Keynote Remarks by Sam Cox, Rear Admiral, USN (ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
(Note. This transcription was made from memory after my remarks. It is a close approximation of what I said, or in some cases, meant to say. There is also some additional material intended for clarification, since my initial remarks assumed a fairly high degree of knowledge about the USS Indianapolis from the audience.)
(Note. Although Charles B. McVay III received a “tombstone” promotion to Rear Admiral upon his retirement (which was given to those who distinguished themselves through valor or merit during WWII, until the program was ended in 1959) he was a captain at the time of the sinking and the court martial, and he preferred to be referred to captain during his retirement. Therefore I have referred to him as “captain” throughout.)
(Note. Ten of the remaining 23 survivors of the USS Indianapolis sinking were in attendance)
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen
Those two essays are going to be a very tough act to follow. (The two essays were written by Holly Evans and Kathryn Palmer, descendants of USS Indianapolis and Lost at Sea families for the Gwinn “Angel” Scholarship, named for the pilot who first sighted the survivors, LTjg Chuck Gwinn, and presented by his widow in attendance.) They are both incredibly moving, and I would very much like to get a copy of both if I may.
Words will fail to adequately express the incredible honor it is to have been invited here to speak tonight. I think everyone in this room knows that there is an increasingly fleeting chance to say thank you to those who served, sacrificed and persevered during the time of our nation’s greatest peril, World War II. So I would like to take this opportunity to offer my deepest gratitude and respect to the survivors and their families, and especially to the loved ones of those lost at sea.
I knew the USS Indianapolis story before I was in kindergarten. My grandfather and my father both served as enlisted Sailors in the US Navy. I grew up surrounded by ship models, Jane’s Fighting Ships, and just about every book published on the US Navy in World War II. My punishment for being bad was to not be allowed to watch re-runs of the TV show, Victory at Sea. And it just so happened that as I came of age to first be aware of the outside world, the US Navy, and the concept of history, I was living right here in Indianapolis. So although other kids identified with home sports teams, I always viewed the USS Indianapolis as “my ship.” And I followed developments over the years very closely.
This is now bookended by that fact that in my headquarters in the Washington Navy Yard, one floor above my office, is the room in which Captain McVay’s court-martial was held (December 1945). I also remember clearly that when Captain McVay took his own life in 1968, it was the subject of discussion in our home, and sadness. Both my father and grandfather strongly believed that the court martial of Captain McVay was unfair.
There is no question that the loss of USS Indianapolis is one of the blackest episodes in the history of the US Navy. But I also believe that even in loss and tragedy, there are examples of extraordinary valor and sacrifice that deserve to be remembered, that serve as an inspiration to Sailors today and in the future, and there are lessons learned that must be preserved and passed on, and are relevant even now. The Indianapolis story has these in abundance.
Our current Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, has stated that we must “know our history” so as to not re-learn the lessons of the past, the hard way. He has also stressed not only the importance of personal integrity, but also institutional integrity. Or put another way, we must not lie to ourselves. So I am not the Minister of Propaganda. My mission as the Director of the Naval History and Heritage Command is to preserve and present as accurate an accounting of the history of the US Navy as humanly possible. And to be blunt, there is much about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the aftermath that I would not choose to characterize as the Navy’s finest hour.
Even after Congressional exoneration of Captain McVay and Secretary of the Navy Gordon England’s decision (in 2001) to place the Congressional resolution in Captain McVay’s service record, the controversy, and cloud of misunderstanding, persists to this day.
As recently as a few weeks ago, someone in the Navy expressed to me the opinion that, “the Navy doesn’t give awards for getting sunk.” This resulted in significant separation between my seat and my chair and a “Whoa! Foul! Let’s start with ten battle stars in some of the most crucial and brutal combat across the entirety of the three and a half years of the Pacific War. The crew of the USS Indianapolis distinguished themselves with great courage and fighting skill long before the first Japanese torpedo hit, much of it as the flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance and the Fifth Fleet, the flagship for the largest armada of warships ever assembled in the history of mankind, probably forever. (Relatives of Admiral Spruance were also in attendance, which is apparently the case at every USS Indianapolis reunion.)
