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USS Indianapolis (CA-35) Passes USS LST-779, 29 July 1945

On Sunday, 29 July 1945, the tank landing ship LST-779 steamed toward Samar, Philippine Islands, along Convoy Route Peddie, loaded with cargo and with four pontoon barges secured to her flat sides, on a logistical assignment that offered a respite for her crew after the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.[i] She had arrived off the coast of Iwo Jima the morning of the assault and unloaded cargo under fire. At 1600 the following day she was the first LST to beach on the invasion beachhead. The American flag raised over Mount Suribachi on 23 February 1945 captured on film by War Correspondent Joe Rosenthal and Staff Sergeant William H. Genaust, USMC, came from LST-779.  When she left Iwo Jima, mattresses and pillows filled the holes above her waterline—makeshift repairs to the damage suffered during combat operations.[ii] After repairs at Saipan, she had supported the landings at Okinawa, so a simple cargo mission in late July provided needed relief. At 1300 on 29 July, Lieutenant Joseph A. Hopkins, USNR, her commanding officer, ordered LST-779 to set course for the waters north of Convoy Route Peddie, called his crew to general quarters, and began antiaircraft defense exercises. Sometime after making the northward turn, LST-779 spotted a large ship approaching and made visual contact with her. Discovering that she was the decorated heavy cruiser Indianapolis (CA-35), Hopkins warned her that they were about to conduct firing exercises. As Indianapolis passed out of sight, bound also for the Philippines, none of the crew of LST-779 realized that their ship would be the last American vessel to see her.  

Until now, it has not been realized that the location of that encounter at sea sheds new light on where Indianapolis was lost. That information, and more, emerged from a reevaluation of the evidence regarding the loss of Indianapolis that the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) staff undertook. What follows is a summary of the historical literature, along with new information gleaned from archival research.

Much has been written about the circumstances surrounding the sinking of Indianapolis, the tragic loss of life due to a delayed rescue, and the controversial court martial of Captain Charles B. McVay III, her last commanding officer. Most historical treatments of the sinking focus on establishing accountability for both the sinking and the failure of the U.S. Navy to initiate a rescue mission immediately. Central questions repeat themselves. Did the Navy withhold intelligence of Japanese submarine movements from Indianapolis that might have prevented the sinking? Was Indianapolis ordered to travel unescorted between Guam and Leyte through areas with known Japanese submarine activity? Did Captain McVay recklessly endanger his ship by not zigzagging in weather conditions where regulations required such defensive maneuvers? Did Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, commanding officer of the Japanese submarine I-58, deploy manned Kaiten suicide torpedoes along with standard Type 95 weapons? Did the radiomen on board Indianapolis manage to transmit a distress signal providing their location, and if so, was that message received but dismissed? Why was the failure of Indianapolis to arrive at Leyte on schedule not reported, leaving some 800 sailors adrift for four days in the Philippine Sea? Should Captain McVay have been court-martialed and convicted for the sinking? Swift action from the U.S. Navy to assign blame for the loss, distance itself from responsibility, and close the book on the tragedy only increased public interest in the story, occurring as it did shortly before the end of World War II in the Pacific.

The 70th anniversary of the sinking on 30 July 2015 brought renewed public interest in Indianapolis. In the summer of 2016, the movie USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, directed by Mario Van Peebles, will be released with Nicolas Cage portraying Captain McVay. Reportedly, Robert Downey Jr. is producing a film on Indianapolis focusing on both the sinking and 11-year-old amateur historian Hunter Scott’s efforts in the late 1990s to exonerate McVay. Heightened focus on Indianapolis led historians at NHHC to revisit what is considered one of the most disastrous events in the 240-year history of the United States Navy. It is NHHC’s intent to make available to the public documents that tell an accurate story of the loss of Indianapolis—both the good and the bad. NHHC staff historians have also endeavored to break new ground in the account of the actual sinking—where was Indianapolis when she went down and how did her crew react after the torpedo hits? Answers to those questions led down unexpected paths.

The Navy’s account of the loss of Indianapolis began on 3 August 1945, when the high speed transport Ringness (APD-100) picked up 37 Indianapolis survivors, including Captain McVay. After being adrift in a life raft for almost five days and unaware if any of his crew survived outside of the handful in his immediate vicinity, McVay was lifted on board Ringness. One of his first statements to rescuers was conveyed in a message from Ringness to the headquarters of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, CinCPac, “ship hit 0015 Sank 0030 zone minus nine one half thirty July. Position on track exactly as routed PD Guam. Speed 17 not zigzagging. Hit forward by what is believed to be two torpedoes or mine followed by magazine explosion.”[iii]

Captain McVay’s initial statement provided the information that apparently had not been transmitted in the quarter-hour it took his ship to sink five days earlier. He was also ensuring that his superiors knew that he was following his routing instructions exactly when his ship was sunk, and taking accountability for not zigzagging— a decision that would haunt him for the remainder of his life.

