Charles Butler McVay III was the captain of the USS Indianapolis which was sunk 62 years ago today, on the night of 30th July 1945 by a Japanese submarine, after having delivered the first Atom Bomb to Tinian which was to be the deadly cargo of Enola Gay.
The Official website tells the tale of his court martial
Captain McVay was taken to Guam where he faced a board of inquiry ordered by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz (CINCPAC) which convened on August 13, one day before the sinking of the ship was announced to the public (simultaneously with the announcement that the Japanese had surrendered, thus insuring negligible press covergae).
Overriding the opposition of both Nimitz and Admiral Raymond Spruance (for whom the Indianapolis had served as Fifth Fleet flagship), naval authorities in Washington, specifically Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations, directed that court-martial proceedings be held against McVay, and the trial was scheduled to begin on December 3, 1945, at the Washington Navy Yard. (Directly influenced it has been said by the parents of officers and seamen who died)
Captain McVay thus became the first United States Navy commanding officer brought to trial for losing his ship in combat in World War II, despite the fact that over 700 ships were lost during World War II, including some under questionable circumstances.... and after hostilities had finished worldwide.
A little known fact is, that in the immediate aftermath of the war a military plane was dispatched to Japan with an armed escort to bring Mochitsura Hashimoto the submarine commander who sunk the USS Indianapolis to Washington. It was realised however that to introduce a Japanese submarine commander as a witness against a serving US Naval officer would not be smart move.
Following the proceedings, an unprecedented thing happened. Almost to a man, the officers sitting in judgment signed a petition asking the court to set aside the verdict in light of McVay's record. As Admiral King had retired in the interim, it fell to ADM Chester Nimitz to grant the petition of the court, and he set aside the punishment. He could not set aside the fact of the conviction. Admiral Nimitz restored Captain McVay to duty and posted him as commandant of the New Orleans Naval district where he was promoted to Rear Admiral (lower half), where he finished his career and retired.
It is reasonable to assume from the evidence that a decision to convict McVay was made before his court-martial began. The survivors of the Indianapolis are convinced that he was made a scapegoat to hide the mistakes of others, mistakes which included sending him into harm's way without warning and failing to notice when the Indianapolis failed to arrive on schedule, thus costing hundreds of lives unnecessarily and creating the greatest sea disaster in the history of the United States Navy.
On November 6th 1968 Charles Butler McVay III, last Captain of the USS INDIANAPOLIS (CA-35), stepped out on his front stoop, and using his navy issued service revolver, blew his brains out. The Indianapolis had claimed her final victim. He died without having been exonerated from responsibility for the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.
In about 1996, 11 year old Hunter Scott from Pensacola, Florida, saw the movie "Jaws" and was moved by the harrowing and very accurate soliloquy of Quint who explained his hatred of the sharks by telling his story of surviving the attack upon the USS Indianapolis.
When told the actor was describing an event which was true, young Hunter began researching the story for what became an award-winning school history project but then, still fascinated, pursued it further, obtaining addresses of all survivors to whom he sent a questionnaire. One of the questions was whether they felt Captain McVay's court-martial was justified and his conviction fair. To a man they said it wasn't. Like any sensible US citizen he wrote to his Congressman.
The most remarkable and unexpected result of Hunter's efforts was that his Congressman Joe Scarborough brought legislation (HR3610) forward - after a lengthy and bitter battle over years, where the Navy successfully removed any reference " to the court-martial being morally unsustainable or the conviction being unjust" an amendment was added to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2001 which exonerated Captain McVay.
President Clinton signed the Bill but no President has issued a pardon. Some commentators remark that the captain of the USS Cole which was holed in Aden may have escaped court martial because the navy did not want a re-run of the McVay episode.
It is worth recording that Mochitsura Hashimoto the commander of the submarine re-appears again in this story, in a complete role reversal, writing a letter to Senator Warner in support of Captain McVay with eloquent testimony ...
I do not understand why Captain McVay was court-martialed. I do not understand why he was convicted on the charge of hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag because I would have been able to launch a successful torpedo attack against his ship whether it had been zigzagging or not. I have met many of your brave men who survived the sinking of the Indianapolis. I would like to join them in urging that your national legislature clear their captain's name. Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences. Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction.
"I believe this whole ordeal about the sinking and especially the outcome of the court-martial was and is a black mark on the Navy and not the Captain."
From statement submitted at September 1999 Senate hearing by Lyle M. Pasket, USS Indianapolis survivor.
Lord Patel was lucky enough to meet and have a chat with some of the few remaining survivors of the USS Indianapolis 2 summers ago, whilst in Indianapolis. He recommends you go to their website and read this fascinating footnote to the War in the Pacific.