I am not going to go through the entire war history of the USS Indianapolis, but I do intend to cover it in some detail, because I think it important. To the extent that anyone remembers and talks about the USS Indianapolis today, it is almost always exclusively focused on the sinking, and the long litany of miscommunication, misinterpretations, missed intelligence reports, and other mistakes ashore that resulted in so many Sailors (880) dying, and of course, sharks. But there is so much more, and I believe it especially important to the families of those lost at sea to know that your loved one isn’t just a hero because he died in the sinking. He is a hero because his courage played an important role in achieving final victory in the most costly war ever waged.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the USS Indianapolis was off at Johnston Island conducting gunnery drills (with several minesweepers). As she participated in the search for the Japanese attack force, she steamed through waters thick with Japanese submarines…the Japanese had deployed over 25 submarines to the waters around Pearl Harbor. It is likely only through pure chance that the USS Indianapolis did not suffer the same fate in the first days of the war as she did in the last days.
USS Indianapolis then provided critical protection to US aircraft carriers that launched among the very first retaliatory offensive strikes against the Japanese, on New Guinea, in March 1942. These carriers then participated in the crucial Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942), which resulted in two Japanese carriers put out of action, so that at the decisive Battle of Midway a month later (June 1942) the odds were four Japanese carriers against three US carriers, instead of six to three, which probably changed the outcome of that most important battle of the war.
Meanwhile, the USS Indianapolis was sent to operate in the Aleutian Islands in brutally cold, foggy and dangerous Alaskan waters, not even counting Japanese submarines. The USS Indianapolis sank a Japanese munitions ship (Akagane Maru) attempting to resupply the Japanese garrison on Attu, one of the islands they had captured, which exploded with the loss of all hands. Japan’s inability to reliably resupply their troops on Attu and Kiska contributed significantly to their loss of Attu and decision to abandon Kiska, which no doubt resulted in saving many US troops.
In numerous actions through the rest of the war, the USS Indianapolis not only served as the flagship but also conducted frequent close-in bombardments of Japanese-held islands to include Tarawa, Kwajalein, Guam, Iwo Jima and others, in range of Japanese return fire. Although there is no way to know for certain how many US Marines survived these bloody battles thanks to USS Indianapolis’ fire support, the number is probably significant. During the battles for Tarawa and Makin Island, the USS Indianapolis operated in waters near the Escort Carrier USS Liscome Bay, which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine with the loss of most of her crew, over 650 (Including Doris Miller, the first African-American to be awarded a Navy Cross, for his courage in action at Pearl Harbor.) Once again, fate spared the USS Indianapolis, but she shared the danger.
And then, the epic battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, with USS Indianapolis once again serving as Admiral Spruance’s flagship right in the thick of it. Far more American Sailors were killed or injured, 9,000 casualties including almost 5,000 killed, than at Pearl Harbor. The number of US ships sunk or seriously damaged by Japanese kamikaze suicide attacks numbered over 100. It is one thing to be willing to die for one’s country. It is quite another to face an enemy that intends to die for his, demonstrating an extraordinary and terrible resolve.
Over my desk, I have a painting of a kamikaze about to hit the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, and I have carried a copy for many years. It serves to remind me, and my staff, that whenever we start feeling sorry for ourselves about what a bad day we might be having…well, we can’t really even comprehend what a real bad day is. And frankly I intend to hang a copy of the USS Indianapolis being hit by two torpedoes (which was on sale at the reunion) in my conference room to serve the same purpose. But another thing about the painting, even though the kamikaze is about to hit, you can see that every gun on that ship is still blazing away. None of the gunners are running, even those who are going to die when that plane hits. They are showing a resolve every bit as great as that pilot. And it is exactly that same kind of courage that was exhibited repeatedly by the crew of the USS Indianapolis in that horrific battle.
