Articles Military History Submarines

Correcting the Legacy of Los Angeles-Class Submarines

This article was written following my attendance at the commissioning ceremony of USS Indianapolis (LCS-17), when speaker after speaker highlighted only the Cold War contributions of the submarine I commanded, USS Indianapolis (SSN-697). It became clear that many senior Navy leaders misunderstood the significant impact of the Los Angeles class of submarines during the post-Cold War period.

The space systems engineering curriculum at the Naval Postgraduate School offered only one class on manned spaceflight. The professor began the class by summarizing the accomplishments of NASA in low earth orbit. After twenty minutes of orbit corrections, maneuver, docking, spacewalks, and other early space program breakthroughs, a student finally raised his hand and said, “Professor, you do know that NASA put men on the moon, don’t you?”


I had a similar reaction at the 26 October commissioning of the USS Indianapolis (LCS-17) in Burns Harbor, Indiana. More than 10,000 attendees sat in a cold rain listening to six nearly identical speeches. It was as if the speechwriters all drew from the same incomplete Wikipedia article. Each speech started on the right note, regaling the accomplishments of the storied cruiser of the same name, USS Indianapolis (CA-35), and honoring the four survivors in attendance. Since I have been working with the cruiser survivors for more than 20 years, I know that no matter how many times their story is told, it is not enough.


But then each speaker attempted to highlight the service of the submarine I had commanded, USS Indianapolis (SSN-697), with a short statement about the submarine’s contributions to ending the Cold War.1 Because this was the only SSN-697 accomplishment cited by any of the six speakers, at the end of the ceremony I was tempted to say to the assembled group of senior leaders, “You do know the Cold War ended in 1989, don’t you?”2


The point of highlighting the accomplishments of earlier ships named Indianapolis at the LCS-17 commissioning should have been to convey to the crew the legacy they were inheriting, and to “connect the dots” for the attending public. If so, an opportunity was missed to educate the attendees, as well as many more watching online, on U.S. submarine force contributions after the Cold War.


While this may seem a minor point on such a momentous occasion, each speech minimized or ignored the contributions of hundreds of sailors who conducted missions that were vitally important, incredibly difficult, and often even more dangerous than the Cold War missions these leaders referenced. Nearly all of SSN-697’s major accomplishments, which include Battle Efficiency awards and a Navy Unit Commendation, occurred after the Cold War ended. While it is reasonable to expect senior Navy and defense leaders to educate themselves on the history of the ships on which they are commenting, the ceremony’s incomplete narrative is not entirely the fault pf the speakers. The submarine force has not done a good job of telling its post–Cold War history and so the misperception proliferates. The speeches were founded on a simple, common, but erroneous narrative that can be captured in these two bullets:


  • The Los Angeles–class submarine = The Hunt for Red October (Cold War)

  • The Virginia-class submarine = everything since

 That narrative is wrong.

Having served in Los Angeles–class submarines for two junior-officer tours, two department head tours, a commanding officer tour, and a commodore tour—nineboats spanning from before to well after the end of the Cold War—I can correct the record.3


While the Cold War is regarded as beginning a short time after the end of World War II and ending in 1989, the USS Los Angeles (SSN-688) was not commissioned until 1976. When I reported to my first submarine in 1981, there were only four Los Angeles-class submarines in my homeport of Pearl Harbor.4

And the early years for those submarines were rough. Because spare parts had been underfunded so drastically in the late 1970s, three of the submarines had to be cannibalized to get the fourth underway. In the 1980s, construction of these nuclear-powered attack submarines accelerated rapidly, and, by 1984, almost all were operational. Thus, much older Permit– (SSN-594) and Sturgeon-class (SSN-637) submarines conducted the vast majority of Cold War operations from the 1960s through 1989. Most Los Angeles–class submarines had only a few years of Cold War operations before the Berlin Wall came down.

This is not to imply these submarines did not contribute to winning the Cold War—they certainly did. I served in
Los Angeles boats during the Cold war for five “missions of vital security to the defense of the United States” (as they were officially referred to), and I can certify that their contribution was immense. There are no submarines I would rather have crewed at that time than the USS Omaha (SSN-692), Indianapolis, and Buffalo (SSN-715)—my boats through the end of the Cold War. But the Cold War ended just a few years into the life of the Los Angeles class itself, and the subsequent missions those submarines were tasked to conduct changed drastically.

By the early 1990s, the only fast-attack submarines left in the force were the Los Angeles-class. This is when they really began to shine, as the post–Cold War contributions of the class were even greater than during the Cold War. The SSN-688 boats were designed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to be very fast and keep up with, screen, and protect carrier battlegroups against enemy submarines. While they were very fast, by the 1990s they rarely conducted the carrier screening missions. Instead, their speed allowed them to dart from one hotspot to another to monitor evolving situations and provide “eyes on” for the National Command Authority, improving an understanding about what was really happening in those areas. Their stealth allowed them to do this in an unprovocative manner. Nobody knew where they were, unless we wanted them to know.


Their highly capable sensors allowed them to sweep the electromagnetic spectrum for every kind of signal, from weapon testing to terrorist planning. Their weapons allowed them to strike more than a thousand miles inland, while also holding any seaborne target vulnerable to neutralization. Their special-operations capability allowed them to conduct covert insertions, extractions, and interdiction missions. And their superb maneuverability allowed them to get into much more difficult areas than needed during the Cold War, a critical factor considering the targets that now needed monitoring.


The Los Angeles class is a fantastic class of submarine, straddling the twilight years of the Cold War through the present day. While details of their missions will likely be classified longer than I will be alive, the achievements of the crews who served in them after the Cold War’s end were greater than most might imagine.

This was true for the USS Indianapolis (SSN-697), and I regret not a word about this was uttered at the LCS-17 commissioning. The Los Angeles–class submarine is still serving our country today. Let us hope U.S. leaders figure that out and start giving the post–Cold War Los Angeles–class sailors their due.

  1. I actually served on USS Indianapolis (SSN-697) three times: two tours during the Cold War (junior officer and department head) and one tour after the Cold War ended as commanding officer.

  2. Based on the declaration by George H. W. Bush on 3 December 1989.

  3. From 1981 through 2004, I also served a junior-officer tour in the USS Omaha (SSN-692) and a department-head tour in the Buffalo (SSN-715). As commodore of Submarine Squadron 3, I had six Los Angeles–class submarines in my squadron: the USS Olympia (SSN-717), Chicago (SSN-721), Key West (SSN-722), Louisville (SSN-724), Helena (SSN-725), and Columbia (SSN-771). The only tour I served away from the Los Angeles–class was as executive officer of the USS Florida (SSBN-728) (Gold).

