Connecticut's Heroes Aboard the Doomed USS Indianapolis
Photo by Peter Hvizdak
When the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine days after delivering the atomic bomb at the end of World War II, it was the worst at-sea disaster in Navy history. Only 317 of 1,196 men on board survived. With a new documentary and major motion picture bringing the tragic story back into the spotlight, these are the stories of four Connecticut men aboard the ill-fated ship.
It made perfect sense at the time.
A nation exhausted by World War II first celebrated V-E Day (Victory in Europe) on May 8, 1945. Months later, on Sept. 2, it was V-J Day (Victory over Japan).
The New York Times page one headline was, in all caps, JAPAN SURRENDERS, END OF WAR! EMPEROR ACCEPTS ALLIED RULE.
At the very bottom of the same page was this: Cruiser Sunk, 1196 Casualties; Took Atom Bomb to Guam.
So it was no wonder that most Americans, weary of reading about death and the horrors of war for over a half-decade, were emotionally spent, preferring to concentrate on victory and getting their lives and country back to normal.The USS Indianapolis story became a sad and relatively obscure footnote in history. Until what happened was told during a famous scene in the 1975 movie Jaws, most people were unaware that the ship played a vital role in helping to end the war.
Nine Connecticut natives were on the Indianapolis. Its leader, Capt. Charles B. McVay III, called Connecticut home for seven years after retiring. He and three others from here had leadership positions, and their tales are told on the pages that follow.
First, a brief history of the vessel once ironically labeled the Lucky Indy.
During the war, the Indianapolis was often in action, mostly in the Pacific Theater from 1943-45.
It led destroyers on missions, escorted American convoys and shot down numerous enemy aircraft.
Connecticut men on the USS Indianapolis
The following men aboard the ill-fated USS Indianapolis were natives of Connecticut. Capt. Charles B. McVay III was born in Pennsylvania, but lived the last seven or so years of his life in Morris, Connecticut.
William Friend Emery, S1, New Canaan
Frederick E. Harrison, S2, Waterbury
* Dr. Lewis L. Haynes, Lt. Cmdr., Fairfield
Clarence Hicks, S1, Enfield
Robert Allan Keeney, Ensign, Wethersfield
* William C. Quealy, PR2, Willimantic
Nicolo Toce, S2, New Haven
Robert Taft Whitman, Lt., Greenwich
Thomas M. Conway, Lt., Waterbury
While it had firepower, it was not equipped with depth charges to combat submarines. Until 1945 it managed to avoid being damaged, thus earning its nickname.
As U.S. forces prepared for an invasion of Japan following the end of the war in Europe, the Indianapolis was part of a bombardment of Okinawa in March 1945, spending a week blitzing the Japanese beach defenses with shells.
Enemy aircraft were all around, and the ship shot down six planes. But on March 31 a kamikaze pilot managed to drop a bomb on the Indianapolis before plunging into the Pacific Ocean. It did serious damage, killing nine crewmen, but the vessel managed to limp across the ocean to Mare Island Naval Shipyard near San Francisco for repairs.
When whole again, the Indianapolis was ordered on a secret mission to Tinian, an island under Allied control 1,500 miles from Japan. Two crates, one large and the other small, were placed aboard the ship. Not a single crew member or even McVay knew the crates contained the atomic bomb itself and the enriched uranium crucial for its devastating and world-changing power.
The Indianapolis left on July 16, sped unaccompanied across the Pacific and arrived at Tinian 10 days later.
After the crates were removed, the Indianapolis was sent to Guam. Then on July 28 it was off to Leyte, an island in the Philippines, where the crew would receive training in anticipation of their next mission.
There were several reasons for the disaster that was to occur in the early morning of July 30, 1945, when the Japanese submarine I-58, commanded by Mochitsura Hashimoto, launched six torpedoes, two of which hit the Indianapolis, the first removing more than 40 feet of the bow and the second hitting the starboard side. The ship capsized and sank in 12 minutes.
About 300 men died going down with the ship. The rest went into the water, in varying degrees of distress. A great many were slathered in black oil that had flooded into the sea from the broken vessel. Their ordeals were just beginning.Hoping to be rescued quickly, the men would be bitterly disappointed. It would turn out that:
Three SOS messages were sent by the Indianapolis, but for vague reasons they were not acted upon.