The USS Indianapolis shot down six planes off Okinawa. In todays’ environment of high-body count movies and video games that might not seem like such a big deal. But one plane took the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise out of the war. Two planes took the carrier USS Bunker Hill out of the war. One plane with two bombs grievously damaged the carrier USS Franklin, and put her out of the war. So, every one of those planes shot down by the USS Indianapolis mattered.
And when USS Indianapolis’ time came on 31 March 1945, her gunners had less than 25 seconds to react to the kamikaze as it came out of the sun, and still they hit it, and the plane itself struck a glancing blow with minimum damage. But in his last instant of life, the pilot released a bomb which penetrated clean through the ship and out the bottom, exploding just underneath the ship. This by-the-way is how modern torpedoes are designed to work, exploding just underneath the ship, which maximizes the damage to the ship. Yet, through hours of heroic damage control efforts, the crew managed to save their ship.
This attack also demonstrates that there is no safe place on a warship in battle; the entire crew shares the danger. Many of the nine Sailors who died were deep in the ship, some drowned by fuel oil from a ruptured tank. The fact is that whether a Sailor lives or dies in a battle at sea is about as random event as can be imagined. In order for a ship to be successful in battle, every Sailor must do his (and now, her) duty with the utmost efficiency and effectiveness, irrespective of the chance that at any instant a bomb, shell, mine, or torpedo could blow them to eternity.
The kamikaze attack set in motion a chain of destiny. Had it not been for the severe damage, the USS Indianapolis would not have been at Mare Island in July 1945. Had it not been for USS Pensacola’s engineering casualty, which prevented her from carrying the atomic bomb components to Tinian as planned, the USS Indianapolis would have still been at Mare Island when the war ended, and everyone would have survived, except those lost in the kamikaze attack. Instead, the USS Indianapolis came out of the repair yard early, and still made the fastest transit to Pearl Harbor ever recorded and then to Tinian Island, playing a pivotal role in the execution of perhaps the most momentous decision ever made by a US President. And as horrible as that bomb was, it would have been dwarfed by the carnage to Japanese and Americans that would have resulted from an invasion. Millions of descendants are alive today because the USS Indianapolis executed her mission to perfection.
My point in all of this is that all 1,196 men aboard the USS Indianapolis on 30 July 1945 were heroes long before the I-58 fired her six torpedoes, and all 1,196 deserve to be remembered that way.
Over the last couple of days, most of you have attended some superb presentations covering the events of the sinking and the struggle for survival. And frankly, there are those in the audience who know those events far better than I, because you, the survivors, lived it. So I am going to skip ahead to the controversial court martial of Captain McVay.
In the entire history of the United States Navy, no commanding officer of a ship has ever been court-martialed for losing his ship as a result of enemy action, except for Captain McVay. Navy leadership, under Secretary James Forrestal and CNO Ernest King, had every legal authority to convene the court martial, even though both Fleet Admiral Nimitz and Admiral Spruance recommended against it. And of the charge that stuck, failure to zigzag, the result was cut and dried since Captain McVay made no secret that the ship was not zigzagging at the time the torpedoes hit. So, the Navy did not even need to hold a trial to convict Captain McVay of that specific charge. But as Captain Bill Toti (in attendance) has eloquently written, the fact that something is legally correct does not necessarily make it just.
What is certain is that the trial was a media circus, and with the end of wartime censorship, the Navy lost any ability to control the frenzy, and the result was a perfect storm of media, Congressional, new Administration, family and public pressure to blame someone due to the sheer horror of the event. The publicity was what the Navy leadership wanted, to relieve the pressure by demonstrating that someone was being held to account, Captain McVay, but also diverting attention from the plethora of other mistakes made by numerous officers off the Indianapolis, some very senior. But the Navy was also in a box of its own making. Whether inadvertently or on purpose, the news of the sinking was withheld for almost two weeks until a couple hours before President Truman announced the end of the war. Note my use of the passive voice, which obfuscates responsibility, because I have yet to find record of anyone who owned up to that decision. It is difficult to imagine anything more cruel to the families of those lost than to experience the depth of grief as the entire rest of the nation erupts in euphoria, or worse, to have experienced the euphoria only then to learn that their loved one was dead. So when the Court concluded that Captain McVay was guilty of negligently hazarding his ship by failure to zigzag, the anger and invective directed against him by some of the families of those lost was understandable and completely predictable, and in some cases far less forgiving of the captain than were the survivors.