  4. The USS Los Angeles (SSN-688), Omaha (SSN-692), New York City (SSN-696), and Indianapolis (SSN-697).

Articles Military History USS Indianapolis

Sometimes Wonderful Just Comes Too Late

In August 2017 I had the bittersweet task of notifying survivors of World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) that their ship had been discovered. After years of anticipation, I expected an exuberant reaction. This article describes how it really went down.
Within all the bad news coming out of Seventh Fleet these days, there was one bit of well-covered good news: the long-awaited discovery of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Of course, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s expedition wasn’t the first attempt to locate the ship.
Back in 2000, the Discovery Channel funded an expedition to locate the wreckage of the Indianapolis. At that time, there were more than 200 survivors alive, most of them in their 70s, and the search for their ship was one of the most anticipated events in their lifetimes. I was the recently relieved skipper of the submarine bearing the same name.
It had become clear to me a few years earlier that, correct or not, the survivors were of the opinion that the Navy didn’t like them very much. This was partly because of the very public campaign these World War II heroes had been waging to effect the exoneration of their court-martialed captain, Charles Butler McVay, but that is a story for another day.
One survivor who I have known for more than 20 years couldn’t seem to remember who I was. This man had called me on the evening of 9/11, knowing I had been in the Pentagon during the at- tack, saying, “You were hit by a kamikaze just like us. You got too close to us and had to share our fate.”
While working in the Pentagon for the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, I began to understand why the survivors felt disenfranchised from the Navy. I was witness to several events where the service I loved slighted the Indianapolis survivors in ways large and small. (See Sara Vladic’s excellent 5 September article in Proceedings Today, “Lost Survivor of the USS Indianapolis Found,” for an example of where the Navy consistently came across as condescending to the survivors over a period of decades.)
Because I believed (hoped) that the factors dividing the survivors from the Navy were matters of misunderstanding rather than malice, I decided to play the role of interlocutor, adopting the survivors as their unofficial Navy liaison.
Or to be more accurate, they adopted me.
By the time the 2000 “search for the Indy” began, McVay’s exoneration had been passed by Congress and the survivors were in a particularly euphoric state. From their point of view, only one item remained undone—to locate their ship. This, then, became the focus of their efforts.
The gentleman leading that 2000 expedition, Curt Newport, recently had achieved some degree of fame in locating Gus Grissom’s Mercury space program capsule, Liberty Bell 7, which had sunk in the Atlantic in 1961. The latest in remotely operated vehicle technology was being used by Curt and his team, and four survivors of the sinking—Paul Murphy, L.D. Cox, Mike Kuryla, and Woody James—were going along on the voyage to provide perspective and commentary.
Emotions were high, and a great sense of anticipation prevailed. There were talks of the parties we would enjoy when the great day arrived, and the survivors even talked about leasing a cruise ship from which to conduct a memorial service at the site of the sinking, in honor of their lost shipmates. Better yet, they held out hope that some kind philanthropist would underwrite such a venture and that I could help arrange some of these things for them.
Unfortunately, that expedition did not succeed, for reasons that would not become apparent until more than a decade later. The survivors’ excitement about the potential for discovery waned a bit, only to rise again whenever rumors of another search would begin to take shape.
Every few years another explorer or TV network or documentary filmmaker would visit the survivors and announce their intention to reinvigorate the search. Paul Murphy, chairman of the survivors’ organization, would call me and say, “Bill, it’s a go! We’re going back!” Some of these searchers were legitimate and well-intentioned, some less so. Regardless of my attempts to modulate the survivors’ excitement to protect them from the incapable or unscrupulous, they always would want it to be true. The commissioned officer survivors like John Woolston and Harlan Twible would delve into matters of naval architecture and make suppositions on the condition of the wreck as it would be found on the bottom. Beers would be drunk and celebratory plans would be dusted off, only to be dashed again when the legitimate explorers began to fully comprehend the cost of such a venture or when the posers would vanish into the night.
Repeated, phantom promises are crueler still when one’s life has been full of tragic events.
And so it went for the next 15 years, until a chance sequence of events caught a historian’s eye, leading to a rethinking of the ship’s final track.
The key ingredient was one of God’s greatest creations: “the Google.” Or to be more precise, Google alerts.
Years ago, I set up a Google alert so that anytime news involving the Indianapolis—either the World War II ship or my submarine—arose on the “interweb,” an alert would be emailed to me. One such alert popped up a couple of years ago, generated by a posting on a small candy store website in small town America. The alert said something about the business owner’s father having once seen the cruiser Indianapolis while he was under way in the waning days of World War II.
I deleted the alert, finding it uninteresting. Dr. Richard Hulver of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) did not. Neither did retired Rear Admiral Sam Cox, director of NHHC and a caring leader who treasures our World War II heroes.
For decades, the Navy had shown disdain for all things Indianapolis. But this time it was different. Admiral Cox directed that this lead be followed.
Dr. Hulver tracked down the service record of the father of the business owner, learning that he served on LST-779. He then pulled the LST’s deck logs from the archives and ferreted out the ship’s track, finding that at the time of the sighting, the LST had been running well north of the Indianapolis’s track of planned intended movement.
He cross-referenced the report of the sighting by the LST against an oblique statement by Captain McVay about seeing an LST prior to the sinking, and he concluded that the Indianapolis’s self-reported location of the sinking was well south of her actual track.
Although Dr. Hulver didn’t say it, the fact that a zigzagging ship in World War II was north of where it believed it should be is not surprising, particularly given that the skies were overcast that night and the ship was unable to take a celestial fix when it got dark. Wind and currents, along with imprecise ship movements, are difficult to correct for using dead reckoning alone.
This new information was compared to new Japanese reference material, initiating revised drift analysis for the sinking ship, which was conducted by a Naval Academy midshipman.
Serendipitously, in 2015, prior to learning about Dr. Hulver’s research, Paul Allen had authorized the purchase of special remotely operated vehicle and autonomous underwater vehicle equipment that could reach the deepest parts of the Pacific, with the intention of reinvigorating the hunt for the Indianapolis, underwater archeology being one of his many philanthropic pursuits.
As so often happens, a series of chance events occurred: a website entry triggered a Google alert, which caught the eye of a historian, which then was used by Allen’s team to update their intended search location.
When Allen’s Vulcan team contacted NHHC early this year to say they intended to conduct a search for the Indianapolis this summer, Admiral Cox authorized sharing the new information on the ship’s track with them, and NHHC then connected Vulcan with me. Because I was aware of Dr. Hulver’s recent analysis, I was hopeful the updated position would give Allen a much better chance of success, but truth be told, I held out little hope.
And so, when I was notified by the Navy early on 19 August that the ship had been found and I was authorized to notify the survivors in advance of the news being released, I was overjoyed.
I realized we had only a couple hours to complete notification before the news became public, so I canceled my solar eclipse plans for that day and immediately enlisted the help of “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy” documentary filmmaker Sara Vladic. Despite it being 4 a.m. California time, she answered my call and jumped in to help notify survivors.
I had expected our news to generate absolute exuberance from the survivors, even better than the joy I’d witnessed during our “near-miss” events of years past. To a man, they were all grateful for Paul Allen’s largess and happy their ship had been found. But although their words expressed joy, their tone seemed to convey a different emotion. Muted. Melancholy. Even a bit of sadness, perhaps.
At first, I presumed the news might be bringing up thoughts of their lost shipmates, and I began to inquire about this. No, I was told. They had processed those emotions decades ago.
One survivor who I have known for more than 20 years couldn’t seem to remember who I was. This man had called me on the evening of 9/11, knowing I had been in the Pentagon during the at- tack, saying, “You were hit by a kamikaze just like us. You got too close to us and had to share our fate.”
Another survivor didn’t seem to understand what I was telling him.
Another said simply, “I wish Paul Murphy was still around to hear this. You know there are only 22 of us left.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the actual number was 19.
Then it occurred to me that what was happening as I played this event out for them is that they were replaying in their heads conversations they had had with other survivors in years, even decades, past. All those people—Paul Murphy, L.D. Cox, Giles McCoy, Glenn and Gene Morgan—were now gone.
And those who remained, now in their 90s, had perhaps exhausted their supply of patience and joy, waiting for this event to happen.
They all thought it was wonderful.
But sometimes, wonderful just comes too late.
Articles Military History