McVay had requested a destroyer escort, but it was denied, as Navy brass assigned the warships elsewhere.
McVay was not told that shortly before his departure from Guam, a Japanese submarine within range of his path had just sunk a destroyer escort.
The Navy did not track the Indianapolis carefully because its secret mission kept it off regular reports.
These factors would result in 900 men trying to endure a torturous nearly five days in the ocean, with no food or water.
Making matters worse, and perhaps the main reason the Indianapolis story has such timeless, emotional resonance, is that shark attacks were a constant, terrifying threat.
The men stayed in groups as best they could, most wearing life jackets. The days were very hot and the nights extremely cold. Survivors said the sharks first ate the dead, then went after the living.
Edgar Harrell lived and recalled the conditions to National Geographic.
“At any given time you could look out and see big fins swimming around and around,” the Marine said. “All of a sudden you heard a blood-curdling scream and you see the shark had taken him under.”
Desperate thirst caused many men to drink the salty seawater, which led to their quick demise.
The survivors were not spotted until Aug. 2. By then, only a few hundred were still alive.
A Navy plane on anti-submarine patrol saw an oil slick and people in the water. The pilot immediately dropped supplies to the men and notified authorities, which sent planes and ships to rescue the still-living men. It took almost two days to complete the rescue operation.
The impact of the catastrophe sent shock waves throughout Navy circles. A public announcement of the loss of the Indianapolis was delayed until Aug. 15, ensuring it would be overshadowed in the news on the day when the Japanese surrender was announced by President Truman.
Of the Connecticut men aboard the Indianapolis, one was the ship’s doctor, one the ship’s chaplain, one a navigator, and the captain. Their stories follow.
The Navigator: William F. Emery
New Canaan sailor was family’s second son to die
William Emery, of New Canaan, around the time of his service aboard the USS Indianapolis. Photo courtesy of Michael Emery
The OLD, soundless home movie images are as wholesome and innocent as they are poignant and tragic.
There is 5-year-old Steven Gray Emery in 1940, prancing about with his grandfather, father, brothers Bill and John and pet dog. Less than four months later Steven would die of spinal meningitis.
In another reel shot a few years later, 19-year-old Bill Emery is seen walking around and playing with a different dog. Soon he too would perish.
The two deaths had a connection that pains the Emery family to this day, involving one of the most catastrophic events in U.S. Naval history — the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis.
Although he never knew him, Michael William Emery, 55, has made it a mission to keep his Uncle Bill’s memory alive. Raised in Darien, Michael is now a walking encyclopedia regarding every detail of the Indianapolis, and his uncle. He wears a white tribute shirt everywhere, the front of which shows a picture of a smiling Bill Emery in uniform. The words under it are: William Friend Emery; S1C (seaman first class) N (navigation) Division; USS Indianapolis CA-35 (hull symbol); Lost At Sea July 30, 1945.
Michael spends a lot of his time telling the story of his uncle and the Indianapolis to school classes, youth groups, the media and anyone he comes across who is curious about the image on his shirt.
“I feel it’s important to honor his legacy, and remind people that freedom is not free,” he says. “It comes with the ultimate sacrifice. We are a Gold Star family. Bill gave his life for the freedoms we have today.”
Most of the Emery family lived in Madison, Wisconsin, when the three brothers were alive. Steven’s death spurred the parents to move, which they did, to New Canaan.
World War II was underway. Michael Emery’s grandfather, John C. Emery, was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, based in Mill Valley, California. His job was to expedite war items through land, sea and air. He would eventually take the concept into the private sector and found Emery Air Freight.
Bill Emery attended New Canaan High School. He was editor of the school newspaper his senior year, served on the student council, sang in the school chorus, played on the tennis and football teams and acted in school plays. He graduated in 1944.
“On May 11, 1944, at age 17, Bill enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve at the Naval Recruiting Station in New Haven,” says Michael. “His parents were still recovering from losing Steven five years earlier. My grandmother told my grandfather to make sure Bill was not put in harm’s way.
“So he pulled a lot of strings to get his son to the West Coast in April of 1945. He looked up and down the Fifth Fleet for the one ship that would not see any action. He found one, the USS Indianapolis, nicknamed the Lucky Indy, with 10 battle stars but no loss of life from any action, and thought it was perfect.”