From a pure legal standpoint, the members of the court martial board had no choice but to convict. The charge was failure to zigzag and he wasn’t zigzagging. Case closed. By the regulation, Captain McVay had the discretion to zigzag or not during periods of night and poor visibility. It was a judgment call. That his ship was torpedoed demonstrated that his judgment, in perfect hindsight, was in error. But even the members of the board recognized the fundamental unfairness by immediately and unanimously recommending clemency, that the sentence (loss of 100 numbers on his permanent rank of commander, and 100 on his temporary wartime rank of captain) be remitted, and that Captain McVay be restored to duty.
War itself is fundamentally a mistake. It doesn’t take too much digging into any battle in history to realize that each is a series of multiple errors in judgment. Whether victor or vanquished, both sides make mistakes, usually many. The side that makes the fewest mistakes usually wins, or the side that by good fortune is able to capitalize on the other’s mistake at the right time. The reason is that war is hell. War is chaos. Commanders must make split second decisions based on uncertain information. To hesitate for better information can result in getting blown out of the water. The Pacific war is fraught with errors in judgment, so Captain McVay was actually in good company.
As examples, the Battle of Savo Island (August 1942) was a worse disaster than the USS Indianapolis; three US heavy cruisers and one Australian cruiser caught by surprise and sunk, with the loss of almost 1100 Sailors, with minimal damage to the Japanese. It is easy for an armchair historian like me to point out all the mistakes made by Admirals Callaghan and Scott at the first night battle of Guadalcanal (November 1942) but they paid with their lives and another 1200 Sailors, including the five Sullivan brothers. The Battle of Tassafaronga (November 1942) was another disaster where a few Japanese destroyers defeated a much larger US force. At the battle of Leyte Gulf (October 1944) the great Admirals Halsey and Kinkaid made a potentially catastrophic mistake by thinking the other had San Bernardino Strait covered, saved only by the heroic ultimate sacrifice of hundreds of US Sailors. One of the most iconic photos of the war, in almost every book, shows a plane falling in flames from the sky, almost always identified as Japanese. Actually it is one of ours, shot down by us.
Commanders make calculated risk decisions. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. Admiral Marc Mitscher took a calculated risk at the Battle of the Phillipine Sea (June 1944) when he ordered his carriers to turn on their lights, risking many thousands of Sailors to save a few hundred aviators trying to find their way back in the dark. I mentioned the USS Franklin earlier. Her skipper took a calculated risk to give his men some rest after many hours at general quarters, which is exactly when one lone plane slipped through and hit the ship with two bombs. The crew of the USS Franklin saved their ship, at the cost of almost 800 lives. Her skipper was not court martialed, nor should he have been.
Even during the rescue of the survivors of the USS Indianapolis, there were numerous calculated risks taken. The pilot of the PBY, Lieutenant Adrian Marks, took a calculated risk when he violated standing orders and landed his plane in the open ocean to save 56 survivors. The landing broke his plane so it could not take off, the reason why such landings were forbidden. But he could have easily crashed his plane and instead of being a hero, he and his crew would be dead. The skipper of the USS Cecil Doyle, the first ship to arrive on the scene, took a calculated risk when he turned his searchlight to the sky, providing a literal beacon of hope that saved many lives, but also served as a possible “sink me” message to any Japanese submarines that might have been around. The USS Doyle’s skipper, Commander Graham Claytor, got away with it, and went on to be Secretary of the Navy in President Carter’s administration.