Musings on Some Myths about the Attack on Pearl Harbor

On the eve of the 75th anniversary of the December 7th 1945 attack on Pearl Harbor, I thought I would bust a few myths associated with the attack. I won’t be touching the mini-submarine inside Pearl Harbor issue in this post, leaving that to my friend and classmate Parks Stephenson who discovered that historical anomaly. But there is a lot of other material to reflect on.
I served 11 years in Pearl Harbor over the course of four submarine tours. My office as commodore of Submarine Squadron 3 was the same room that Admiral Kimmel watched the attack from in 1941, the one where the bullet came through the window during the attack, hit him in his metal cigarette case, fell to the floor, whereupon he (reportedly) famously said “I would have been better off if it had killed me.”
With that as background, here are some random musings:
  • The Japanese can’t have intended for Pearl Harbor to be a surprise attack. As described below, the Japanese thought they would be flying into a fully armed and ready American defense. In fact, a surprise attack was contrary to samurai code, which considers it much more honorable to fight someone who can fight back. When the Japanese pilots took off from their aircraft carriers, they believed many of them would not be returning. Of course, the vast majority of them survived because this did indeed turn out to be a surprise attack, because:
  • The Japanese ambassador in Washington failed to deliver the war warning message to the United States government on the timeline outlined by Japanese leadership in Tokyo. Had he done so as Japan intended, it would have given the United States warning before the Pearl Harbor attack began. His failure results from the fact the Japanese embassy staff was essentially incompetent at code-breaking and translating the message for delivery to the US. In fact, the ambassador didn’t deliver the message until AFTER the Pearl Harbor attack began. Nevertheless, this should not have been a problem because:
  • American code-breakers in Washington WERE able to break the Japanese diplomatic code and knew what the message said before the Japanese ambassador did. Hence, Americans had the message in hand in plenty of time to warn folks in Hawaii that an attack was imminent. President Roosevelt had the content of the message the evening before the attack (and upon reading it reportedly said “this means war”), but he did not direct the military to prepare appropriately. Astoundingly, Army Chief of Staff General Marshall (whose house is here in Leesburg, Virginia, a couple of miles away from where I sit as I write this) knew about the message but decided to go horseback riding Sunday morning in lieu of attending to the preparation of this forces. Navy CNO Admiral Stark was “unavailable” for receipt of the message the evening of December 6th, attending a show instead, and could not be located the morning of December 7th. But our national leadership knew war was imminent, and to that end, Roosevelt’s famous “day that will live in infamy” speech was little more than spectacular theater. Many people theorize our Washington inaction was because:
  • President Roosevelt welcomed an attack by the Japanese. He even indicated that an attack on American forces would be necessary to break Republican intransigence against the war. So some folks have indicated Marshall and Stark were “hunkering down,” waiting for hostilities to begin, believing the attack would begin in some far reaches of the American domain like the Philippines (where General MacArthur was in charge). This theory is lent credence by the fact that rather than preparing for an attack, MacArthur actually lined up his aircraft in the Philippines wing-to-wing, making them an easier target for the Japanese. But the notion that we didn’t know Pearl Harbor was the target is a myth, because:
  • We were spying on the Japanese consul-general in Honolulu, who we knew was actually an undercover Imperial Japanese Navy officer, and caught him spying on the status of our ships in Pearl Harbor prior to the attack. In fact, he set up an observation post near McGrew Point, near where Karen and I lived when I was serving in USS Buffalo. A few days before the attack Americans were able to break the code of one of his messages, in which he reported US Navy ships were in port and “an attack at this time is likely to be successful.” We also had indication that Hawaii was the target because:
  • The notion that the Japanese fleet was in EMCON (emission control, in other words in radio silence) as they crossed the Pacific is a myth. In fact, we were actively tracking the Japanese fleet using radio direction finder equipment as it crossed from Japan to Hawaii. So we either knew or should have known that Hawaii was the target even without the Japanese consul message referred to above. Our failure to warn the Pearl Harbor fleet makes sense if you believe:
  • President Roosevelt wanted the attack to take place in Hawaii. There is a bunch of circumstantial evidence to support this. Admiral Richardson (Admiral Kimmel’s predecessor in Hawaii) asked for aircraft to defend/screen Pearl Harbor, but the requested aircraft were sent to the United Kingdom to help the Brits instead. Similarly, a code-breaking machine that would have allowed the Navy in Hawaii to do its own breaking of the Japanese diplomatic code was sent to the UK instead of Hawaii. So Hawaii was (some say intentionally) left without aircraft or intelligence necessary to defend the fleet. Add to this the notion that Roosevelt felt a Japanese attack had to be serious enough to justify America’s entering the war, that the attack had to take place on “American soil” to get the furor of the population up (Hawaii was a US territory therefore it qualified), that an attack on American forces in the Philippines would not be “serious enough,” and it makes it inviting speculation that Pearl Harbor was Roosevelt’s target of choice. Add to that:
  • Despite absolute knowledge that war with Japan was imminent, nobody directed that the battleship fleet get underway, hence many point out that some of our most important capital ships were sitting ducks. The truth is that most of the battleship fleet in Pearl Harbor were antiquated leftovers from World War I, of little actual value during the war. The truly valuable ships were the carriers, which WERE directed to get underway prior to the attack. Further, had the battleships gotten underway, and had they been sunk at sea, the loss of life would have been much worse than it was on December 7th. Because the ships were sunk in shallow Pearl Harbor, many of the survivors were able to simply swim ashore, and most of the ships were refloated after the attack so they could join the war effort (of course, USS Arizona and USS Utah are still exceptions to this day). None of this would have been possible had the battleships gotten underway and been sunk at sea. This lends credence to the conspiracy theorists who believe that the Pearl Harbor attack was in Roosevelt’s sweet spot— serious enough to raise fury among Americans who were opposed to entering the war, but not so serious as to be unrecoverable—and was therefore a “set-up.” (By the way, I’m not one of those who believe that Roosevelt could have orchestrated/calculated this event as precisely and accurately as this. But it’s easy to understand why some people feel this way.) And lastly:
  • That bullet that hit Admiral Kimmel in the cigarette case during the war was an American bullet, not a Japanese one. As a young physics major at the Academy I did the simple calculation to prove to myself that had the bullet been fired from a Japanese airplane it would have killed Kimmel. However, had the acceleration driving the bullet been gravity (F=MA, where A=g), then the bullet would not have penetrated the cigarette case. Hence the bullet had to have been fired up into the air, and then fallen down through that window by virtue of gravity.
Much like the attack on 9/11, it’s indisputable that there was plenty of prior indication about where the Pearl Harbor attack was going to take place. Unfortunately, again like 9/11, the necessary data was dispersed and was not shared appropriately between government agencies and entities. This was caused by an inexcusable failure of government process.
I’m sure that the public perception of this event will continue to evolve for years to come.
Articles Military History USS Indianapolis

