Skip to main content

The Navy Department Library

Related Content
Document Type
Wars & Conflicts
File Formats
  • Image (gif, jpg, tiff)
Location of Archival Materials

The Sinking of USS Indianapolis: Navy Department Press Release, Narrative of the Circumstances of the Loss of USS Indianapolis, 23 February 1946

Painting of USS Indianapolis (CA-35)





LOSS OF THE USS Indianapolis

Adequate understanding of the circumstances under which the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed and sunk, and in which delays resulted in the rescue of her survivors, requires some preliminary consideration of the overall situation in the Pacific at the time.

On April 1, 1945, following the recapture of the Philippines and the capture of Iwo Jima, United States Forces landed on Okinawa. Heavy fighting ashore on Okinawa continued until the 21st of June, when organized resistance ceased.

The victory ashore on Okinawa was made possible only by the continued support of all available units of the Pacific Fleet. Throughout the spring and summer of 1945, the Fleet continued to control the sea and air in the vicinity of Okinawa, but in so doing received heavy damage. This damage was received principally by destroyers, destroyer escorts, and other types of ships normally used for escort purposes. These units, which formed screens for our forces at sea and also for the forces ashore, were the principal targets for Kamikaze attack. The extent of the damage sustained in these types made it necessary to modify the escort procedures throughout the Pacific, so that damaged escorts might be returned to the navy yards for repair, and so that the escorts still available could be used in the most exposed areas and on assignments where they would contribute most to the overall safety of our forces, more particularly to the safety of the ships off Japan and the ships carrying troops.

The records of the period, from the beginning of the Okinawa operation almost until the end of the war, show clearly the concern which existed in this regard. Destroyers and destroyer escorts were brought to the Central Pacific from the Atlantic and from the North Pacific. Ships were sailed unescorted in the more remote areas. Priority was given to the repair of escort types in our navy yards and a determined effort was made to improve the escort situation in preparation for the invasion of Japan during which there could be anticipated a repetition of the conditions under which such heavy damage to escorts was sustained off Okinawa.

During July we were engaged in consolidating our position at Okinawa and in sustained attacks on Japan itself with both carrier task forces and shore-based air forces in order to create the conditions prerequisite for invasion. The Third Fleet was actively engaged in attacking Honshu. The Twentieth Air Force was bombing Honshu. Naval aircraft from the Ryukyus were ranging over the East China Sea and along the coasts of Kyushu and Southern and Central Korea. The Far East Air Force was moving its personnel and equipment up from the Philippines to Okinawa and was increasing the weight of its attack on Kyushu.

At the end of July the carrier task forces were delivering very heavy attacks which destroyed many Japanese aircraft and which practically completed the elimination of the Japanese fighting ships in their home ports. Important conferences were going on in Manila between the staffs of Fleet Admiral Nimitz and General of the Army MacArthur in connection with plans for the invasion and alternate plans for the occupation of Japan in case of an early surrender. Extensive mine sweeping operations were in progress in the East China Sea. Rescue operations for downed carrier pilots and B-29 pilots were in progress south of Japan. There were approximately 700 fighting ships and about 400 merchant ships at sea in the Western Pacific. Radio traffic in the Joint Communications Center at Guam averaged 18,000 messages a day. The responsible officers in the Pacific Fleet were devoting their time and energy to accelerating the tempo of the campaign and to increasing the pressure on Japan in order to bring the war to a conclusion, and specifically, to pound the Japanese into submission without the necessity for a costly invasion.

On May 1, 1945, the USS Indianapolis had entered the Navy Yard, Mare Island, California, for overhaul. Her overhaul was completed and she was reported ready for sea on July 16, 1945.

Although all preparations had been made to give the vessel a post-repair shakedown period in San Diego, California, preparatory to her rejoining the Fleet in the combat area, assignment to a mission of greater importance necessitated the postponement of this period of refresher training until a later date.

While in the Navy Yard, there had been a great number of changes among the officers attached to the vessel and a turnover in her enlisted complement in excess of 25 percent.

Every advantage was taken of opportunities to send both officers and enlisted men to schools and other instruction, while in the Navy Yard; and when reported ready for sea, the ship was well organized and the training of personnel was progressing satisfactorily.

The Indianapolis proceeded unescorted at high speed from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, thence to Tinian, where special cargo (atomic bomb parts) was landed. A great many passengers were transported to Pearl Harbor and a lesser number beyond that point. These factors interfered somewhat with the schedule of training under way, but instruction was continued, general drills were held daily and at least one battle problem was held during this passage.