Captain McVay too took a calculated risk. His decision to cease zigzagging was not an oversight, or negligence, or lack of proper training for the crew; it was a deliberate decision trying to balance two contradictory requirements. First, after the severe strain on his power plant from the previous high speed transit, he did not want to risk breaking down in the middle of nowhere while transiting alone. Second he wanted to maximize the daylight training time when the ship was to arrive at Leyte in order to get his crew badly needed gunnery training. The first requirement necessitated slower speeds, and the second faster speeds. By ceasing zigzagging, Captain McVay could accomplish both. Standing orders gave him the discretion to cease zigzagging at night in low visibility. Visibility was poor when he gave the order. Unfortunately for the Indianapolis, the moon broke through the overcast at just the right time to give the submarine I-58 “good enough” visibility to take the shot.
The only person to blame for the loss of the Indianapolis was Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, skipper of the I-58, and he was just doing his duty, with considerable skill in setting up and executing an almost perfect shot, and given the grievous losses suffered by the Japanese submarine force, with considerable courage. Which leads me to a key observation. The war with Japan was as brutal and vicious as any in history. It could be considered a near-miracle that Japan could then make such a rapid transition to a peaceful, democratic nation that has proved time and again to be a great friend and ally of the United States, with a highly capable navy that is now on our side. (Commander Hashimoto’s granddaughter was in attendance at the reunion.) So perhaps the greatest lesson of that terrible war is that never again must the United States and Japan face each other on opposite sides of a field of battle.
So let me transition to what is going on today. I don’t really have a good segue for this so please bear with me. There is a new movie about the USS Indianapolis coming out, probably around Veteran’s Day, called “Men of Courage” starring Nicholas Cage. I do not know if it will be a good movie or a bad movie. The trailers are out, and you can see them on You-tube. It certainly looks like an exciting movie, although many in this room will instantly recognize it was filmed on a battleship not a heavy cruiser. What I do know is that the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy declined to provide support to the film production.
My command reviewed the script to the movie shortly before I came aboard in this job. Due to proprietary reasons we could not retain it and I have not seen it. I have seen the two-page single-spaced paper that we provided in response, listing historical inaccuracies. Most were relatively minor, but there is at least one scene that I believe the survivors would find highly offensive, and a couple that are simply preposterous fiction. Their website credits the US Navy with assisting with the script. If they in fact took our suggestions it might actually turn out to be a really good movie.
Regardless, I am using the movie as a forcing function for my command to review all documentation and to look for additional sources before the movie comes out. My intent is to ensure that the senior Navy leadership and the American public are provided with the most accurate and up-to-date account possible. You all know that it is not a pretty story, but my intent is to be truthful.
I have had my staff reach out to researchers in Japan to glean more from Japanese language sources. Although most relevant Japanese documentation was destroyed just before the end of the war, we have found some interesting things, although most corroborates what we already know. Nevertheless, we have found that Commander Hashimoto initially reported three hits on the USS Indianapolis rather than just two, and he also reported that when he surfaced some time after the attack he sighted flotsam from the wreck, which differed from his testimony at the court martial that he saw nothing. He also testified at the trial that visibility was “good” at the time of the attack, which is how it is characterized in the trial documents and Navy press releases, but which differs from the recollection and testimony of USS Indianapolis survivors. In Japanese language sources, Commander Hashimoto reported that before the attack, visibility was so poor that he had to abort attempts to surface because he couldn’t see out of his periscope, which does match the recollections of USS Indianapolis survivors.
We have also been able to finally identify the LST that was the last ship to see the USS Indianapolis before she was sunk. Using LST-779’s logs, we have been able to determine that her course would not have enabled her to see the sinking or survivors, but it has helped us determine a more accurate position for the sinking. We have also been working with the US Naval Academy oceanography department on improved drift model analysis which we think, when coupled with the LST-779 data and Japanese-language information, will give us a more refined search area, which is about 30 miles off the official loss position. We believe this data will be useful in future expeditions to find the ship. At least one by Dr. Ballard is in the planning stage. I would caution that the bottom topography in the area is like the Himalayan Mountains turned upside down and inside out and filled with water, so the chances of finding the ship will be difficult at best. And, unfortunately, the Cayman-flagged research ship that reported itself in the last several days, to our surprise, to be searching in the area of the USS Indianapolis sinking, is probably not quite in the right area. (The message from that ship to the Survivors organization is incredibly moving.)