The Exoneration of Captain McVay

I wrote this in 2014 as a follow-up to my 1999 article, “The Sinking of the Indy and the Responsibility of Command,” to reveal events that I did not feel comfortable exposing while I was still on active duty. It was submitted to US Naval Institute Proceedings for consideration, but was rejected on the basis that it was “too personal” and that the “subject matter was already covered sufficiently.” Much of this material was later covered in the 2018 Simon & Schuster book “Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in US Navy History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man,” by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic.
The events which led to the 1945 sinking of USS Indianapolis (CA-35) have been well covered. The story is so remarkable, entwined with so many iconic events, that it evokes Greek tragedy rather than western history:
  • Struck by a kamikaze at the battle of Okinawa, causing her to be located at Mare Island naval shipyard for repairs at the precise moment a ship is required to deliver the Hiroshima atomic bomb to Tinian, so she is called upon to execute a record-setting Pacific crossing to deliver the bomb.
  • Later transiting from Guam to Leyte to begin preparations for the invasion of Japan, she finds herself in the crosshairs of a Japanese submarine crew that had endured the entire war without ever sinking a single ship, where she becomes the target of a textbook submarine torpedo attack, sinking in twelve short minutes.
  • The remnants of her crew suffer for nearly five days in the water, until a wayward Ventura chances upon an oil slick, then a PBY pilot executes a harrowing open ocean landing to begin the rescue, including response by a destroyer commanded by a future secretary of the Navy (the one who much later will sign my own commissioning certificate).
  • Then there was the court-martial of the Indy’s captain, Charles Butler McVay III, with Navy prosecutors abandoning any sense of decency by flying the enemy submarine commander to the United States to testify against an undeniably heroic, decorated naval officer.
  • Finally comes the conviction of the captain, his twenty-year struggle with depression, and his subsequent suicide.
Could a single story possibly get any more compelling?
The 1945 conviction of Captain McVay had always been a source of anger with the cruiser survivors because the conviction was a de facto declaration that the Indy’s crew shared culpability in the sinking of their ship, even though every witnesses, including the key prosecution witness—the commander of the enemy submarine that did the sinking— stated that the ship would likely have been sunk regardless of the crew’s actions.
Convincing Myself
My direct involvement in the affair began in 1998 while serving as commanding officer of the nuclear fast attack submarine USS Indianapolis (SSN-697). At the decommissioning ceremony for my submarine, several of the cruiser survivors asked for my help in exonerating their captain.
My first reaction was to convince myself that McVay deserved exoneration. I knew that the Indy had not been zigzagging at the time of the torpedo attack, so I wondered what would have been the outcome if the ship had been doing what Navy prosecutors alleged it should have been doing.
While still assigned to my Indianapolis submarine, I was able to mimic the Japanese torpedo attack on the cruiser by using my submarine’s fire control planning computer to simulate computer runs of the pattern of six torpedoes the Japanese skipper fired, and then seeing what would happen if the cruiser did zig according to the Navy’s procedure, using various, randomized zig points on its track.
Knowing that the tactic of firing a spread of torpedoes was designed specifically to counter a zigzagging target, I expected that zigzagging would not have significantly changed the torpedo attack probability of success. American submarines sunk millions of tons of shipping during the war, the vast majority of which were zigzagging. But what would the computer tell me about the outcome of the Indy-maru and Japanese submarine I-58?
In statistics there is a concept called monte carlo analysis, where randomized computer models are run to estimate the probability of a particular outcome. This is normally done by automating the runs so that the computer can change variables, and over the course of thousands of runs the probability of a particular outcome can be gleaned. This is what I would try to approximate.
Of course, there were several problems with my approach. First, my submarine didn’t fire Japanese Type 95 torpedoes– a the kind that was used against the Indy— so I couldn’t precisely simulate them. Modern American submarines fired Mark 48 ADCAP torpedoes. Interestingly, I could simulate a Mark 48 in my computer that ran at about the same speed as a Type 95 which would be a pretty good model of the Japanese torpedo runs.
The next issue was that Mark 48 ADCAP torpedoes are acoustic homing torpedoes, while the Type 95 are straight-running. Fortunately again, the Mark 48 can be programmed to run in “acoustics off” mode.
Further, my submarine could fire a salvo of torpedoes, but only four at a time, whereas the I-58 fired a salvo of six. To overcome this, I would have to trick the computer into thinking I was able to reload and fire two torpedoes much quicker than a submarine could in reality, but it would suffice for this simulation.
These three changes were sufficient to get a pretty good simulation of a Type 95 torpedo attack. Now all I needed to do was to simulate a target making run after run as if it were the Indy zigzagging at different intervals.
Having set this problem up, I spent a couple of weeks running these models while my submarine entered the shipyard and began its decommissioning process. It didn’t take me very long to decide that no matter what the Indy did as far as zigzagging went, the I-58 was going to get at least one hit. And once a single torpedo hit and rendered the Indy “dead in the water,” the I-58 would be able to close in for the kill.
Once the I-58 saw the Indy and found itself to be in the perfect firing position, the Indy was doomed, no matter what kind of zigzagging it did. If only McVay’s defense counsel had access to a similar tool in 1945—the outcome of the court martial would have been very different.
Once I decided for myself that McVay’s exoneration was justified, I wrote an article arguing for his exoneration, which was published in the US Naval Institute Proceedings journal in October 1999. Then in 2000 the survivors received what they had been pursuing for over fifty years: a de facto exoneration of their captain.
This article is intended to fill in the one-year gap between October 1999 and Congress’ 2000 exoneration of McVay.
The Public Relations Problem
When the survivors began their campaign to exonerate Captain McVay in the late 1960s, over the ensuing decades the Navy repeated its mantra that there was no provision in military law to overturn the conviction of a dead man. Specifically, since McVay committed suicide in 1968, he could not be re-tried. If he could not be re-tried, he could not be exonerated. As far at the Navy was concerned, it was case closed.
So the survivors persisted by getting Congress involved.