Upon completion of unloading at Tinian, the Indianapolis was ordered by the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet to proceed to Guam, to discharge certain personnel and to report to the Port Director, Guam, for onward routing to Leyte, there to report for duty by despatch to Vice Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, U.S.N., who was then off Okinawa.

The routine procedure at Guam in July, 1945, in connection with the issuing of routing instructions, was for the Commanding Officer of the routed unit to receive his briefing from the Port Director at the Naval Operating Base, Guam. Routing Officers and Operations Officers were supplied with the information which it was believed was necessary for them to accomplish their mission.

On July 27, Captain C. B. McVay, III, U.S.N., commanding officer of the Indianapolis, visited the Office of the Port Director, Guam in connection with his routing to Leyte. Later that day the Navigator of the Indianapolis also visited the Port Director's office to obtain the Routing Instructions and discuss their details. Information of possible enemy submarines along the route was contained in the routing instructions and was discussed with the Navigator.

The route over which the Indianapolis was to travel, which was the only direct route between Guam and Leyte, and was the route regularly assigned vessels making passage between these islands, was considered within the acceptable risk limit for combatant vessels. Circuitous routes were available from Guam to Leyte, but no special apprehension was felt regarding the use of the direct route by the Indianapolis and no other route was considered.

The speed of advance of the Indianapolis (15.7 knots) was set by Captain McVay and was based upon his desire to arrive off the entrance to Leyte Gulf at daylight on July 31 in order to conduct antiaircraft practice prior to his entering the Gulf. To have arrived a day earlier would have required a speed of advance of about 24 knots. No special consideration was given the possibility of delaying the departure of the ship from Guam in order to enable her to proceed in company with other vessels, since the route assigned was not thought by the Port Director to be unduly hazardous. Zigzagging was, by his routing instructions, left to the discretion of Captain McVay. However, tactical orders then in force required zigzagging in conditions of good visibility, in waters where enemy submarines might be present.

The policy determination with regard to the escorting of vessels in the Western Pacific was the function of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet. This policy, which required the escorting of vessels in some areas but dispensed with escorts for some classes of vessels in others, which were less active, was largely dictated by the limited availability of escort vessels. At the time of the sailing of the Indianapolis, there was a shortage in this regard and escorts were, as a rule, not given combatant vessels which were capable of "taking care of themselves." The Indianapolis was considered to be in this class and escort, if furnished her, would have been at the expense of other requirements of greater urgency.

At the time of her departure from Guam, the Indianapolis was not at peak efficiency; but she was well organized; her personnel were well disciplined and, in the main, well versed in the performance of their routine duties. Training of personnel was continuing and her visit to Leyte was being made in order to complete her refresher training program.

Early in the morning, at 12:15 A.M., on July 30, while the Indianapolis was steaming unescorted, and not zigzagging, at a speed of 17 knots through the water, under good conditions of visibility and in a moderate sea, two heavy explosions occurred against her starboard side forward, as a result of which explosions the ship capsized and sank between 12:27 and 12:30 A.M., July 30. The ship sank 12 minutes after the torpedoes hit.

No enemy vessel was sighted either before the explosions occurred or afterward. Watches were properly stood and good lookout was kept, both visual and radar. Normal precautions were being taken against enemy submarines. The lookouts were generally experienced men and fully alert. The damage control party, though well organized, was unable to function properly due to the heavy personnel casualties forward, the rapid flooding and the intense fire which was started in the forward section of the ship.

The communication set-up and provisions made for sending emergency messages were in accordance with good practice and current instructions. There is ample evidence that distress messages were keyed by radio operators and possibly were actually transmitted on at least one (500 k.c.) and possibly two frequencies. No evidence has been developed that any distress message from the ship was received by any ship, aircraft or shore station.

Orders to abandon ship were given by some officers locally, but general word to that effect was not passed throughout the ship. This was partly due to the disruption of all mechanical and electrical means of communication. Word for all hands to go on deck was passed through some of the lower deck compartments by the boatswain's mate of the watch, but was heard by only a few of the survivors. Many men stood by their abandon ship stations until they were forced by the listing of the ship to enter the water. Much lifesaving equipment went down with the ship.

The conduct of Captain McVay and of the other officers and men of the ship was, in the face of this emergency, satisfactory. Captain McVay did not order abandon ship when it was first suggested by the First Lieutenant. Shortly thereafter, the Executive Officer recommended abandoning ship. The Captain, approving this recommendation, ordered the word to be passed to all hands to abandon ship.

While some life rafts and floater nets were available to those in the water, many men had only their life jackets.