The official assessment of the men lost with Indianapolis was dreadful. Of the 1,196 on board, only 316 survived. Eight-hundred-eighty of those lost perished at sea, the vast majority while waiting for a rescue only initiated four days after the sinking when a twin-engine Lockheed PV-1 Ventura on submarine patrol spotted an oil slick and followed it to the largest group of 150 survivors.[iv] The official U.S. Navy position for where Indianapolis went down, likely a dead reckoning position based on McVay’s statement that he was exactly where his routing instructions put him, was 12°02'N, 134°48'E—right on the prescribed track of Convoy Route Peddie.[v] He reported that his ship remained afloat for no more than fifteen minutes after being struck by two torpedoes on the starboard side just forward of frame 70, and that she went down in over 1,200 fathoms of water.[vi] The position recorded by Ringness for Captain McVay’s rescue (11°35'N, 133°21'E) placed him over 100 miles (distances calculated in standard miles) west of where he supposedly entered the water.

While the location given by the Navy for the sinking of Indianapolis is seemingly one of the more reliable pieces of the story, it is uncertain how exactly the Navy determined that position other than McVay’s testimony that his ship was exactly where she was supposed to be. Historical records specifying the sinking location do not exist, as no distress signal providing the location of Indianapolis was received. Allied intelligence recovered I-58’s message to Tokyo confirming the kill, but failed to identify a specific ship or recover the position given by the Japanese. The rapidity with which Indianapolis went down must also be considered.

I-58’s torpedo hits took place just minutes after midnight and took the crew of Indianapolis completely by surprise; subsequent explosions rocked the ship. Damage from the torpedoes to the forward engine room stopped engines No. 1 and No. 4. Lieutenant Richard B. Redmayne, the Chief Engineer, reached the after engine room and ordered the failing No. 2 engine shut down. Unable to communicate with the bridge, Redmayne made the decision to increase the only functioning engine, No. 3, to full speed. Unfortunately the acceleration caused by that engine allowed the ship to plow ahead, water pouring into her wrecked bow. Within twelve minutes, the ship listed 90 degrees on her starboard side and began her unchecked descent into some of the deepest water on Earth. The ship’s logs went down with her, and sailors who sent out the distress signal failed to recollect the exact latitude and longitude they attempted to send. Survivors, many of them severely injured, spent nearly five days adrift without supplies and tormented by sharks. The focus, once the rescue began, was on where the men in the water were, not the point from which they originated.

One piece of the Indianapolis story capable of providing a better idea of the ship’s location when sunk has been present in accounts of the sinking and historical treatments, but mentioned only as a side note. Captain McVay revealed in an oral history that approximately twelve hours before the attack, Indianapolis passed an American tank landing ship (LST). He described the event on 29 July as follows:

We had no incidents whatsoever [on July 29th]. We passed an LST headed toward Leyte as we were also, on Sunday, and talked to them. They were north of us and they were preparing to go further north in order to get out of our area to do some anti-aircraft shooting.[vii]

Indianapolis chroniclers Richard Newcomb and Thomas Helm both mentioned the encounter in their respective books on the sinking. Both placed the encounter around midday on the 29th, stated that the LST was moving north, referenced a brief radio conversation between the two ships, and indicated the LST’s intent to move further north for antiaircraft firing training.[viii] An after action report from the Peleliu Command dated 6 August 1945 prepared using survivor accounts addressed the passing as well, minus radio contact:

Radio silence had not been broken prior to the attack, but an LST had been spoken visually at about 1400 (-9 ½) on Sunday 29 July. The Indianapolis had passed this vessel on approximately the same course.[ix]

Such an encounter at sea on a heavily traveled convoy route would generally be considered routine. The fact that that LST was the last American ship to see Indianapolis afloat, however, and that the encounter took place on the day of the attack makes it a significant piece of the Indianapolis story. In the 71 years since the sinking, the identification of that LST was either lost or its importance overlooked. The Navy Department’s 1945 Ship’s Data U.S. Naval Vessels lists over 800 tank landing ships in commission for the final year of WWII. The large number of those vessels made it nearly impossible to search all deck logs systematically and narrow down the identity of the LST encountered by Indianapolis on her final voyage.