Over the course of several Congressionally-mandated reviews of the original conviction, the Navy repeatedly articulated their reaffirmation of the conviction in such an inartful and ham-fisted way that these findings only further raised survivor anger and antibodies. In short, the survivors gained no traction on this issue until the late-1990s, when a young boy named Hunter Scott completed a history project on the McVay affair and began a personal crusade to clear McVay’s name, ultimately gaining national attention. And with public attention comes political attention. This is the point at which the Navy seriously began losing the PR battle.

But there were a few problems with young Mr. Scott’s involvement:

  • He had produced no new or original research.  Instead, the arguments he made were derivative from both earlier works and from stories the survivors told him.
  • Many of the points he made were based on conventional wisdom, but were urban myths, easily disproved by the Navy.  When he advanced one spurious argument, it was easy for the Navy to discard all his arguments.
  • As retired Captain Ed Beach, author of “Run Silent Run Deep” and who was leading the effort to exonerate Admiral Kimmel and General Short, would write, “I must admit having been turned off by the spectacle of of the nation reacting better to him [Scott] with greater depth of interest than it did to all the other investigations that have taken place.  It sort of undignifies the whole situation, in my mind, to find it hanging on the interest of a 12-year-old boy.”
  • Aligned with this, the Navy disengaged from the whole argument rather than risking the perception that admirals were beating up on a kid.

Hunter Scott eventually gained the attention of Congressman Joe Scarborough of Florida, who picked up the cause. Then Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire joined in. Congressman Scarborough crafted a “sense of Congress resolution” that he easily pushed through the House of Representatives. Then in 1999 Senator Smith arranged hearings on the McVay affair in front of Virginia Senator John Warner’s Senate Armed Services Committee.
But of course Senator Warner had previously been Secretary of the Navy himself, and during his tenure he had been “encouraged” to review the McVay case several times. As Secretary of the Navy he opted not to do so, instead allowing it to remain unchallenged. During his tenure as the senior Senator on the Armed Services committee, Warner had historically been disinclined to advance any issue that presented the Navy in a bad light. Multiple sense of Congress resolutions on the McVay affair had been written and debated previously, but none had ever been allowed to advance out of Warner’s committee, hence none had ever reached the floor of the Senate for a vote, hence none had ever passed. When this 1999 hearing was first called, there was initially no indication that this one would be any different than the rest.
My Role 

Because of a very successful deployment we had while I was captain of the submarine Indianapolis, I was directed to transfer back to the Pentagon in January 1999 to serve as Special Assistant to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Donald Pilling. When the Senate scheduled hearings on the McVay affair, it “invited” the Chief of Naval Operations to testify on the Navy’s behalf. Not wanting any part of this tar baby, the CNO delegated the testimony down to his Vice Chief, my boss. And because my boss knew of my involvement with the survivors from my time as captain of my Indianapolis, Pilling asked me to lead preparations for his testimony. That’s where things got interesting.

A few weeks before the hearings were to be held, I got a call from Senator Warner’s military assistant. His message was simple: the senator had not supported exoneration of McVay while serving as Secretary of the Navy, and had no intention “changing history” now since doing so would be tantamount to admitting that the position he held while serving as Secretary of the Navy was wrong. So the Senator would invite Indianapolis survivors to testify and express their outrage, he would honor their service and say great things, but in the end the sense of congress resolution would never leave his committee, would never go to the Senate for a vote, and therefore would never see the light of day.