We have also been investigating some of the “conspiracy theories.” It is true that Captain McVay’s father, a Navy admiral, had once publicly admonished a young Ernest J. King for bringing women aboard his ship, and King never shook that reputation. But as CNO during WWII, King also personally selected every commander of large warships. If he were out for revenge, he could easily have denied Captain McVay the opportunity for the plum assignment as captain of the Fifth Fleet flagship. It is also plausible that political pressure was brought to bear on Forrestal and King on behalf of one of the officers lost in the sinking, however intense political pressure came from many quarters, so it is not plausible that one bereaved Congressman was responsible for Captain McVay’s court martial.
We also are looking at the intelligence reports that Captain McVay did not have access to, either prior to the attack or during the court-martial. I personally believe that the ULTRA intelligence was not precise enough to have made much difference, nor was the reporting of the sinking of the USS Underhill, which Captain McVay did not get, since Underhill was actually a considerable distance (700 miles) from the position of the Indianapolis sinking, farther than a submarine could go in that time. The intelligence reports that Captain McVay did receive, although vague, did include the potential for submarine attack in the vicinity of his track, and that threat was considered ever-present anyway. There is no evidence that the bridge watch or the lookouts were any less alert than they should have been, even if they had known for sure a submarine was in the area. The potential for submarine attack was reportedly on everyone’s mind, and there is no evidence Captain McVay willfully disregarded the threat. He simply calculated that on a dark night in poor visibility in a huge expanse of ocean the odds of a submarine being in exactly the right spot were slim. Unfortunately Commander Hashimoto got lucky, and Captain McVay was not.
I have probably been overly long-winded, so let me conclude.
I have always viewed Captain McVay as a hero. Some accounts make it seem that Captain McVay was despondent that the sinking wrecked his career, since even though the sentence was remitted, he never served at sea again. From my reading of his character, I really doubt that his career prospects were very high in his mind. Captain McVay was Navy to his core, and I believe that he would have done anything possible to accomplish his assigned mission even at the risk of his ship and crew. But I also believe that he truly wanted bring every man in his crew home alive. His failure to do so weighed very heavily on him for the rest of his life. He was imbued with the Navy principle of the absolute responsibility of command, whether his fault or not didn’t matter to him. Even if he did everything right, he still had to live with the responsibility that at best, his best wasn’t good enough. Yet he bore that responsibility with absolute dignity and professionalism throughout the aftermath.
But what I think really sets him apart as a hero was how he performed while adrift in the sea. He survived the sinking. He could have taken the time-honored tradition of going down with his ship. But I believe his sense of duty to his crew precluded that option. He wasn’t just a man in the water fighting for his personal survival. He never relinquished command even while floating on a raft. He remained in command of everything within view, maintaining military order, and making decisions that saved the lives of others. Any reasonable person could forgive him had he put his own survival first, under the circumstances. But Captain McVay continued to exhibit extraordinary leadership throughout the entire ordeal. It is one thing to display great leadership when things are going good. It is quite another to do so during the most hellish conditions imaginable, when there was nothing in it for him, except an indomitable will to do the right thing. I submit that this is the epitome of command leadership, and should serve as an inspiration to all future naval officers.
So in my opinion Captain McVay was a hero, and the survivors were heroes, although I believe they would all say that they were just doing their duty. But I think everyone would agree that the greatest heroes were those who were lost at sea, those who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our nation.
At every memorial service for a Sailor fallen in battle or lost at sea, the Navy makes a solemn promise to their families that we will remember them, that we will not forget the sacrifice made by their loved one. As the Director of Naval History it is my duty to ensure that the Navy keeps that promise. And I can assure the survivors and the families of those lost at sea that I will do my utmost to ensure that the sacrifice of the USS Indianapolis and her brave crew is never forgotten.