Information posted online, however, has recently helped identify the LST in question. Aaron Murdick’s Fudge Shop in Mackinaw City, Michigan, wrote a blog post entitled, “Francis G. Murdick—My Father,” accompanied by a WWII era photograph of a smiling young sailor. Moved to commemorate his father’s naval service on Memorial Day 2015, the blog’s author recounted a story his father told him about being aboard an LST bound for Leyte in July 1945 and getting passed by Indianapolis. The young sailor did not find out until much later that Indianapolis was sunk on that voyage. His son was thankful his father’s ship did not suffer a similar fate in the same dangerous waters.[x] Historians at NHHC obtained access to the service records of Francis G. Murdick to see if the story might offer a lead in identifying the LST. The historical record confirmed the memory; personnel files for Seaman First Class Francis Murdick listed him as a passenger on board LST-779 when she departed Guam on 27 July 1945—one day before Indianapolis sailed, a discovery that merited further research in the U.S. Navy’s World War II deck logs held by the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland.

Deck logs for LST-779 indicated that she left Port Apra Harbor, Guam, at 1500 on Friday, 27 July en route to Samar, Philippines.[xi] She would follow Convoy Route Peddie to her destination. Indianapolis cleared the same harbor at 0910 the next day (28 July) en route to Leyte Gulf.[xii] Around mid-day on the 29th the two ships passed. LST-779 did not specifically mention her encounter with Indianapolis in her deck log that day, but the log did recount exactly what McVay remembered from the meeting. At 1300, LST-779 held general quarters to conduct firing exercises and began moving north of Peddie. At 1324, she released eight target balloons and shot five down. The crew secured from gunnery practice at 1353. With firing exercises completed, crew secured from general quarters at 1410 and the ship resumed her regular route. A reason for the omission of the encounter with Indianapolis or the exchange of signals between the two ships in the LST’s deck logs is unknown. Nevertheless, the timing of LST-779’s antiaircraft training and her movement northward from Peddie fits exactly with historic accounts of Indianapolis’ passing an LST on the cruiser’s final voyage. There is little doubt that LST-779 is the anonymous ship from the Indianapolis story. As the tank landing ship moved north for their firing exercises, those who may have caught a glimpse of the cruiser were the last Americans to do so. In approximately eleven hours, the cruiser would be in the sights of a Japanese submarine.

That fateful meeting of LST-779 and Indianapolis provides critical information regarding the Indianapolis sinking, namely, that the cruiser was ahead of schedule on Route Peddie and slightly south of it. The encounter offers a previously unknown data point along Route Peddie the day of the sinking that helps establish the location of Indianapolis. Additionally, LST-779’s deck logs are the closest thing to the missing Indianapolis deck logs that will ever be found. LST-779 traversed the same waters at the same time, recording specific information about weather and sea conditions. The deck logs make it possible to better understand exactly what natural circumstances Indianapolis encountered— new data that can help researchers better determine where Indianapolis would have been when torpedoed and how survivors in the water would have been at the mercy of the movement of the sea. Additionally, LST-779’s being unable to see any survivors or wreckage as she passed where the sinking was on Peddie the following morning, and an absence of survivors’ recollections of seeing a ship the first morning in the water, indicates that neither were in the other’s line-of-sight—another indicator of the location of Indianapolis.

Instructions for Indianapolis established seven routing positions along Route Peddie. A chart with positions and times for which Indianapolis passed each up until the sinking was presented at the court of inquiry to determine if McVay would face court-martial. That chart indicated that Indianapolis reached the third point on her route, CFL (12°30'N, 138°00'E), at 1200 on 29 July.[xiii] The deck logs for LST-779, however, tell a different story. At 1200 on 29 July LST-779 recorded a position of 12°22'N, 137°23'E, approximately 43 miles south-southwest of point CFL. Between 1200 and the initiation of maneuvers for antiaircraft firing practice at 1300, logs for LST-779 indicate that the ship moved at full speed.[xiv] When Indianapolis made first contact with LST-779, the tank landing ship was reportedly beginning to move northward for practice. That meant that the meeting likely took place shortly after 1300 and even further south-southwest of point CFL than LST-779’s noon position. During that daytime meeting, Indianapolis was zigzagging at approximately 15 knots. Sometime between 1930 and 2000 Captain McVay determined that the visibility post-sunset was poor enough for Indianapolis to cease zigzagging and increase speed to 17 knots. That increased speed for the ship’s final four hours would move her even further ahead of schedule on Route Peddie. Unfortunately, it also appears that Captain McVay likely maintained his route slightly south of Peddie while Lieutenant Hopkins definitely kept LST-779 slightly north of Peddie following his ship’s gunnery evolutions. When LST-779 traveled past where the Indianapolis survivors would have been in the water at 0800 the morning after the sinking, she was much too far north—about 10 miles—to have any possibility of spotting them.