But one caveat was applied to this message: the survivors were to be treated gently. Navy statements should not be unnecessarily provocative. Committee inaction would cause the exoneration resolution to “go away,” but the Navy was not to provoke or disrespect the survivors during the hearing. It was OK to describe the conviction as a fact of history that could not be changed. But we should not dig this hole any deeper.
The staffer did come across as being sympathetic to the cause when he made one final observation: Hunter Scott’s campaign was not helping the survivors’ cause. The staffer repeated a point I had made in my Proceedings article: that nobody currently on active duty, or in the Senate for that matter, had any personal capital invested in the 1945 decision. Every time Hunter went on TV to proclaim that Captain McVay was still being “scapegoated,” he was just irritating the people who could help our cause. I told him I had made this point to Hunter myself when he visited my submarine in 1998, but the message didn’t “take.”
The thought that the resolution was destined to die in committee was disheartening, but we still had an opportunity for the Navy to change its position on the matter. If the Navy were to admit “we were on the wrong side of history on this issue,” that statement might be as effective as any sense of Congress resolution.
So I wrote what I felt was a properly contrite statement for Admiral Pilling to present at the hearing. The admiral knew where I stood on the issue of exoneration, so I suspect he read my draft of his testimony with some degree of trepidation. My main theme was to acknowledge that there was no provision of law that allowed McVay to be legally exonerated, but with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, justice was likely not served by the court-martial, and if we were to do it again today, we’d likely do it differently. I remember him reading the draft, then looking up at me with that wry smile of his. And to his credit, while he did ask me for some revisions, he allowed my main theme to remain. Then with his approval, I sent the language to Senator Warner’s staff for an unofficial review to make sure it passed the “not unnecessarily provocative” test.
However, things began to unravel the weekend before the scheduled hearing, when on Saturday, September 11th 1999, two years to the date before a more infamous 9/11, I received the one and only call at home I would ever receive from Admiral Pilling in the two years I worked for him. He told me he was going to have to change his testimony to one where he stated positively that the Navy still agreed with the conviction. I argued vigorously that there was no point in fanning these flames, that we had already coordinated his testimony with the committee, to the point where I knew I was beginning to agitate him. But he made it clear that “this is the way it’s going to have to be” and hung up.
Now, many years removed from these events, I am willing to admit that although I notified Senator Bob Smith’s staff of the change in Navy position, we never followed up with Senator Warner’s staff. After all, that was the job of the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs. Whether that inaction was causal in the series of events that followed we will never know.
I am also willing to admit that after hearing that we were going to change our testimony, I forwarded a list of “murder board” questions I knew we had no answer to, questions that were used to prepare Admiral Pilling for his testimony, to Mike Monroney, a retired lobbyist whose son-in-law had worked for Senator Smith. All I said to Mike was that “use this as you think appropriate, and I’m hoping it will inform the other in a general way, but it will go bad for me if Senator Smith ends up reading these questions verbatim.”
What I do know is that during the hearing, as Admiral Pilling was reading an entirely different statement than the one I had written and greased through Senator Warner’s staff, Senator Warner’s agitation at the apparent bait-and-switch was palpable. I was told he was completely blind-sided by the Navy’s last-minute change in position. In his verbal response to Admiral Pilling’s testimony, Senator Warner expressed his regret that the Navy continued to defend a position that did not hold up under the scrutiny of time, and said Navy intransigence in the face of so many years of reflection and examination were now causing him to change his position on the matter.
And then, to my horror and contrary to my request, Senator Smith did need begin to read verbatim from the list of questions I had sent to Mike Monroney. Apparently nobody on his staff had the wherewithal to reword them, and Senator Smith didn’t know how to ad-lib, so he simply read from the very same list of questions that was sitting in front of my boss the Admiral. There is no way the Admiral didn’t know that I was responsible for that, but to his credit, he never asked me about it, not even during our very uncomfortable ride from the Senate hearing back to the Pentagon. When the hearing was over, we simply moved on to the next issue.
I was later told that as a result of what he considered the Navy thumbing its nose at the survivors yet again, Senator Warner did allow the sense of congress resolution to advance to the Senate floor, where it passed full vote of the Senate in short order.
McVay’s Service Record and Secretary Gordon England
This sordid tale had been so painful and had gone on so long, the survivors completely lost faith in the Navy’s willingness to do the right thing on any matter that involved their story. So after the sense of Congress resolution passed, the survivors wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy asking that I be the one allowed to enter the exoneration language into Captain McVay’s service record. In a phone call to me, survivors’ chairman Paul Murphy said, “Bill we won’t believe it’s been entered until you tell us it has been.” In the waning days of the Clinton administration, the Navy continued to wish away the issue by taking absolutely no action in reaction to the recently-passed Congressional resolution.
Then in 2001 when the Bush administration came in and Gordon England was named Secretary of the Navy, the survivors wrote yet another letter saying essentially the same thing. I did not know about this one until I was summoned to the Secretary’s office to explain what this was all about.
It didn’t take more than fifteen minutes for Gordon England to understand what was going on. He said, “I want you to do this, not because the survivors asked us to, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
It took a couple of months for the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel to pull McVay’s service record out of national archives. Then one day, a female JAG officer from SECNAV staff called me to say, “It’s here,” whereupon she brought McVay’s service record into my office and sat alongside me as I entered the exoneration language, and removed the court-martial entry, once and for all exonerating him.
I was surprised at how thin McVay’s service record was. And I will now admit one more transgression: having this historic document in my hands was too much— I could not resist the temptation of reading through it.
One small entry caught our eye, one that is nearly burned into my memory. The statement read something like this: “Captain McVay awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Combat ‘V’ this date for services during the Battle of Okinawa. Unable to locate service member. Medal returned to stock.”
The date of that entry was December 1945, when McVay’s court martial was front-page news in every newspaper in the country. It’s clear that handing McVay a medal in the middle of his court-martial would create even more of a PR problem for the Navy, so they apparently just decided to let it fade away.
The JAG officer and I brought this bit of news back to Secretary England, and again he did the right thing. He allowed me to present the medal to Captain McVay’s only surviving kin, his son Charles McVay IV. Secretary England then authorized a Navy Unit Citation for the ship, which was presented to the surviving crew in 2002. He also agreed to speak at the survivors’ reunion in 2005, finally putting any specter of Navy irritation with the survivors to rest.
Next year will be the 70th anniversary of the sinking, and over the past 14 years I have often wondered what happened over the course of the week of testimony. Was Admiral Pilling really ordered to toe the party line? I know he understood and agreed with my position— did he merely fold? I asked him that question in 2007 shortly before he passed away, but he would not tell me. All he would say is that he was satisfied with the outcome.
Over the years, several images surrounding these events have haunted me.
This may seem rather innocuous, but prior to McVay’s court-martial the Navy brought in carpenters to renovate a large room on the top floor of Building 57 in the Washington Navy Yard where event would be held.
Courts martial are generally private affairs, not open to the public. But not only was Captain McVay’s court martial an open proceeding, they anticipated so much interest in the trial that in the weeks before it began they had carpenters prepare areas for camera crews and seating for over 200 people. Why? There wasn’t that much press at the Japanese surrender ceremony held on the USS Missouri. Nothing in Navy protocol could provide me with a reasonable explanation.
And while the Navy worked for weeks to prepare courtroom seating, Captain McVay’s attorneys were assigned so late they only had four days to prepare his defense. Weeks for the cameras, but only days for his defense.
Then there is the matter of the chief prosecutor, Captain Thomas J. Ryan introducing the skipper of the enemy submarine to the court by telling the members that there had been many other times, in many other wars, when other enemies in battle were called to testify against Americans at courts-martial. The problem with that statement? It was a lie. It had never happened before. Why did the Judge Advocate find it necessary to lie about that point? In the end, I believe it was the Navy’s own intransigence on this matter that led to their failure to prevail.
So this sad bit of history was corrected. And although McVay’s suicide means he will always be the final victim of this tragic string of events, the wrong was finally righted, to the extent it could be.
Captain McVay was not responsible for the sinking of his ship, so says the Congress of the United States.
Articles Military History USS Indianapolis

The Sinking of the Indy & Responsibility of Command

The 1945 sinking of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) by the Imperial Japanese submarine 1-58 has been called the last, great naval tragedy of World War II. It is the stuff of legend: after delivering the atomic bombs to Tinian, the Indy was torpedoed, sinking in 12 minutes. At least 800 crew members survived the sinking and went into the water. On their rescue after five days, only 316 still were alive. First published in US Naval Institute Proceedings in October 1999, this article attempted to deal with the complexities of the McVay affair.
The group of men that stood before me that warm Hawaiian afternoon could have passed for those in any retirement community. As I looked at them, I searched for something in their faces that might reveal the incredible suffering they had endured, something that might identify them as the heroes they were. There did seem to be an intensity of spirit—a fire in their eyes—that belied their advancing years, but other than that, as hard as I looked, I saw no hint of the true horror that they must have hidden within them. And nothing that would provide a clue to the casual observer of just how incredible these men really were.
“We were thinking,” he said, “that there may never be another USS Indianapolis to carry on the reputation of our ship. That means you’re the last Indy captain. Another Indy captain needs you—and some of us think you have a duty to respond to his call.”

But I was in awe of them just the same.

These were survivors of the sinking of the heavy cruiser Indianapolis (CA-35), and they had assembled in Pearl Harbor to witness the inactivation of my submarine, bearing the same name. As commanding officer (CO), I thought it appropriate to ask these men to stand with my crew as we decommissioned our boat, since they never got to say good-bye to their own vessel in this fashion. I thought their presence might drive home the realization that as bad as it is to decommission a perfectly good submarine, there are worse fates for a ship. I also thought it would inspire my crew to have these men stand in formation with us one last time, as one crew—the combined crew of the Indianapolis.