Several weeks before Bill Emery reported for duty aboard the Indy, the ship was in action at Okinawa. For the first time in her distinguished career, she was hit by a Japanese kamikaze plane. There were casualties, and nine men died. Ironically, a man whose last name was Emery, no relation, was one of the men killed. He served in the Navigation Division, the same one Bill Emery was to serve in.
“By then, the ship was no longer considered the Lucky Indy,” explains Michael. “As a matter of fact, a lot of the sailors considered her a doomed ship, and asked to be transferred off of it.”
The Indianapolis went into dry dock for repairs, during which time Bill Emery went home to New Canaan to visit relatives. He also sent a letter to his maternal grandparents in Wisconsin which told of his delight to be where he was.
“As you can see from the address above, I am now on the Indianapolis and she is a swell ship,” he wrote. “She is now in for repairs but I expect we will be going out in a week or two. But we have a swell bunch of guys on board and I am looking forward to the voyage.”
When he returned, the Indianapolis was ready for action. Unbeknownst to all but a very few people, it had a new assignment, ordered directly by President Truman.
“The Manhattan Project had created the atomic bomb, and they chose the Indianapolis to carry it to the South Pacific because it was fast,” says Michael. “It didn’t have the double-plating that a battleship would have, which would lead to its doom.”
The bomb, Little Boy, would eventually be flown by the Enola Gay. Before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, it had been learned that the Indianapolis was sunk several days earlier. The Enola Gay crew wrote on Little Boy, sw“For the lost souls of the Indianapolis.”
When a Japanese submarine hit the Indianapolis with two torpedoes, bedlam ensued.
“No one saw Bill in the water,” says Michael. “The first torpedo hit the bow of the ship, which is called Officer Country, so most officers didn’t make it off the ship. The second torpedo hit the starboard side, the ammunition port, and there was a huge explosion. Communications were lost. The ship kept churning in the water and they were unable to have it stopped, which is why it went down so fast [in 12 minutes]. In comparison, the Titanic went down in four hours.”
The Emery family was, of course, crushed to have lost another son so young. Michael Emery’s father, John C. Emery Jr., Bill’s brother, would not speak about it for decades.
John C. Emery Sr., the lieutenant commander who had arranged to have his son aboard the Indianapolis, sent Naval officers to talk to survivors to see if they had any information about Bill.
“He even thought Bill might have swam to a deserted island,” says Michael. “He felt guilty. Later he did say that if Bill had to go it was better to go with the ship, that he thought it would have been torture to be in the water for four days. His faith helped restore him. He did the best he could.”
Michael Emery has all the original documents, letters and telegrams sent to his parents when the Indianapolis was sunk, and thereafter, some of which will likely end up in the Smithsonian.
A Western Union telegram of Aug. 13, 1945, from Vice Admiral Randall Jacobs, chief of personnel, says: “I deeply regret to inform you that your son William Friend Emery is missing in action July 30 1945 in the service of his country. To prevent possible aid to our enemies please do not divulge the name of his ship or station unless the general circumstances are made public in news stories.”
A typed letter, dated Oct. 9, 1945, from James Forrestal, secretary of the Navy, says: “I learned with deep regret that your son, William Friend Emery, previously reported missing, is now known to have lost his life on July 30, 1945. I hope that you may find comfort in the thought that his sacrifice was made in order that the freedom of his country might be preserved.”
A handwritten letter, dated Oct. 1, 1945, to Lt. Commander Emery, from USS Indianapolis Capt. Charles B. McVay, includes this: “I knew your boy, as he stood watch on the bridge where I spent most of the hours while the ship was underway. He was a fine boy and you are justly proud of him.”
Michael also has the last letter his Uncle Bill ever wrote to the family, from aboard the Indianapolis. It has an eerie inclusion.
“He sent his grandparents in Wisconsin a trunk key and told them to open it,” says Michael. “Inside the trunk was a small box with a ring in it. Uncle Bill asked that the ring be sent to his girlfriend, Ann Jackson, in New Canaan, who he was planning on marrying. I often wonder if he had a premonition that he was not going to survive the war. I think he knew there was a chance he would not be coming back home, and wanted Ann to have the ring.”
