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Over the past seventy years, the USS Indianapolis sinking has often been a misunderstood, and overly sensationalized episode in the U.S. Navy’s World War II history. Instead of focusing on the commendable service of a decorated combat ship, and on the ordeal faced by her final crew, emphasis is placed on shark attacks and the treatment of the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Charles B. McVay, III.
Last year, Director of Naval History and Heritage Command, Samuel Cox (RADM, retired) stood up a team consisting of historians and underwater archaeologists, to revisit the sinking. Our job was to ensure an accurate history was readily available to the public and the Navy, and to see if any new light might be shed on the final resting place of one of the Navy’s most storied ships. The revisit came with exciting new conclusions.
Why was Indianapolis so hard to find? Here’s what we determined:
First, all of the ship’s mission records and logs went down with Indianapolis in the frantic 15 minutes it took her to sink after suffering two torpedo hits from Japanese submarine I-58. Secondly, it took the Navy four days to realize that Indianapolis was missing; that discovery was made when she failed to show up for her port visit. To make matters more difficult, the precise coordinates keyed out in an S.O.S. signal (that never left the ship) were forgotten by the surviving radiomen and were not received by USN ships or shore establishments. The coordinates reported by Japanese submarine I-58 as the location of the sinking were not recovered in the U.S. intercept of the message. Upon being rescued on 3 August 1945, Captain McVay reported to his rescuers that Indianapolis was exactly on the course where it was supposed to be when hit. All of these led to the Navy selecting the position where Indianapolis should have been along her route at 0015 20 July if following her routing instructions exactly as the point where she went down. A closer historic analysis reveals that this exact adherence to the prescribed route was not the realityand so, NHHC went looking for better information.
Several reports filed shortly after the Indianapolis rescue concluded mention that the ship passed an unspecified LST approximately 11 hours before Indianapolis was attacked. This LST was reported by Captain McVay to have been on the same track as Indianapolis, but maneuvering northward at the time of the passing to conduct anti-aircraft gunnery practice. Authors of Indianapolis books recalled this passing, but never endeavored to identify the LST. Because all U.S. Navy combatant ships were supposed to record their positions at 0800, 1200, and 2000 each day in their deck logs, NHHC historian Richard Hulver determined that identifying the LST passed by Indianapolis could provide a critical piece of unknown information from Indianapolis’s final day. Finding the LST and then finding it’s coordinates would provide researchers a new data point along the route of Indianapolis and possibly help determine a more precise position for where she was attacked.
“In terms of what’s next? There remains a lot we can learn. From the sinking to the battle damage and site formation processes, we hope to gain a better understanding about the wreck site and how we can better protect USS Indianapolis to honor the service of the ship and crew.”
A Memorial Day blogpost post written by the son of a passenger on the LST reportedly passed by Indianapolis, coupled with historic research in U.S. Navy muster rolls and deck logs, finally revealed the identity of the mysterious ship as LST-779. 779 followed the same route across the Philippine Sea as Indianapolis during the same time. She did not specifically mention being passed by Indianapolis in her deck logs, but did recount in detail the gunnery practice at 1300 on 29 July recounted by Captain McVay in his post-rescue interview. The 1200 coordinate of LST-779, her set and drift recording, and the timing of her gunnery practice all gave indications that Indianapolis was most likely not exactly on the routing track as historically believed—something not surprising because the captain of a combatant ship could deviate from the track up to 40 miles, or 3 hours without having to report it to the port of arrival. This new information renewed public and scholarly interest in the Indianapolis story and helped spark a surge of explorers eager to locate the sacred resting place of the heavy cruiser, one of which was the team of civilian researchers led by entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul G. Allen.
What’s Next for USS Indianapolis? Connecting History with Underwater Archeaology
USS Indianapolis is a fit and final resting place and serves as a war grave. As U.S. Navy shipwreck it is protected from disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act. Now that the wreck site has been discovered, our Underwater Archaeology Branch will carefully review and assess the data associated with the discovery. Doing so will enable the U.S. Navy to better understand its sinking and the present condition of the site. There are presently no plans to engage in any form of recovery from USS Indianapolis. In terms of what’s next? There remains a lot we can learn. From the sinking to the battle damage and site formation processes, we hope to gain a better understanding about the wreck site and how we can better protect USS Indianapolis to honor the service of the ship and crew.
USS Indianapolis Timeline of Events
Want more history about USS Indianapolis? Check out our website for photos, archival documents, story map, and more!
Co-authored by Dr. Richard Hulver, Ph.D., historian and Robert Neyland, Ph.D., Underwater Archaeology Branch Head, Naval History and Heritage Command
Source: U.S. Navy-The Sextant