Indeed, the ceremony went off beautifully on that day in February 1998. At the reception following, however, one of the survivors—Paul Murphy, president of the survivor’s association, and as brave a man as I have ever known—approached me. He thanked me for inviting his crew to the ceremony. He said that standing in formation as the
Indy crew once again, in Pearl Harbor, would be something they would never forget. And then, when he had me right where he wanted me, he threw in the kicker.
“We were thinking,” he said, “that there may never be another USS Indianapolis to carry on the reputation of our ship. That means you’re the last Indy captain. Another Indy captain needs you—and some of us think you have a duty to respond to his call.”
To be honest, I was not surprised by this request. After three tours in the submarine Indianapolis, I knew well the legend of the cruiser for which we were named. I knew the story of Captain Charles Butler McVay III, knew of his court-martial, and knew his two sons. I had spoken to many Indy survivors over the years, and knew that they were unanimous in their opinion that their captain had been wrongly prosecuted. The Indy was sunk by a submarine, and I was a submarine CO. Hence, I could analyze the attack with a trained eye to evaluate whether McVay’s actions had been appropriate. That was why these men were coming to me. I was their logical choice to bring this issue to closure. It all made sense.
But I dreaded the request just the same.
Not because I feared controversy—for, with apologies to the late Senator Goldwater, passivity in response to injustice is no virtue, and controversy in defense of truth is no vice.
Not because it would be work—I already had done the research. Over the years I had become very familiar with the facts surrounding the sinking of the Indianapolis. I had twice laid wreaths at the site of her sinking. I even made a failed attempt to meet Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, the captain of the submarine that sunk her. I had read virtually every book, article, and document ever written on the event.
I dreaded the petition because I wasn’t sure the survivors would want to hear what I had to say. Nevertheless, these men have inspired me greatly over the years, so I honored their request.
The Court-Martial
The Indy controversy erupted in August 1945, just after the atomic bombs were dropped. The American public was outraged at the loss of more than 800 lives in the waning days of the war, and a Navy court of inquiry was convened to investigate. Its recommendation was that Captain McVay be court-martialed for hazarding his vessel by failure to zigzag, but Admiral Chester Nimitz disagreed and instead issued the captain a letter of reprimand. Admiral Ernest King later overturned Nimitz’s decision and recommended a court-martial, which Secretary of the Navy Forrestal later convened.
In doing so, King intervened directly with the Secretary of the Navy to move forward with the court-martial in parallel with an investigation by the Inspector General (IG). But a court-martial is a trial, not an investigatory tool. If King’s problem was simply a lack of information, why didn’t he allow the Inspector General to issue his report before ordering the court-martial? Some believe it is because King was not satisfied that the IG’s conclusions would support his decision to court-martial.
The Navy Judge Advocate General also was asked to review the referral. His response contained the curious statement that the charges included in the initial referral were “the only ones that can be supported,” as if an agenda was at work to establish a greater foundation for prosecution. Whatever the truth, this statement certainly creates the perception that the Judge Advocate General was under direction to discover more charges to refer against McVay.
In the end, McVay was charged with two counts: suffering his vessel to be hazarded by failing to zigzag, and failure to order abandon ship in a timely manner. His counsel, reportedly hand-picked by King, had never argued a case in court before.
The court claimed that McVay was not being charged for any deficiency that led to the sinking of his ship. They made a strong case that the “Indianapolis was hazarded before she was ever detected by I-58, and would have been hazarded if she had never been detected by I-58.” In essence, McVay could have been found guilty in a court– martial even if his ship had not been sunk. This is a meaningless legal distinction, however, since absent the sinking, there would have been no way for anyone to know that the vessel had been hazarded.
Hence, despite the fact that McVay was convicted only on the first count—for suffering his vessel to be hazarded by not zigzagging—there is no way to escape the fact that Captain McVay was court-martialed for having his ship sunk.
Put all these facts together, and it is understandable why most of the survivors believe that Admiral King was doing all he could to tilt the scales of justice against McVay. Even Admiral Nimitz later would say to one survivor that the entire affair involving the court-martial was a mistake and should never have happened.
Modern Perceptions and Recent Analysis
In more recent times, the story of the Indianapolis has become the stuff of legend. Unfortunately, the legend has in some cases overwhelmed the truth. For example, some of McVay’s proponents opine that the Navy still is involved in some sort of cover-up, to hide the corporate Navy’s culpability in the events that led up to the McVay court-martial. Any such notion obviously is ludicrous. No one on active duty today has any stake in a court-martial decision made in 1945. None of today’s decision makers has any personal capital invested in this sequence of events. It would reflect poorly on none of them if they were to declare that McVay should not have been court-martialed almost 55 years ago. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that any contemporary declaration on the case is likely to be unbiased.
Which leads to the issue of recent statements on the subject by the Navy. The most recent review of the case was carried out by a Navy lawyer, Commander R. D. Scott, in 1996. The study is thoroughly researched, logically sound, and I will assume, legally correct. Nevertheless, some statements in the report show a lack of professional knowledge of the naval art, weaken the overall presentation, and unfortunately, lend credence to those who contend that the Navy still is engaged in shaping the argument against Captain McVay.
For example, in one of his footnotes, Commander Scott says, “The Navy has never challenged Captain McVay’s uncorroborated account that he did not go down with his ship because he was swept over the side by a wave.” The implication here is that it was McVay’s duty to go down with his ship, a notion that is steeped in folklore but has no foundation in regulation or naval tradition. Worse, Scott implies here that Captain McVay—a man awarded the Silver Star for gallantry under fire, a man who spoke freely and honestly about the fact that he had not been zigzagging at the time he was torpedoed—was lying about something as trivial as how he found himself removed from his sinking ship. This is an implication that most of the survivors consider personally offensive, as do I.
Similarly, Scott is particularly critical of one recent book that recounts the story of the Indianapolis, Fatal Voyage. He proclaims this account “replete with melodramatic conjecture,” but this has nothing to do with the veracity of the claims made by the author. In addition, Scott is anything but clinical in his analysis of the book, as when he describes author Dan Kurzman writing his missive with a “tortured pen.”
Scott also writes that existing naval warfare publications directed commanding officers to zigzag anywhere a threat of submarine attack existed. By July 1945, however, the Imperial Japanese Navy barely existed, and the Philippine Sea where the Indianapolis was sunk was thought of as a backwater with an imperceptibly small probability of encountering the enemy. In addition, the Indianapolis’s routing order, which even Admiral Nimitz noted took precedence over the doctrine publication, gave McVay authority to zigzag “at his discretion.” And last, McVay had been zigzagging throughout the daylight hours, and ordered a straight-line course only late in the evening, when the sky was obscured and visibility was poor. These facts weakened this line of reasoning so acutely that the prosecution never pursued a strategy of convicting McVay for failing to follow a lawful order.
Commander Scott also performs a naive assessment of the I-58’s attack, concluding that if the Indy had zigged at the time the submarine launched her torpedoes, the weapons would have missed. Notwithstanding the laws of probability that argue against this kind of fortuitous timing, combat is not a kid’s game where everybody goes home after experiencing initial frustration. Even if the I-58 had missed with the first salvo, she had other options at hand: she could have employed her Kaiten or suicide minisubmarines, which were guided; or she could have surfaced, repositioned, and pressed on the attack. Many of the U.S. Navy’s most successful submarine commanders of World War II missed their initial attack but still achieved success. These men sank more than 4,000 ships, most of which were zigzagging. Scott exaggerates the difficulty that zigzagging would have presented to the commander of the I-58, and to propose that the Indy would have been spared had she zigged at time of fire weakens his overall argument.