The Doctor: Lewis L. Haynes
Heroic Fairfield physician survived sinking
Dr. Lewis Haynes in recovery following the rescue. Photo courtesy of the National Archives
Dr. Lewis Haynes was one of the two Connecticut men aboard the USS Indianapolis to survive. He was the ship’s chief medical officer.
Shortly after his rescue he dictated his recollections in order to preserve an accurate account of his experience. The account is from Survivor of the Indianapolis; Navy Medicine Vol. 86, No. 4 (July-Aug. 1995).
Haynes attended reunions of USS Indianapolis survivors for a few years, but then stopped.
“Family members would go up to him and say, ‘Do you remember my uncle? Do you remember my dad?’” explains Michael Emery, who attends the reunions in honor of his uncle, William Friend Emery, who perished. “And it pained him so much that he stopped coming.”
Haynes died in 2001. His account here begins with the Indianapolis getting torpedoed.
What do you remember about that night?
The only time the officers got together was at meal time. The navigator said that Japanese submarines had been spotted along our route and we were going to pass them during the night about midnight. I went to bed.
I awoke [when the first torpedo struck]. I was in the air. My room was lit up with a bright flash of light. I had a lamp on my desk and it was in the air along with me. I hit the edge of the bunk, hit the deck, stood up and then the second explosion [torpedo] came and knocked me down. I grabbed my life jacket and started to go out the door. There was fire in my room.
A lot of fire was coming up through the deck. I slipped and fell, landing on my hands. I got third-degree burns on my hands — my palms and all the tips of my fingers. I was barefooted and the soles of my feet were burned off.
The ship was beginning to list and I went down to that side of the ship, got up on the transom and felt for a porthole. I found one already open. I thought it had been blown open by the explosion, but I found out later that two other guys had gone out through it and had left a rope dangling. I pulled on it and it was solid so I went through the porthole.
Was the ship still making headway?
It was still going along at least 10 knots. They couldn’t get word to the engine room to turn off the engines. The engineer hadn’t gotten word from the bridge so he kept plowing ahead. The ship filled up like a bucket.
I remember fainting one time trying to take care of a patient who was on a cot. I fell across him and he shoved me off and I stood up again. We were trying to put dressings on people. We were starting to give morphine to people who were badly burned when an officer said, “Doctor, you’d better get life jackets on your patients.”
We got a whole bunch of life jackets and started to put them on the patients. I was putting one on a warrant officer when the ship lurched right over. And he just slid away from me, he and all the patients. I was standing right alongside the lifeline, and I grabbed it and climbed through. And by the time I did, the ship was on its side. I stood up on the side of the ship and slowly walked down the side. I went down and jumped into the water, which was just fuel oil.
Was there enough light to see very well?
There was enough light from the moon that you could see. It kept coming in and out.
What did the water feel like when you went into it?
Being in the water wasn’t an unpleasant experience except that it was black fuel oil and you got it in your nose, and you got it in your eyes. Because the ship went down so fast because of the forward momentum, the air burst out of the compartments and there were explosions of air that turned you end over end and kept blowing us all farther away. And then the ship was gone, and suddenly it was very quiet.
Did you hear anyone yelling at that point?
No. There were people all around me but nobody was yelling. [Capt. Charles B.] McVay [III] and 10 men had two life rafts and two floater nets between them. And another group had four or five rafts and floater nets. There were another 145 of them on that side who were thrown into the water with the rafts. We started to gather together. We all looked the same, black oil all over — white eyes and red mouths. No personalities at all. You couldn’t tell the doctor from the boot seaman. Everyone swallowed fuel oil and began vomiting. The oil was in your eyes, it was in your nose. Later, when the sun came up, the covering of oil kept us from burning. I could have hidden but somebody yelled, “Is the doctor there?” And I made myself known. From that point on — and that’s probably why I’m here today — I was kept so busy I had to keep going. But without any equipment, from that point on I became a coroner.
This was midnight and most of the men were dehydrated because they’d been asleep. A lot of them hadn’t had fluid for some time. And they began to get very thirsty. And that was the big problem, trying to keep them from drinking saltwater.
A lot of the men were without life jackets. Those who had life jackets that were injured, you could put your arm through that space and pull them up on your hip and keep them up out of the water. And the men were very good about doing this. Those with jackets supported men without jackets. They held onto the back of the jacket, put their arms through there and held on floating in tandem.
