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A Sixth Grade History Project Exonerated the Captain of the USS Indianapolis

Court-martialed after the sinking of the cruiser, Captain McVay's innocence was proven by Hunter Scott in 1996.

In 1945, the USS Indianapolis completed its top secret mission of delivering atomic bomb components to Tinian Island in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The heavy cruiser was sunk by Japanese submarines on its way to join a task force near Okinawa. Of the ship's 1,195 crew members, some 300 were killed in the initial sinking on July 30, 1945. Within 12 minutes of being torpedoed, the cruiser had sunk.

It took four days before the survivors were spotted by a routine Navy patrol. Of the 890 who had survived the sinking, an additional 574 had perished from exposure, dehydration, and shark attacks before their final rescue. Only 316 survived the incident—the greatest loss of life from one ship in U.S. naval history—including the ship's captain, Charles B. McVay III.

McVay would be charged with negligence in the loss of the ship. Even though he was restored to active duty after his court-martial and retired a rear admiral, the guilt of the loss haunted him for the rest of his life. He committed suicide with his Navy revolver on his own front lawn with a toy sailor in his hand in 1968, at the age of 70.

Related: Japan's Attempt to Recreate Pearl Harbor Failed at the Battle of Midway

McVay did everything he could in the wake of the torpedoing of the Indianapolis. He sounded the alarm, giving the order to abandon ship and was one of the last men off. Many of the survivors of the sinking publicly stated he was not to blame for its loss. But this wasn't enough for the family members of the ship's crew, who hounded McVay year after year, blaming him for the loss of their sons.

uss indianapolis
  • Charles B. McVay III.

  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

However, unbeknownst to many, the Navy was (at least) partly to blame. They didn't warn Indianapolis that the submarine I-58 had been operating along the area of the ship's course to Okinawa. They also didn't warn the ship to zigzag in its pattern to evade enemy submarines. When the Indianapolis radioed a distress signal, it was picked up by three Navy stations, who ignored the call because one was drunk, the other had a commander who didn't want to be disturbed, and the last thought it was a trap.

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Three and a half days later, the survivors were rescued from the open water, suffering from salt water poisoning, exposure, hypothermia, and the largest case of shark attacks ever recorded. It was truly a horrifying scene. The horror is what led to McVay's court martial, one of very few commanders to face such a trial concerning the loss of a ship. Even though the Japanese commander of I-58, the man who actually destroyed the Indianapolis, told the U.S. Navy that standard Navy evasion techniques would not have worked–Indianapolis was doomed from the get-go. Even that didn't satisfy McVay's critics.

It wasn't until sixth-grader Hunter Scott began a history project in school about the sinking of the Indianapolis. He poured through official Navy documents until he found the evidence he needed to conclusively prove that McVay wasn't responsible for the loss of his ship. His project caught the attention of then-Congressman Joe Scarborough and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, both of whom helped pass a Congressional resolution exonerating McVay. It was signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

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Hunter Scott, the onetime sixth-grader and eternal friend to the crew of the Indianapolis, is now a naval aviator. He attended the University of North Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship and joined active duty in 2007. He even spoke at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Published on 17 Oct 2019

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