World War II

The "Indianapolis" and a shipboard visit

... and a time remembered

by Jerry Norton

Recently I was reminded of an event that has had a particular significance for me as I was in the presence of history as it unfolded. Years later that story came back to life when a courtly gentleman visited a ship in which I was serving.

The first event has to do with the star-crossed USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser, and its sinking after having completed a mission which contributed greatly to the end of the war with Japan. Many, if not most, readers are familiar with the circumstances surrounding the story of her last days.

The time was early August 1945 and I was a member of the Navy Armed Guard serving aboard SS Kittanning, an oil tanker which was in port in Saipan in the Marianas Islands discharging oil for the use of our combatant ships. From a vantage point on the bridge of my ship I was able to gaze across the narrow strait of water to the adjacent island of Tinian. That island's airstrip was being used by our B-29 bombers in a relentless campaign against Japan's home islands. Bombers could be observed taking off in early morning and returning late at night. I have since wondered whether one of those planes I watched might have been the Enola Gay prior to its historic mission.

We had completed discharging our cargo and were preparing to get underway when we learned of the Indianapolis sinking which occurred on July 30th, a fact that the Navy did not let known to the American public until much later. Shortly before our arrival at Saipan that ill-fated ship had delivered the component parts for the atom bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima and was enroute from Tinian (via Guam) to Leyte island in the Philippines when it came to grief.

The saga of her torpedoing by a Japanese submarine and the intense suffering of her crew in hostile waters while awaiting discovery and rescue is now quite well known. Her skipper, Captain Charles B. McVay III, became the scapegoat for what is now generally believed to have been the Navy's failure at a higher command level. He was court-martialed and convicted of hazarding his ship by not zigzagging (which proved to be a non-factor) but was subsequently exonerated.

It was fifteen years later that the visit referred to earlier occurred when my ship, USS Navajo, was moored at the Algiers Naval Station in New Orleans. I had the quarterdeck watch when McVay, then retired, came aboard on business and later spoke to the crew. He had made the most of his unfortunate life since leaving the service even though, upon retirement, he had been promoted to "tombstone Rear Admiral" with full pension.

Possibly the remorse over his self-imposed guilt for the loss of his ship and the nine-hundred men who perished had remained with him. He died by his own hand years later at his home in Connecticut.

It has been said that the fortunes of war are determined largely by superior strategy and equipment. A less obvious factor might be, for lack of a better term, pure happenstance. Captain McVay seems to have fallen into this latter category. A much-maligned man is now at peace, no longer haunted by the tragedy which overtook him and his ship in the shark-infested waters of the Philippine Sea.  

July 7 2006

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