe Scarborough, now “Morning Joe”, picked up the cause and within a year the decision was reversed. Too late for Captain McVay but justice has a long memory. Thank you Hunter, Joe, Mike and the hundreds of others who worked to correct this injustice. We must also thank Senator John Warner, a former Navy Secretary, for finally recognizing the truth.  I love the ending of the story but I am not sure if it was the exoneration of an innocent man. I am not sure that Captain McVay would have agreed.

Obviously I have concluded that the primary and principal cause of the loss of the Indianapolis was the failure to provide escorts to a ship without sonar equipment. Our ship and others like it were available, sitting idle in Guam Harbor, visible from the fated cruiser. We should have been used. I also conclude Captain McVay had some responsibility for that failure.

A postwar incident underlines this point. After the surrender, for the next 30-60 days we were required to operate under wartime antisubmarine precautions on the assumption, the correct assumption, that many of the Japanese forces throughout the world had not heard the Emperor’s call for surrender and were still at war. In June 1945 there was a typhoon just south of Okinawa and the Pittsburgh, a cruiser of the same class as the Indianapolis , had about 50 feet of its prow ripped off by the storm. Both parts of the ship were dogged down, watertight; the main portion was able to make slow progress back to Guam. No lives were lost. The prow was picked up by a tug. The Spangler and another DE were sent up to escort the floating prow home. It is ironic that after the war was over the Pacific Fleet was zealously protecting its ships, or parts of ship, from submarine attack. Sadly it was too late for the families of the men lost on the Indianapolis. Everything was too late for them, the court-martial of Captain McVay was too late and his exoneration came too late for him and for the Navy.