Those new findings indicate that Indianapolis was, in all probability, ahead of schedule and not exactly on Route Peddie, information that does not merit further indictment of Captain McVay. To the commander of a combatant ship the U.S. Navy left much discretion. McVay was given the option of leaving Guam on Friday, 27 July, steaming at 24–25 knots to arrive at Leyte on the morning of Monday, 30 July. That was unsatisfactory because McVay felt that the engines of Indianapolis needed a rest after the high speed run transporting atomic bomb components from San Francisco to Tinian between 16–26 July. He opted instead for the routing instructions that called for a slower speed and put him at Leyte Gulf one morning later. McVay was so adamant about a morning arrival in Leyte Gulf because Indianapolis had a large contingent of untested crewmen in the ship’s company and he wanted to arrive at dawn so that the ship could conduct antiaircraft firing practice in the final stretch of the voyage. The war was not yet over, and McVay, anticipating that his ship would take part in the invasion of the Japanese home islands, did not want to take an untrained crew into a critical phase of the war. McVay’s eagerness to arrive at Leyte in time to squeeze in precious training perhaps enticed him to keep slightly ahead of schedule early in the voyage to mitigate unknown factors that might slow him down later. It is an unfortunate circumstance that Indianapolis’s track placed her in the path of submarine I-58.  

With a better understanding of Indianapolis’s position when sunk, NHHC historians endeavored to look deeper into the operations of submarine I-58. Dr. Jun Kimura of Tokai University, a cultural affairs liaison who has helped NHHC in the past, looked at the few primary source records from I-58 at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo. It is well documented that all of the charts and records from that boat were destroyed by her crew, as ordered, before she was surrendered to U.S. forces and that the Japanese perspective of the attack on Indianapolis came from Hashimoto’s recollection of the event.

Fortunately, the Japanese archives contains an early account from Commander Hashimoto, written for the Allies in his native language shortly after the war, in which he provides a more detailed explanation of the sinking than previously realized. While the Japanese language record does not give cause for a major reevaluation of the sinking, it does help reconstruct the attack from the perspective of the attacker.

According to the Japanese account, at 2226 [all times adjusted to Indianapolis ship time], the moon had risen and Hashimoto looked through his periscope and determined that visibility was too poor for I-58 to surface. The submarine finally surfaced at 2335 and identified through binoculars what was thought to be a surfaced enemy submarine to the east at a distance of 10,000 meters. I-58 submerged and acquired the target in her night periscope perfectly silhouetted by the moon. Three minutes later, and still unaware of the exact identity of his target, Lieutenant Commander Hashimoto ordered his crew to prepare six Type 95 torpedoes with Type 2 Mod. 1 warheads for attack and also prepared to man the Kaiten. According to Hashimoto’s hand-drawn sketch, by 2348 I-58 was prepared to attack and was within 3,000 meters of her target’s starboard side, completely undetected. Hashimoto, within 1,500 meters, fired the first of his Type 95 torpedoes with a solution of 11 knots (not the actual 17 the Indianapolis was travelling) at 2356—all were on their way by 0002.  

The first torpedo hit directly in front of Turret I at 0003, causing a large explosion. Three water pillars followed. The target reportedly came to a stop at 0004 when a fourth explosion took place. The apparent success of the Type 95 torpedoes caused Hashimoto not to deploy his eager Kaiten crews on an unnecessary suicide mission. After 18 minutes from the first hit, the lights flickered at the center of Indianapolis and ten loud explosions were heard—several making much more noise than the torpedo hits.[xv] I-58 then turned away from the ship and distanced herself from her target in anticipation of a counter-attack. At 0030, all explosions had ceased and I-58 returned to the location finding no signs of any ship. Hashimoto surfaced and moved through area at 0100 and found enough flotsam to determine that his crew had succeeded in sinking the enemy ship. At 0145 he submitted his report of a successful sinking of one Idaho-class battleship with three torpedo hits at 0003 30 July.[xvi]

The situation described by then-Commander Hashimoto (who had been promoted upon his return to Japan) confirms what he related in his testimony at Captain McVay’s court martial at the Washington Navy Yard in December 1945—that zigzagging would have not saved Indianapolis. The clouds overhead parted and allowed the moonlight to break through. With a large target backlit by the moon and at such a close distance any competent submarine captain could have hit his mark with a spread of six torpedoes.  The middle of the night between 29 and 30 July 1945, in the waters of the Philippine Sea, I-58 was at the right place and Indianapolis was not. A temporary change in weather conditions heightened the good and bad fortune of each.