When daylight came we began to get ourselves organized into a group. They knew I was the doctor. I began to find the wounded and we began to find the dead. And when we got to the dead, the only way I could tell they were dead was to put my finger in their eye. If their pupils were dilated and they didn’t blink I assumed they were dead. We would then take off their life jackets and give them to men who didn’t have jackets. In the beginning I took off their dog tags and said The Lord’s Prayer and let them go. Eventually, I got such an armful of dog tags I couldn’t hold them any longer.
What happened when the sun came up?
It reflected off the fuel oil and was like a searchlight in your eyes that you couldn’t get away from. I had the men take their clothes off and we tore them into strips and tied them around our eyes to keep the sun out.
When first light came we had between three and four hundred men in our group. I would guess that probably seven or eight hundred men made it out of the ship.
The second night we had all the men put their arms through the life jacket of the man in front of him and we made a big mass so we could stay together. Some of the men could doze off and sleep for a few minutes. We kept the wounded and those who were sickest in the center of the pack, and that was my territory.
Your own injuries, the burns you had, the saltwater must have been quite irritating.
It was at first but then the fuel oil acted like a protective covering after you got over the pain of the thing. If I tried to touch or grab something there was pain, but most of the time I was comfortable in the saltwater.
You said that because you had no medical equipment or anything you acted as an adviser to the men.
There was nothing I could do but give advice, bury the dead, save the life jackets and try to keep the men from drinking the saltwater when we drifted out of the fuel oil. When the hot sun came out and we were in this crystal clear water, you were so thirsty you couldn’t believe it wasn’t good enough to drink. I had a hard time convincing the men that they shouldn’t drink it. The real young ones — you take away their hope, you take away their water and food, they would drink and then would go fast. I can remember striking men who were drinking water to try and stop them.
Wasn’t hypothermia another problem?
The water in that part of the Pacific was warm and good for swimming. But body temperature is over 98 and when you immerse someone up to their chin in that water for a couple of days, you’re going to chill him down. Everybody was tied together and they all had severe chills. And after they were chilled, they ran a fever and became delirious. And then everybody started to fight. They were out of their minds. A lot of men were killed that night. A lot of men drowned. We untied ourselves and everybody scattered in all directions. And when we got back together the next day there were a hell of a lot fewer. It was mass hysteria. You became wary of everyone. It was a beautiful moonlit night and we were drifting in these big seas. You’d see somebody and back off, and they’d back off. Till daylight came, you weren’t sure.
Did you have any encounters with sharks?
I saw one shark. He went around in front of me in the afternoon. I remember reaching out trying to grab a hold of him. I thought maybe it would be food. However, when night came, things would bang against you in the dark or brush against your leg and you would wonder what it was. But honestly, in the entire 110 hours I was in the water, I did not see a man attacked by a shark. However, the destroyers that picked up the bodies afterward found 56 of them were mutilated by fish. Maybe the sharks were satisfied with the dead; they didn’t have to bite the living.
Did you ever see planes?
I think we saw five or six planes. You know, it’s very hard to see people in the water. And they weren’t looking. We all splashed. There was never a steady stream of planes, two would go over and then there would be a day without anything. And they were all high up; none of them were low until the plane that found us.
What happened when the first plane came to rescue you?
By then we were in very bad shape. The life jackets had become waterlogged. They’re only good for about 48 hours. We were sunk down to about the level of your shoulders in the water and you had to think about keeping your face and head out of water. And I knew we didn’t have very long to go. The men were semi-comatose. We were all on the verge of dying when suddenly this plane flew over.
What was the men’s reaction?
None. When you’re in a long period of suffering, and I’ve seen this in patients since, this becomes your way of life. We weren’t too excited about it. And then the pilot began to drop things and our main thought was water. He dropped life jackets with canisters of water but they ruptured. So we went back to what we were doing. Then he dropped rubber life rafts.
How soon after the plane landed in the water were you picked up?
It landed in the afternoon and I was picked up at 4 o’clock the next morning.
The Chaplain: Thomas M. Conway
Waterbury native died comforting others
Lt. (Rev.) Thomas M. Conway, of Waterbury, was the ship's chaplain. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute, A. J. Sedivi Collection
Born and raised in the Brass City, Lt. (Rev.) Thomas M. Conway attended LaSalette Junior Seminary in Hartford before eventually being ordained to the priesthood.
