January 31, 1999
U.S.S. Indianapolis Sunk After Delivering Atomic Bomb
Harlan Twible's eyes grow misty, and his voice husky, when he describes sharks eating his shipmates alive. Yet, he pursues his half-century mission to vindicate the reputation of Charles Butler McVay, captain of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
Speaking Monday to the Charlotte Harbor chapter of The Retired Officers Association, Twible recounted an event closely involved with ending World War II. It was little noted then in the aftermath of victory and is scarcely remembered today.
The U.S.S. Indianapolis was a lightly armored "battle cruiser" commissioned in 1932. It was the same size as a sturdy battleship and equipped with the same guns. However, it could speed to a fight faster than any other vessel of the same size or larger.
It was because of the latter ability, plus Capt. McVay's brilliant Naval record, that the Indianapolis was chosen to carry the first atomic bomb to Tinian Island. The ship displayed 10 battle stars on its bridge. Capt. McVay had been awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals. From Tinian, the awesome weapon -- code named "Little Boy" --would be loaded on the Air Force B-29 bomber Enola Gay and dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, Aug. 6, 1945.
A second bomb, "Fat Man," was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. With this, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally. World War II finally was over.
The Indianapolis left Mare Island, California, Navy Shipyard July 16, 1945, with a secret cargo not known even to Capt. McVay. His orders were to deliver the mysterious package to Tinian with all possible speed. He covered the 5,000 miles in a record ten days.
The cargo wasn't all that large. A steel box was welded to the deck of a room in the officers' quarters. A heavy, lead container -- which Twible recognized as a large, radium flask -- was suspended from the ceiling in a rope sling.
Capt. McVay's orders directed him to save the secret cargo at all costs in the event of a sinking -- even, if necessary, to commandeer a life boat from drowning sailors. We now know that the flask contained 137 pounds of Uranium 235, the explosive material that would destroy Hiroshima in a split-second. The steel box contained the hardware for Little Boy and Fat Man. Uranium for Fat Man had already arrived at Tinian by plane.
After delivering the secret cargo at Tinian, Capt. McVay turned his ship around and headed east to rejoin the fleet at the Philippines.
About half-way there, on the dark night of July 29, Capt. McVay retired at 11:30 to a small "emergency" cabin just off the bridge. At about the same time, Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, captain of one of only two Japanese submarines still operational, raised periscope for a look around before surfacing for a nightly charging of batteries by diesel engines.
What he saw took his breath away. Running parallel to his submarine was what looked like a battleship of the line -- an unexpected target alone in the Pacific. It took ten minutes to swing the sub around to get a head-on fix. Then, Hashimoto fired three torpedoes in a 3-degree fan-shaped pattern, He also ordered the three crewmen who had volunteered to crawl into a Kaiteme man-carrying torpedo to prepare to die if the salvo missed. It didn't
Two torpedoes hit the Indianapolis bow, blowing it clean away. Capt. McVay rushed to the bridge in his under shorts, but nothing could be done. All electrical communications were destroyed. The ship's great engines continued to push it ahead, scooping in tons of water per second.
Within three minutes, the ship listed so far to starboard that the main deck was only a foot above water. McVay ordered to abandon ship by passing the word, but that was impossible because the ship was already too far on its side to permit foot passage.
At helpless "secondary control" amidships was Ensign Twible. His recollection is dramatic:
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Capt. McVay and eight other men were cast into the sea near a lifeboat. They climbed aboard and were rescued separately, along with a few stragglers. Of the 1,196 crew, it is estimated that 850 were able to abandon ship. Only 317 survived.
Capt. McVay was court martialed for "suffering a vessel of the Navy to be hazarded" by failing to proceed on a zig-zag course. This was a procedure thought to make it difficult for enemy subs to target ships. Even so, it was not required on dark nights.
Commander Hashimoto was summoned from Japan to testify and declared zig-zagging would have had no effect on his aim inasmuch it was an unexpected target of opportunity.
McVay was penalized 100 numbers in grade rank and relegated to shore duty. Upon recommendations of admirals King and Nimitz, and review by Secretary of the Navy Forestall, the sentence was remitted.
McVay's supporters claim he was a scapegoat for the Navy's failure to send out search planes when the cruiser's arrival was four days overdue.
Twible, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, mustered out from active duty after Korea as a lieutenant. He earned a master degree in business administration from the University of Chicago. He retired recently as chief executive officer of the Siemans Corporation, a leading electronic technology firm, and now lives at Sarasota.
Commander Hashimoto became a Shinto priest in Japan.
McVay never again commanded a ship but did attain the rank of Rear Admiral. He retired from the Navy in 1949 and resided at Litchfield, Connecticut.
Though vindicated of any dereliction of duty, McVay never overcame the emotional trauma of losing the U.S.S. Indianapolis and 880 men -- the largest single number of Navy deaths during World War II.
He and Twible kept in contact during the postwar years. In November 1968, McVay called his younger shipmate to chat. Two days later, McVay committed suicide.
The former, brave captain was found with a revolver in his right hand --- and in his left hand a toy sailor.
Author: Lindsey Williams
1 -- 3 col ship
Photos courtesy of Harlan Twible
[ The U.S.S. Indianapolis was a battle cruiser with a record of distinguished action during World War II at the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," covering the Iwo Jima landings, pre-invasion bombardment of Okinawa, battle of Philippine Sea, capture and occupation of Guam, Tinian,, Marshall Island, and Gilbert Islands -- among many other engagements. ]
2 -- one-col head, navy officer
[ Ensign Harlan M. Twible ]
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