The new information regarding Indianapolis’ progress on Route Peddie does not fundamentally change any of the questions about accountability; it does, however, provide new intelligence for exploration to identify a new search area. Teams have tried to find Indianapolis in the past, but failed, partly because she is over two miles down, but also because they were looking in the wrong place. Depending on the condition of the wreck, researchers might be able to determine how many of I-58’s torpedoes—two or three—actually hit. Finding the wreck of Indianapolis could perhaps bring some closure to one of the Navy’s most tragic events. The wreck is not only the tomb for several hundred U.S. Sailors and Marines, but an iconic symbol of the American sea power that won the war in the Pacific—and a solemn reminder that even the most powerful military in the world is capable of a tragic mistake.

Figure 1: Chart showing movements of LST-779 from deck log data in relation to Convoy Route Peddie and U.S. Navy position for Indianapolis sinking. Prepared by Naval History and Heritage Command, Underwater Archaeology Branch.
Figure 1: Chart showing movements of LST-779 from deck log data in relation to Convoy Route Peddie and U.S. Navy position for Indianapolis sinking. Prepared by Naval History and Heritage Command, Underwater Archaeology Branch.

-Endnotes- 

[i] “Ship’s History for LST-779,” 5 April 1946, Naval History and Heritage Command Archives, Washington Navy Yard. 

[ii] Ibid. And “Action Report, Invasion of Iwo Jima, 19-18 February 1945, USS LST 779,” 17 March 1945, RG 38, Box 1205, NARA II, College Park. 

[iii] Naval Message, Ringness (APD-100) to CINPAC ADV HED, 3 August 1945, Pacific Dispatches, 1 July-15 August 1945, RG 38, Box 83, NARA II, College Park. 

[iv] “Survivors of the USS Indianapolis,” from Indianapolis Ship’s History, NHHC Archives, WNY. 

[v] “After Action Report of Captain McVay,” 12 August 1945, from Indianapolis Files, NHHC Archives, WNY. 

[vi] Ibid. Based on an analysis of the location from Google Earth it appears more likely that depth of the wreck approaches 1,700 fathoms (10,300 feet). 

[vii] McVay’s Oral History, available at http://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/oral-histories/wwii/sinking-of-the-uss-indianapolis-capt-charles-mcvay.html. 

[viii] Thomas Helm, Ordeal by Sea: The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (New York: Don, Mead & Co., 1963), 21. Richard F. Newcomb, Abandon Ship: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy’s Greatest Disaster (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1958/2001), 46-47. 

[ix] “Island Commander Peleliu: Loss of the USS Indianapolis, Forwards List of Survivors of Cruiser USS Indianapolis, Torpedoed and Sunk 30 July 1945; Also Forwards a Summary of Information Available in Regard to the Sinking, Based on Interrogations of the Survivors,” 6 August 1945, Action Reports, RG 38, Box 70, NARA II, College Park. 

[x] John Murdick, “Francis G. Murdick: My Father,” 26 May 2015. Posted on Murdick’s Fudge Blog, at http://aaronmurdicksfudge.com/francis-g-murdick-my-father-by-john-f-murdick/. Last accessed 4 April 2016. 

[xi] LST-779 Deck Logs, 27 July 1945, LST-779 July/August 1945 Deck Logs, RG 24, NARA II, College Park. 

[xii] Raymond Lech, All the Drowned Sailors (Briarcliff Manor, NY: Scarborough House, 1982), 25. 

[xiii] “Court of Inquiry Exhibit,” CINPAC 1945 Flag Files, RG 38, Box 45, NARA II, College Park. 

[xiv] LST-779 Deck Logs, 27 July 1945, LST-779 July/August 1945 Deck Logs, RG 24, NARA II, College Park. 

[xv] In Hashimoto’s recollection, the sinking took around 18 minutes. That is close to McVay’s original message that his ship went down in fifteen. Twelve minutes was the time officially settled on by the U.S. Navy. Also note that, based on Redmayne’s assertion that the No. 3 engine was running, Indianapolis would not have been completely stopped. 

[xvi] Mochitsura Hashimoto, “Documents Related to I-58 Submarine between the Showa 19 and 20 Periods,” accession date 9 October 1958, reference code 04 Sensuikan 58, Military History Research Center, National Institute for Defense Studies, Tokyo, Japan, assisted by historian Kiyoshi Yamada. The document, prepared shortly after the war, was processed into the archives in 1958. Document translated by Commander Daniel Fillion, USN, Special Assistant, Chairman’s Action Group. 

 

-Dr. Richard Allen Hulver, NHHC Histories and Archives Division 

[END] 

Published:Tue Jul 12 13:41:30 EDT 2016