Monday, June 16, 2014

USS Indianapolis ship's Bell, Indianapolis, Indiana

Located in the Indiana World War Memorial in Indianapolis Indiana sits an unusual relic of a mostly forgotten voyage that helped to change history.  Join us today as we examine it and the circumstances that led to it being left largely in the shadows.

Launched in 1931, the USS Indianapolis (CA 35) weighed 10,000 tons and was 610 feet long.  From the Portland Class of cruisers, The Indianapolis was built to meet the standards imposed by interwar treaties.

 Book on display in the museum celebrating the first voyage of the ship in 1932.  A few months after this voyage, President Roosevelt, and old navy man himself, would be a passenger on the ship.

Everything changed on December 7, 1941.  There would be no more peacetime voyages, as the ship was placed into a heavy combat rotation all around the Pacific Theater of Operations.  Deployed to, among other places, New Guinea, The Aleutians, Tarawa, Kwajalein, Tinian and Peleliu, the Indianapolis earned ten battle stars in total.  The ship received little damage, until a Japanese kamikaze plane struck it on March 31, 1945, killing nine crewman.

Despite a valiant effort from the crewmen manning anti-aircraft guns, the kamikaze plane managed to break through a morning haze and ram into the rear of the ship.  The hole visible above is from a 500 pound bomb strapped to the wing of the plane.  By some chance of fate, the bomb actually went THROUGH the ship, from top to bottom, and exploded underneath the Indianapolis.  Had is exploded a fraction of a second earlier, the results would've been horrific.  Despite the damage, the ship managed to sail back to port for repairs.

A fragment of the plane that caused the above damage.  It too is in the museum on display.

After being repaired on Mare Island, California, the ship sailed back west with a top secret cargo.

The cargo being carried on the voyage would change history, the uranium cores of the atomic bombs that would be dropped on Japan a few weeks later.  Their cargo safely delivered, the ship headed back to port for further crew training.

 Unknown to the crew at the time, this would be their last voyage.  A submarine was in their path. 
At 12:14 in the morning on July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis was hit by a pair of torpedoes.  It sank in 12 minutes, taking around 300 of the nearly 1200 man crew.  This is the submarine that launched those torpedoes, the Japanese I-58. 

The 900 or so "survivors" had a horrific ordeal ahead of them.  For the next three days, the men were picked off by sharks, dehydration and exposure.  Their ordeal would be made famous by the years later by the Samuel Quint "sharkhunter" character in the movie Jaws, but at the time that it happened, even the Navy was unaware what was going on.  The ship sank and no one seemed to notice.  There is some controversy about who knew what and when, but when the survivors of the ship were found, it was entirely by accident.  A navy plane spotted them and swooped in to rescue who they could.  Of the 900 men who went into the water, only 321 were alive to be pulled out, and 4 of those would die shortly afterwards from their injuries.

In the aftermath of the sinking, the Navy decided the person to blame for everything was ship's commanding officer, Capt. Charles McVay III.  While he had survived the sinking, the loss of the ship would destroy him, perhaps causing his death some years later as well.  He was put on trial in 1945 and convicted of negligence for the sinking of his ship, the only Navy captain in the whole war to experience such a fate.  Even now, many points of facts surrounding the sinking are controversial, and books have been written about them.

Whatever the facts were, after years of struggle, including receiving hatemail from families of his fallen crew, Capt. McVay killed himself in 1968.  The second generation naval officer used his service revolver to commit suicide in his backyard.  He was said to have been found holding a toy soldier, a gift that his father had given him years before. 

In the decades following the sinking, a campaign would bemounted to clear the name of Capt. McVay.  Among the unlikely participants in the effort was the Captain of the Japanese submarine that sank the Indianapolis, Mochitsura Hashimoto.  Capt. Hashimoto was also changed by the events of that evening, and in a very unusual move, he was called to testify against McVay during his court-martial.  Unexpectedly, Hashimoto's testimony actually strengthened McVay's case, although it was ignored by the tribunal.  The Japanese captain retired from naval service after the war, and eventually spent his final years as a Shinto priest. Hashimoto passed away in 2000, too soon to see McVay cleared of all "crimes" in 2001.

The USS Indianapolis is just as lost today as it was in 1945, and most of what remains is memories.  Despite two recent efforts to find the ship, no confirmed trace of it has turned up.  The only substantial piece of the ship still in existence today is this 800 pound bell, removed shortly before the ship's last voyage in 1945.  It was taken off the ship to save fuel, an act which saved it from a dark voyage to the deep.  It is on display in Indianapolis, Indiana, a memorial to the men that are lost.  We saw it on a Saturday afternoon in a mostly empty museum, and found it to be rather imposing.  Strangely, its not behind glass.


Also on display are the various momentos of the fallen, including this medal grouping and photo of Robert Clyde Lamb, who died on the ship's final voyage.  If you get the chance to visit the Indiana World War Memorial, which is free of cost, I high advise that you do.

A video interview with survivor Edgar Harrell, where he describes his experience on the final voyage of the Indianapolis.  He has written a book about his experiences titled Out of the Depths.  Other interviews are available on youtube, and do a better job of telling this story than I ever will.


  1. I notice a lot of your posts seem to focus on southern Indiana/Kentucky. Do you guys ever make it up farther north?

    1. We haven't yet but would love to. Gary, South Bend and Fort Wayne are worth a trip.