He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 at age 34. He was ship chaplain aboard the USS Indianapolis. A Catholic priest, Father Conway went into the water with 900 men when Japanese torpedoes struck the ship and it sunk in 12 minutes.
His heroism was sworn to by several survivors.
Signalman Frank J. Centazzo, of Bristol, Rhode Island, later wrote: “Father Conway was in every way a messenger of our Lord. He loved his work no matter what the challenge. He was respected and loved by all his shipmates. I was in the group [in the water] with Father Conway. I saw him go from one small group to another getting the shipmates to join in prayer and asking them not to give up hope of being rescued. He kept working until he was exhausted. I remember on the third day late in the afternoon when he approached me and Paul McGiness. He was thrashing in the water and Paul and I held him so he could rest a few hours. Later, he managed to get away from us and we never saw him again.
“Father Conway was successful in his mission to provide spiritual strength to all of us. He made us believe that we would be rescued. He gave us hope and the will to endure. His work was exhausting and he finally succumbed in the evening of the third day. He will be remembered by all of the survivors for all of his work while on board the ‘Indy’ and especially three days in the ocean.”
Dr. Lewis Haynes, in his survivor’s account, said, “Father Conway was a big help. He took part in burying the dead and he gave a lot of solace. He totally exhausted himself. He finally died. Another man was supporting Father Conway and he called me and said he couldn’t hold him any more. And I took over holding the father. He was delirious. We tried to hold him and eventually he went into a coma and we let him go.”
Last year, on the 70th anniversary of the USS Indianapolis sinking, the city of Waterbury unveiled a bronze memorial statue of Father Conway, placing it outside the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, which was Father Conway’s home parish. It shows Father Conway in the ocean holding a drowning sailor. It was created by sculptor Andrew Chernak, the sculptor of the National Gold Star Mother’s Memorial.
“It’s important to honor Father Conway because he obviously was a heroic priest, born and raised in Waterbury,” says Bob Dorr, secretary of the Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee. “Every book published [about the Indianapolis] told the story of Father Conway, and now he will never be forgotten because of the statue — a permanent public display in Waterbury.
“We know that 67 men survived in the group that [Conway] helped supervise,” Dorr says. “Only God knows how many souls he saved. We know that while in the water he continued his pastoral duties, by providing last rites, hearing confessions and baptizing the unbaptized.”
In 2014 the Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee sought to have Father Conway awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest Navy Combat decoration.
“I was the person who assembled all the data,” says Dorr. “We contacted the offices of Senators Christopher Murphy and Richard Blumenthal. We asked that they use the power of the Senate by introducing a resolution awarding the Navy Cross to Father Conway.
“And they did that for us. And we used that resolution as a vehicle to gather information in support of the Navy Cross being awarded. We submitted it all to the secretary of the Navy in September 2014. It was transmitted by both U.S. senators to the secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, at the Pentagon.
“In January 2015 the secretary of the Navy, through an intermediary, rejected the Navy Cross being awarded on procedural grounds, because there were no living officers a pay grade above Father Conway that actually signed the application. Even though every surviving member of the crew of the Indianapolis signed the request. That’s the Navy.”
Father Conway was the last Catholic chaplain to die in World War II.
The Captain: Charles B. McVay III
Morris scapegoat tormented to the end
Capt. Charles B. McVay III. Photo courtesy of the USS Indianapolis Museum
If there was one truly tragic figure who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, it was its leader, Capt. Charles B. McVay III.
While most everything about what happened on July 30, 1945, was black and white, McVay’s involvement, and the rest of his life, were bathed in gray tones.
The Indianapolis, with McVay at the helm, trekked unaccompanied on a secret mission from Pearl Harbor to the Pacific island of Tinian, arriving July 19, 1945, carrying the world’s first atomic bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, which would be dropped on Hiroshima soon after.
Eleven days later, the Indianapolis was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine. McVay would survive the 100 hours in the ocean with 316 other men, but sadly, his troubles would not be over after his rescue. Not by a long shot.
A Navy Court of Inquiry recommended McVay be court-martialed over the sinking because he had not zig-zagged the Indianapolis to make it difficult for a submarine to lock in on it. There were many mitigating circumstances, including that it was McVay’s discretion to zig-zag, not a formal order.