Correct maintenance routines for emergency equipment had been in effect. The life- saving equipment was the best type developed for surface ships and was identical with that supplied other vessels of the Indianapolis class.

Numerous acts of heroism and leadership and display of fortitude have been reported.

In the Headquarters of Commander Marianas on Guam and of the Commander Philippine Sea Frontier on Leyte, operations plotting boards were kept. On these boards was kept a graphic plot of the positions at sea of all vessels in which the headquarters concerned was interested. In the case of the Indianapolis, the departure of the vessel from Guam on July 28 was recorded on the plotting boards in each of these headquarters. Her estimated position was plotted on each board daily. On July 31, the date on which the vessel was scheduled to have arrived at Leyte, the Indianapolis was removed from the board in the headquarters of Commander Marianas and was recorded on the board at the headquarters of Commander Philippine Sea Frontier as having arrived at Leyte. This was the routine method of handling the plot of combatant vessels. Since, in accordance with orders standard throughout the Southwest Pacific Area, the Pacific Ocean Areas, and the Atlantic, the arrival of combatant vessels was not reported, vessels of this class were assumed to have arrived at their destinations on the date and at approximately the time scheduled in the absence of information to the contrary. However, since the Indianapolis did not arrive, the responsible officers at the office of the Port Director, Leyte, who knew of her non-arrival should have instituted action to determine the reason.

Within 16 hours of the actual sinking of the Indianapolis, there was in the Advance Headquarters of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet an indication (from a single enemy source) to the effect that the Japanese had sunk something (the nature of which was unknown) in a position which was approximately the predicted position of the Indianapolis at the time. Had this information been evaluated as authentic, it is possible that the survivors of the Indianapolis might have been located within 24 hours of the time of the sinking of the ship and many additional lives might have been saved.

In passing judgment on this intelligence matter, certain salient features connected with this phase of the work of intelligence personnel should be borne in mind. The person who was directly responsible for the collection, evaluation, and dissemination of intelligence, particularly that of high classification, was the Combat Intelligence Officer who was charged with the general supervision of the work of the Combat Intelligence Section. Evaluating intelligence is not an exact science. It is at best an estimate; frequently it is only an intelligent assumption. In the prosecution of the Naval phase of the war in the Western Pacific, the work of this Section has been outstanding. Information developed by this Section made possible the successful execution of several operations which were of such significance and importance at the time as to have changed the entire course of the war against Japan. Regrettable though it was, failure to evaluate accurately a report made by a Japanese submarine did not necessarily have a bearing on the prosecution of the war as a whole and was actually of only local significance.

This failure in the evaluation of intelligence is attributable in part to the exaggerated claims and false intelligence which had characterized so many Japanese reports. It is a matter of record that enemy reports of sinking of our combatant units were constantly being made, whereas in fact, the units against which these claims were made were then operating in an entirely different area. Many of our units were several times reported to have been sunk or damaged as a "feeler" on the part of the enemy. Constant investigation of such enemy claims and the generally resulting proof of their exaggeration or falsity had caused a low evaluation to be placed on the type of intelligence representated by the report that a vessel of undetermined size and classification had been sunk in waters to the westward of Guam.

This intelligence was also in the hands of the Commander in Chief, United States Fleet in Washington at about the same time, and was passed by him to the Commander, Seventh Fleet in Manila. No impression was created in the Headquarters of Commander, Seventh Fleet that this intelligence involved the Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis was scheduled to have arrived at Leyte at 11:00 A.M., July 31. It is probable that under normal conditions, no concern as to her non-arrival would have been felt until she was eight or nine hours overdue. Several additional hours would have elapsed incident to the despatch traffic necessary to check her movements so that, in all probability, search for her would normally not have commenced until she would have been approximately 24 hours overdue. That would have been some time in the forenoon of August 1. The survivors of the Indianapolis were actually sighted at about 10:25 A.M., Leyte time on August 2, by a plane on routine patrol.

A Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet Advance Headquarters despatch of July 26, in which CTF 95 (Vice Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, U.S.N.) and CTG 95.7 (Rear Admiral Lynde D. McCormick, U.S.N.), were information addressees, contained the sailing orders of the Indianapolis. It was ordered that the vessel upon its arrival in Leyte report by despatch to CTF 95 for duty and directed CTG 95.7 to arrange ten days' training for the vessel in the Leyte area. Neither Commander Seventh Fleet, Commander, Philippine Sea Frontier nor any shore based commands in the Philippines were included in the addressees of this despatch. This despatch was received and understood by CTF 95 who was, at the time, at Okinawa. It was received in garbled form by CTG 95.7 who was in the Leyte area. CTF 95 noted that the actual dates of departure from Guam and of the arrival of the vessel in Leyte were not given. CTF 95.7 did not decode this despatch since the garbled address as received did not include his command. CTG 95.7 was at sea conducting training exercises at the time the Indianapolis was scheduled to arrive in Leyte.

