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:

*  *  *

"I had just been relieved of my watch and was leaving the gun tub when I heard the explosion. Almost simultaneously I felt a tear in my side. Without thinking, I reached down and felt wetness, blood.

"There was no time to think about my problem. I had other responsibilities. I ran forward to the quarter deck to report to the executive officer. I asked what I should do. He said to run aft and get the men to the high side of the ship.

"The ship was canting to starboard now in heavy seas, and movement was difficult. I came upon an open footlocker and took a kapok life jacket.

"When I arrived back amidships, our starboard side was about one foot above the water and sinking fast. I yelled, 'Over the side!' No one let go the lifeline they were holding onto. "Then, I yelled, 'Follow me!' and jumped into the water. The crew followed. Our ship sank in 12 minutes just 12 days before the end of the war.

"On hitting the water, I yelled, 'Swim away! Swim away!'  The men did so. Otherwise, we would have been sucked down by the ship.

"Being an ensign, I waited for someone of senior rank to take charge. No one did, so it was up to me.

"We would all die if we didn't get order. I barked orders right and left. How many nets did we have? How many rafts? Who were wounded the worst and needed help? This kept us busy until daybreak.

"As dawn broke, I looked around. It wasn't a pretty sight. We were strung out in chaotic fashion. I decided we had to get together. I ordered everyone to tie himself to a life net.

"We had four rafts. I ordered them cleared so that those with the most serious wounds could be put aboard.  At first, there was some grumbling. Then a voice, 'You heard the officer. Do what he says.' "It was Warrant Officer Gunner, a 49-year-old Navy veteran supporting a 23-year-old ensign. A bond had been formed between the old and the young.

"I decided we had to know how many of us there were. I yelled, 'Count off.' The gunner was first to respond, 'One.'  We were 325 strong at that point. We had to survive as a unit, or we would surely all die.

"As dawn went into mid-day, men started to die of their wounds. Dead bodies drifted among us. I said prayers over them and ordered that the bodies be passed down the line and allowed to drift away.

"As evening approached, the men were becoming dispirited. Where were the search planes? Where were the rescue ships?  We didn't know that an SOS message never went out because the radio was disabled along with all other electrical gear.

"I led the men in prayer, asking our Lord to support us during this time of peril. I quoted the old Navy hymn, 'Oh hear us when we cry to The for those in peril on the sea.' The group became quiet as night came upon us.

"It was early in the second day that our next peril showed up -- sharks!  They attacked those who were separated from the group. The sharks ate the extremities of those they chose, and the rest of the body would pop to the surface.

"I organized a shark watch thereafter and instructed the men to kick and scream when sharks were sighted. For the next three days, we witnessed violent deaths without knowing whether there was any hope of survival.

"It seemed that every hour would bring new problems. Some men still had their firearms and knives. I realized they had to be disarmed. I told them of the danger of someone else wanting their weapons and fighting them for it. They disarmed themselves.

"Others had booze they had smuggled onto the ship. I explained the problems of dehydration and told them to destroy it. Others wanted to drink sea water. I explained how salt water made your tongue swell and brought  sure death.

As the kapock in our lifejackets became saturated, we sank lower and lower into the sea. At the end of our ordeal, only our chins were above water.  

"Four days and five nights after our sinking, we were sighted accidentally by a Navy plane on anti-submarine patrol. At first, the pilot, Chuck Gwinn, thought we were an enemy sub and came in for a bomb run.

"When he saw it was men in the water, he circled and wagged the plane's wings to assure us we had been sighted and reported.

"Within an hour, a Catalina flying boat and a cargo plane returned. The cargo plane dropped a lifeboat filled with survival gear. The Catalina circled to keep watch until rescue ships arrived.

"The new lifeboat's communication gear didn't work, but a back-up hand mirror enabled me to signal the Catalina that we were crew from the Indianapolis and being eaten alive by sharks.

"It was against regulations for flying boats to land on heavy seas, but the pilot disobeyed Navy regs and came down close to us.  Those men nearest climbed onto the wings or grabbed onto whatever they could.

'The courageous action by that Catalina crew nevertheless gave us new problems. Everyone wanted to cut loose from the nets and swim to the plane. I yelled I would court martial anyone who broke ranks. This restored order.  

"The Destroyer Bassett picked us up and ministered to us. Of the 325 men who counted off that first night, 271 survived.  "I was fortunate that the shrapnel I was hit with went clear through my body without damaging a vital organ. I recuperated with little sips of water and long bouts of sleep."

*  *  *

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

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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. ]

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2 -- one-col head, navy officer

[ Ensign Harlan M. Twible ]

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