For the Good of the Navy

Article excerpt

Survivors of the USS Indianapolis, sunk by a Japanese sub at the end of World War II, are trying to clear the name of their captain, court-martialed for losing his ship.

The story refuses to die. For nearly half a century survivors of the USS Indianapolis have been true to their promise to clear their skipper. Charles McVay III is the only captain in the history of the U.S. Navy to be court-martialed for losing his ship. And this after he and his men had set records delivering the key components for the atomic bomb that ended World War II.

In 1975 President Ford, himself a World War II naval officer, refused to honor their skipper with a Presidential Unit Citation, and the survivors angrily regrouped. Survivor Gil McCoy warned the Navy that the souls lost on the great ship Indianapolis "will be back to haunt you" And they're back.

A congressional resolution to restore McVay's honor and award a Presidential Unit Citation to the crew has been attached to this year's defense appropriations bill.

The Indianapolis itself will roar back to life as sea explorer Curt Newport plans with the National Geographic Society and the Discovery Channel to launch an expedition to find the lost ship. And Universal Studios is putting the final touches on a big-screen script that has been described by survivors as brilliant.

All of this is long overdue for these survivors, who still see dead men in their dreams and shake from the terrors of that hot summer day in 1945 when only 317 members of a 1,296-man crew survived a Japanese torpedo attack in the shark-infested waters of the South Pacific. For five days they braved the elements in 100-degree temperatures while being attacked by killer sharks. When it ended, their captain was convicted of failing to zigzag in hostile waters, which the Navy claims put the ship at risk.

McVay repeatedly asked why it took five days to rescue his men. He never received an answer, though the Navy claimed for years that his SOS messages never were received because McVay was operating under radio silence. Declassified records now show the Navy lied. At least three SOS messages were received separately, but none were acted upon because one commander was drunk, another had ordered his men not to disturb him and a third thought it was a Japanese prank.

Angered by the injustice, Republican Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 26 to clear McVay's record. "We're questioning whether it was morally right to have court-martialed him in the first place -- and that isn't revisionism, that's trying to set the record straight," Smith says. The resolution charges McVay's conviction was a "miscarriage of justice and encourages President Clinton to award a Presidential Unit Citation to the crew of the Indianapolis. On May 11, the House Armed Services Committee attached a similar resolution by Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough of Florida to the Defense Authorization Bill.

Advancing the truth has been an uphill battle. Resolutions failed to attract support in the past. Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush refused to get involved -- partly because many of the Indianapolis records still were classified. And digging into the past risked revealing embarrassing errors made by senior officials still in positions of power.

The Navy since has declassified hundreds of records showing that U.S. military intelligence, having broken the Japanese Navy code, was aware of it from the Japanese side when the ship was sunk. They also knew four Japanese submarines were in position to threaten the Indianapolis.

McVay was never warned. When he requested a destroyer escort he was told it wasn't needed. "The Navy completely covered it up and lied about it," says survivor Navy Seaman Woody James. "It's not right and it's not fair. When you find out that the Navy knew there were enemy submarines out there, and didn't tell the captain about it, it makes you mad. …