A Port Director, Guam despatch of July 28 included as an action addressee CTG 95.7 and as an information addressee CTF 95. In this despatch the routing of the Indianapolis was given, including the date of her depature from Guam and the date of her arrival in Leyte. This despatch was not received by CTF 95 who was, therefore, still uninformed of the date on which the Indianapolis should have been expected to report to him by despatch. The Port Director, Tacloban, was an action addressee on this despatch.

The acting Port Director at Tacloban, Leyte, Lieutenant Commander Jules C. Sancho, U.S.N.R., was not aware that the Indianapolis had not arrived as was scheduled and that she should be considered as being overdue. It, however, was his duty in his capacity as Acting Port Director, to keep himself informed of such matters.

Lieutenant Stuart B. Gibson, U.S.N.R., the Operations Officer under the Port Director, Tacloban, was the officer who was immediately concerned with the movements of the Indianapolis. The non-arrival of that vessel on schedule was known at once to Lieutenant Gibson who not only failed to investigate the matter but made no immediate report of the fact to his superiors.

While not excusing the failure of Lieutenant Commander Sancho and Lieutenant Gibson to use the initiative and ordinary good judgment in this connection which would have been expected of naval officers, this dereliction may be related to the difficulties of an organization which had been brought on by the exceedingly rapid expansion of the Navy to meet its wartime requirements.

In view of the volume of shipping which was being handled by the Port of Tacloban, it would have been desirable that the important assignments of Acting Port Director and of Operations Officer of the Port should have been given to more experienced officers.

In order to reduce the volume of radio traffic and increase security, the Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, in a directive dated January 26, 1945, and the Commander, Seventh Fleet, under whom the naval activities in the Philippines were operated and administered, in an identical directive, made specific provision that the arrival of combatant vessels was not to be reported. In preparing this, as well as in the preparation of all directives issued by their headquarters, these two commanders were mindful of the fact that these instructions would be given general dissemination and that officers who were relatively inexperienced in naval matters would be charged with their exeuction. For this reason, every attempt was made to insure that the wording was clear, concise, and that the meaning could not be misinterpreted. Although these directives were prepared with thought and care, that they were subject to misinterpretation is shown by the inference drawn by Lieutenant Gibson. It was not the intention to prohibit in these directives the reporting of the non-arrival of combatant ships. Non-arrivals were expected to be reported. However, no mention of this was made in the letter and the inference was drawn by this officer that since arrival reports were not to be made for combatant ships, by the same token neither were reports of non-arrivals to be made. This matter has since been clarified in terms which cannot be misinterpreted.

Lieutenant Commander Sancho and Lieutenant Gibson were members of the Philippine Sea Frontier organization. Bearing in mind the lack of experience of these officers in naval matters, it was incumbent upon their superior officers to exercise closer personal supervision over the manner in which their duties were performed than was actually the case. At the time of the loss of the Indianapolis, the Commander, Philippine Sea Frontier, Vice Admiral James L. Kauffman, U.S.N., was absent from his command since July 1, 1945, on temporary duty status in the United States; Commodore N. C. Gillette, U.S.N., was in temporary command; and the Operations Officer of the Headquarters Staff, Captain A. M. Granum, U.S.N., was intensively occupied in diversion of shipping in typhoon areas and operations. These facts do not, however, relieve these senior officers of their responsiblility connected with the failure of their subordinates to take appropriate action to ascertain the whereabouts of the overdue Indianapolis. The junior officers who were directly concerned with this failure were members of the organization which was being administerd by these senior officers. For this demonstrated weakness in the organization under their control, brought on largely through their failure to give closer personal attention to the work of these inexperienced juniors, Commodore Gillette and Captain Granum have been held responsible.

CTF 95, at Okinawa, took no action to check on the arrival in Leyte of the Indianapolis. It was known to this officer that the Indianapolis was directed to report to him by despatch upon her arrival in Leyte but, for reasons before mentioned, he was not informed of her departure from Guam or of the date of her scheduled arrival in Leyte, and hence assumed that the ship was still at Guam or enroute.