Also, McVay had requested that the Indianapolis, a cruiser, be escorted by a destroyer, since it was built for speed and did not have the capability to defend itself well. The request was denied.
McVay was also unaware that a Japanese submarine within range of his path had recently sunk the USS Underhill.
And incredibly, with the war having ended, the commander of the Japanese submarine that sank the Indianapolis, Mochitsura Hashimoto, was brought to the court-martial in Washington. In pre-trial statements he said that he had the Indianapolis dead to rights, and that zig-zagging would have been fruitless.
Nevertheless, McVay was found guilty and court-martialed. Most people felt that he was a fall guy for the Navy, which needed a scapegoat for such a catastrophic event. While McVay was eventually promoted to rear admiral when he retired in 1949, the conviction effectively ended his career.
Fairfield’s Dr. Lewis Haynes, an Indianapolis survivor who attended the court-martial proceedings, talked about McVay in an interview years later.
“I don’t know of a single man on the ship who thought he should be court-martialed,” he said. “Give Hashimoto his due. They asked him if Capt. McVay had been zig-zagging, would it have made any difference? And he said no, it wouldn’t have made any difference at all. All he would have done was to change course a little bit. And they asked several submarine skippers they brought in the same thing. They also said that zig-zagging didn’t make any difference. Not one of the shining moments in Navy history.”
Michael Emery, whose uncle, William Friend Emery, went down with the ship, has been to several USS Indianapolis reunions of survivors and lost-at-sea families.
“The first one was in 1960, and Capt. McVay showed up,” he said. “Survivors I talked to about it who were there said it was amazing. They’d invited McVay. He didn’t know if he should go, but he did. When he walked into the banquet hall, everyone stood up at attention and saluted him.”
Brothers Allan and Scott Linke live in Ridgefield and work in senior positions at Merrill Lynch in Stamford. Capt. McVay was their grandfather, though not by blood. They have warm memories of the man who spent lots of time with them.
“Our father’s father was a Naval officer in Washington, D.C.,” explains Allan. “He was married to our grandmother, who had known Capt. McVay socially. When their spouses both died, [Vivian and Capt. McVay] got married, and moved to her home and farm in Morris, Connecticut.
“Scott and I were little kids, living in Washington, and we used to go up there for a few weeks every summer. It was great fun. There were horses and a pool. We’d go fishing in the ponds. He’d get us up at five in the morning to go catch frogs, then we’d have frog legs and eggs for breakfast.”
Allan Linke recalls that he had no idea at the time about their grandfather’s history. Once he learned it, he knew he’d gotten a bad deal.
“He was a great man,” he says. “Capt. McVay was the kind of guy who would rather have gone down with his guys than survived. [The court-martial] was a failure by the Navy.
“We’re not direct relatives, but my son’s middle name is Charles, after him. And our sister has a daughter whose middle name is McVay.”
On Nov. 6, 1968, Capt. Charles B. McVay III put on his uniform and stepped outside his home. With a toy sailor in one hand and a revolver in the other, he brought the gun to his head and took his life.
“I used to play with that toy sailor,” says Scott. “Allan and I were told he died in a hunting accident. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned he committed suicide. We hadn’t been allowed to go to the funeral. Our parents told us a gun backfired in an accident and he died.”
In hindsight, the brothers are not surprised by what happened, because Capt. McVay was never allowed to fully put the Indianapolis behind him.
“He was tormented,” Scott says softly. “He would get letters in the mail at Christmas from people whose relatives died in the water, saying, ‘You son of a bitch, I hope you’re enjoying your holiday, because you killed my son, my son’s dead.’ They would arrive and he would open them and read them.
“Other times of the year he would get letters saying, ‘You bastard, today’s my son’s birthday, he would be 23,’ or whatever his birthday would have been.”
There were vitriolic phone calls as well.
In October 2000, Congress passed a resolution that McVay be exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis. President Clinton signed the resolution. In July 2001, Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England ordered McVay’s official Navy record to be purged of all wrongdoing.
The Linke brothers have pictures of Capt. McVay, his medals, American flag and other keepsakes, including something that probably belongs in a museum.
“He had a little shed where he used to build wooden replica ships,” says Allan. “I have two of them. One is of the USS Indianapolis.”
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