In addition, Scott’s assertion that zigzagging would have helped save the Indianapolis weakens his later statement that “whether zigzagging would have defeated submarine I-58’s targeting of Indianapolis was not the issue at Captain McVay’s court-martial.” If the efficacy of zigzagging was not the issue, why did the Navy’s advocate in this matter spend so much effort trying to show that it would have been effective? Because he had to overcome the weight of evidence, most of which was provided by two men—the I-58’s captain, who was flown into Washington to testify against Captain McVay at his court– martial, and an experienced U.S. submarine commander. Even the prosecution’s star witness, the CO of the attacking submarine, agreed that the Indy would have been sunk regardless of McVay’s maneuvers.
The truth is that despite the Navy’s claims to the contrary, McVay was convicted for having his ship sunk. And in the end, Commander Scott’s assessment did little to assuage survivors’ concern that their skipper continues to receive unjust treatment at the hands of the Navy.
The Responsibility of Command
Despite the weaknesses in Commander Scott’s analysis of the McVay case, his conclusions essentially are correct. But he misses the real point. The question that should be asked is, If a ship with no antisubmarine warfare capability is sunk by a submarine in a war zone, is the commanding officer free from accountability?
The short answer is no. Regardless of legal wrangling, a commanding officer’s responsibility, and his accountability, are absolute in matters that affect the safety of his ship. This tenet is founded in Section 5947 of Title 10, United States Code, which states: “All commanding officers . . . in the naval service are required . . . to take all necessary and proper measures, under the laws, regulations, and customs of the naval service, to promote and safe-guard . . . the physical well-being, and the general welfare of the officers and enlisted persons under their command or charge.”
Or, as another Navy captain has said:
In the American Navy, the principle of accountability for the safety of one’s crew derives directly from our long-standing tradition of the citizen-soldier. The Founding Fathers explicitly rejected the European tradition of a professional officer caste that puts its own stature and survival above that of troops forcibly drawn from the peasantry. Instead in our democracy, the military leader’s authority over his troops was linked to a parallel responsibility to them as fellow citizens.
Accountability is a severe standard: the commander is responsible for everything that occurs under his command. Traditionally, the only escape clause was an act of God, an incident that no prudent commander could reasonably have foreseen. The penalties of accountable failure can be drastic: command and career cut short, sometimes by court-martial.
These factors favor the argument that a commander can and should be court-martialed for a failing that results in members of his crew being hurt or killed. Any deficiency in the ship is the CO’s responsibility, even if he had no direct, causal relationship with the deficiency. This is because it is the commanding officer’s responsibility—more than that, his duty—to ferret out and correct problems before they manifest in failure. If he fails at that task, there is no one to back him up.
Captain McVay was the son of an admiral, a second– generation Naval Academy graduate, and knew this well. He acknowledged his accountability on two separate occasions. First, after his rescue, he told the New York Times, “I was in command of the ship and I am responsible for its fate.” And later, in his court-martial, he testified, “I know I cannot shirk the responsibility of command.”
Captain McVay’s ship was lost. He failed to take “all necessary measures” to protect his ship. And in our system of responsibility of command, it does not matter whether that action would have been effective—he should have tried. That is why he was found guilty.
Legal Correctness and Justice
So it seems that Captain McVay’s conviction was legally correct. But was it just?
Out of several hundred ships sunk during World War II, Captain McVay was the only commanding officer ever to be court-martialed for having his ship sunk out from under him. Was every one of those other commanding officers faultless? Did every one of them take “all necessary measures” to protect his crew? Of course not. If those cases were subjected to the same level of scrutiny as the Indy, we probably would find some kind of failure in each event.
So why doesn’t the Navy routinely court-martial commanding officers when their ships are sunk?
Consider how polite society responds to the death of a child. The parent sometimes has some degree of responsibility. Perhaps he left the child home alone. She let the child play too close to the street. Or they left matches in an accessible location. The parents could have prevented the tragedy—they might even be criminally negligent—but a humane society considers the impact of the tragedy on the accused, and understands that absent the grossest kind of malfeasance, the parent has suffered enough and should not be prosecuted. This is the concept of prosecutorial discretion. So it is with the sinking of a ship. The CO almost always can be found technically guilty of some form of negligence.
Indeed, a CO’s responsibility is so vast that on almost any day, on almost any ship, any one of us could walk on board and find something for which the CO could be held legally culpable. But absent the worst kind of deliberate misconduct, COs are not routinely prosecuted, because pursuing this tenet too aggressively would result in an effusion of action tailored to prevent failure, rather than to pursue success.
Which brings us back to Captain McVay. Here was a man who, because of the unique and absolute nature of the responsibility of command, was culpable for the misfortune that befell his ship—the captain’s own statements point to the fact that he understood this truth well. Despite that, there was nothing he could have done to prevent that misfortune, and he never should have been prosecuted in the first place. The lesson here is that a decision can be legally correct and still be unjust.
It is worth pointing out that McVay’s jury understood this paradox, and as a result, his sentence was light. He did not get demoted, as is commonly thought, but was merely set back in line for promotion. In addition, the members of the court-martial were unanimous in recommending that the reviewing authority exercise clemency. Why? Because they knew that, but for the grace of God, any one of them might have found himself in the same position as Captain McVay.
In fact, following the court-martial, Admiral King recommended setting aside even this token punishment. Secretary Forrestal accepted this recommendation, and McVay was promoted to rear admiral on retirement, consistent with the practice of the day.
An Epilogue
From 1945 on, McVay received hate mail every Christmas from a few persistent relatives of sailors killed on the Indianapolis. The support he received from fellow survivors did little to assuage his feelings of inadequacy and guilt, made worse by the fact that his conviction rendered him legally culpable for the deaths of his shipmates. On a gray day in 1966, he dressed in his Navy uniform, picked up a toy figure of a sailor, walked onto his front porch, put a handgun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger—yet another victim of a battle that claimed too many.
Because McVay’s punishment had been set aside, the only historical vestige of the Indianapolis incident is that McVay’s service record continues to reflect a conviction. Because this has caused him to be viewed as a felon, it continues to rankle his survivors, who insist their captain should not be considered a criminal because of an event over which he had no control. Hence, they continue to work to get even this black mark removed from his legacy.
Failing with the Navy, they have taken their battle to the court of public opinion and into the halls of Congress. And every few years, a few of them manage to get a bill or resolution entered into one chamber or other, trying to clear his record, if not his name. Perhaps one day they will succeed. But they work with an intensity that reveals that they know their time is limited.
It already is too late for Captain McVay to know that the battle being fought on his behalf one day may be won. Now the survivors themselves, having survived one of the most terrible ordeals in human history, wonder if any one of them will be around to see how the final chapter of this tale will be written.