Commander, Philippine Sea Frontier (Commodore N. C. Gillette, U.S.N., Chief of Staff, Acting) was charged with the mission of safeguarding and protecting shipping in the area under his cognizance. He maintained an Operations Board at his Headquarters at Tolosa, Leyte, on which was kept a running record of the scheduled and actual arrival and departure of vessels of all categories in the area under his cognizance. His Headquarters had been given intelligence of all submarine activity in the Philippine Sea and should have been aware that the Indianapolis was overdue in Leyte, but no investigation as to her whereabouts was instituted until after her survivors were sighted.

Commander, Marianas, in Guam, felt no particular concern connected with the arrival of the Indianapolis in Leyte. He assumed that the Indianapolis had reached her destination. No action was taken or required to be taken by that headquarters until the survivors were sighted.

Aircraft patrols which daily covered a great part of the route followed by the Indianapolis, and which were sighted daily by the suriviors, failed to sight the oil slick or the survivors for two days after the sinking. Discovery of the survivors by aircraft patrol was largely accidental. Investigation revealed that the planes were flying at altitudes which where considered the optimum for searching the area for enemy craft by search radar and visual lookout. Since, at this time and in this area, enemy craft were almost certain to be submarines, this was, in effect, an anti-submarine patrol. Planes were generally flying too high to see the Indianapolis survivors.

At 11:25 A.M., August 2, while flying in his assigned sector on a routine search mission, Lieutenant (junior grade) Wilbur C. Gwinn, U.S.N.R., flying a twin engine landplane, sighted an oil slick in position approximately 11-30 north, 133-30 east, approximately 250 miles north of Peleliu. He immediately changed course to investigate and soon sighted a group of about 30 survivors. Dropping a life raft and radio transmitter near the group Lieutenant (junior grade) Gwinn radioed a report that alerted all commands in the area having search and rescue forces under their control. All air and surface units capable of rescue operations were ordered to the scene. Upon receipt of the report, Lieutenant Commander George C. Atteberry, U.S.N.R., took off from his base at Peleliu and arrived on the scene at 2:15 P.M. Upon arrival, Lieutenant Commander Atteberry, assisted by a Navy patrol seaplane which had been enroute to the Philippines and had arrived in the area at 1:45 P.M., conducted a further search, both planes dropping life rafts and rescue equipment near survivors.

The first of the rescue forces hurrying to the scene to arrive was a Navy CATALINA patrol seaplane. This plane landed in the water about 5:05 P.M., to afford support to those not in life rafts. Coached by Lieutenant Commander Atteberry, the CATALINA seaplane picked up a total of 58 survivors. This plane was so badly damaged on landing and in rescue operations that it could not take off. However, all the rescued were given elementary first aid and a few hours later transferred to a surface vessel.

Later in the afternoon, an Army rescue seaplane, a flight of seven additional large Navy planes, and two Army heavy bombers arrived in the area, conducted intensive searches and dropped large quantities of life rafts and other rescue gear, to all personnel sighted.

During the night a majority of the available surface craft, consisting of four destroyers, four destroyer escorts, three fast, light transports, plus numerous patrol craft, arrived. Thorough and methodical search and rescue operations were commenced. By night powerful searchlights, flares, and star shells swept the area, and by day, planes coached surface ships to every object sighted.

Before the search was abandoned on August 8th, the area within a 100 mile radius of the center of the survivors group had been so thoroughly searched that there was no possibility that a single individual remaining afloat had been missed.

The following disciplinary action has been taken in connection with the loss of the Indianapolis:

Captain Charles B. McVay, III, U.S.N., has been brought to trial by General Court Martial. He was acquitted of failure to give timely orders to abandon ship. He was found guilty of negligence in not causing a zigzag to be steered. He was sentenced to lose one hundred numbers in his temporary grade of Captain and also in his permanent grade of Commander. The Court and also the Commander in Chief, United States Fleet recommended clemency. The Secretary of the Navy has approved these recommendations, remitted the sentence, and restored Captain McVay to duty.

The Secretary of the Navy has given Commodore N.C. Gillette, U.S.N., a Letter of Reprimand, which will become part of his permanent official record.

The Secretary of the Navy has given Captain A.M. Granum, U.S.N., a Letter of Reprimand, which will become part of his permanent official record.

The Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet has given Lieutenant Commander Jules C. Sancho, U.S.N.R., a Letter of Admonition, which will become part of his permanent official record.

The Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet has given Lieutenant Stuart B. Gibson, U.S.N.R., a Letter of Reprimand, which will become part of his permanent official record. 



Published: Fri Jul 08 10:43:01 EDT 2016