In Harms Way

Essay over In Harm’s Way By Doug Stanton | Would captain Mcvay still be alive today if he hadn’t been convicted of failing to zigzag or sending out a distress signal? Would his life have been different? This essay will concentrate on what took place aboard the ship and the continuing debate on the guilt of Captain Charles Butler Mcvay III in the tragedy of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. Mcvay was descended from a long line of navy men. He attended the Naval War College and completed his studies in International law.
After leaving the naval war college, he worked on twelve different ships in the Atlantic and in the Pacific. In 1943, he was executive officer of the cruiser Cleveland in the battle of Solomon Islands and was honored for his service with the Silver Star. Later, he was appointed chairman of the Joint Intelligence Staff in the Office of Vice Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC. Mcvay was skilled and experienced man. He was taught by the best, and the navy knew he was ready to become Captain.
With years of training, Mcvay was given the position of captain for the first time in 1945, to the USS Indianapolis. Mcvay’s first assignment was to leave San Francisco and deliver what was known as the “little Boy,” an atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima. This was a top secret mission. What at first appeared to be a smooth operation would become a terrible ordeal. On Sunday July 29th, 1945, during the return of the secret mission the USS Indy was mortally wounded by two torpedoes and sank in minutes.
This would have been prevented if a destroy escort would have been assigned. Ignored in the battlefield sea of Guam for five days, the 1,196 soldiers (not including the ones that died from the torpedoes) underwent five dreadful days in the middle of the Pacific Ocean only 317 brave soldiers made it home. An estimated 50 per day were eaten by sharks. Why no one warned captain Mcvay about the enemies lurking the Peddie route is unquestionable. Then to blame Captain Mcvay for failing to zigzag or sending out a distress signal in a timely manner is most definitely not fair.
Before departing to Leyte, Mcvay asked if having escort was necessary. Unknown to Captain Mcvay, three days before the USS Indy’s departure for Leyte, the destroyer escort USS Underhill had been hit by torpedoes along the Peddie trail. Mcvay was not notified of this danger because intelligence matters were not discussed with captains. Had Mcvay been warned of this situation, he would have never put his crew in danger. The ship was ready to leave on Monday July 16, 1945. Inwardly Mcvay was tense but calm. He was taught by the best and was ready for anything.
Not Long before July 26th, 1945, just before Mcvay had convinced himself that the secret mission would go smoothly, he was assigned to follow in the same route that Japanese submarines were waiting. The ride was going smooth. There was no sign of Japanese submarines, but heavy cloud cover was highly limiting visibility. Mcvay was told that he could cease zigzagging in conditions that limited his visibility. The intelligence report assured him that his route was clear of enemy traffic, but Lt. Commander Hashimoto, in charge of a Japanese sub was in the position of the USS Indy.
At 12:04pm he fired, “the first torpedo hit the forward starboard or right side and blew an estimated sixty- feet of the bow skyward. It was simply obliterated. The second explosion occurred closer to midship and was even more massive” (102) the ship was blown in half. In this situation, all the captain could do was rely on his intuition and knowledge. As soon as this happen, Mcvay told Commander John Janney to head to radio room 1 and send out a distress message, that the ship had been hit by a torpedo. Mcvay’s message “we need assistance, on the double” (106). Mcvay needed Lt.
Orr to help assist with the message but it was no use, the water had damaged both radio shack rooms. Mcvay now looked for further direction and support but was unsuccessful and knew he was in danger. Mcvay knew that the ship had acquired a lot of damage, but in his mind he felt strongly that the USS Indianapolis and his crew would be saved. There was absolutely nothing that Mcvay could to do stay clear of these torpedoes but wait for backup. Mcvay was left with two alternatives: Abandon ship and undergo possible court martial, or not abandon ship and lose more lives.
Mcvay choose to abandon ship. It was the only choice he had left. Mcvay would take full responsibility for his actions. In this situation Mcvay could only fight for what he believed was right. Due to confusion and misunderstanding at the destination arrival port, the crew of the USS Indy would be left to fend for their selves for a long horrifying five days. Meanwhile, the surviving crew had been floating at sea for a shocking five days. Their bodies were deteriorated from the salt water. Broken arms and legs filled them with unbearable pain.
The shark attacks were something out of a horror movie and the minutes felt like forever. “Don’t give up, men,” (179) Mcvay told his crew, while every moment he felt like giving up himself. Even though it wasn’t Mcvay fault, he began to fill with guilt. All communication had been cut off and there were no rescue boats or plans in sight for days, what more could Mcvay have done? On Thursday august 2nd, Lt. Wilbur Gwinn, a pilot of a Ventura scout bomber lost his weight from the navigational antenna in back of the plane.
Turning back, to base, he would make a remarkable discovery. He described the scene as looking like an oil slick. As he followed the trail he wasn’t sure what it had come from, but he was now on a mission. Bodies were scattered everywhere. Floating men appeared covered in oil from the explosion, half eaten and exhausted. He immediately would call for rescue at 11:25, Lt. Gwinn sent out a message to the headquarters on Peleliu stating “sighted 30 survivors 011-30 North 133-30 East” (216). Unfortunately this was the first report of the USS Indy being lost.
At his trail, Mcvay was charged with “failure to zigzag in conditions that it considered good with intermittent moonlight; and his failure to send out a distress message in a timely manner. ” Those families that never saw their son or sons again, would later feel betrayed and lied to. The families were simply convinced that Mcvay was at fault. He was convicted and demoted 100 points in permanent rank and also in temporary rank, meaning he could never become admiral again and this meant his career was over. He was tough though. He was “a navy man and he would live and die by its rules” (267).
With all the evidence that supported Mcvay, he was still convicted of the crime. This was not fair, Mcvay should have never been charged for someone else’s mistake. Life could have been much easier for him, if he had been rewarded with a metal of bravery and honor. As the years passed and a Christmas or any holiday would arrive, Mcvay would receive letters from the families who sons had died at sea blaming him for their death. He would collect & save all the letters for a reminder of what he had done. Years went by and Charles Butler Mcvay III never again felt the same.
He blamed himself for what went wrong. Captain Mcvay could no longer deal with the pain and remorse anymore. One evening he walked outside on to his back porch and shot himself in the head. People can’t imagine what it was like to be stranded in the Pacific Ocean and to not know if you are going to live or die. Only the survivors know how truly terrible this ordeal was. Many lives could have been saved if just one mistake could have been avoided, in a long line of mistakes. If the USS Indy had been escorted during the Peddie route, would this have saved the crew from undergoing an attack?
What if Mcvay was never told to cease zigzagging in conditions that limited his view? Could this have prevented the torpedoes from hitting the Indy? Would it had mattered if the USS Indy’s distress call was heard and back up had arrived in time to save her from sinking? All of these could have possibly been avoided, but we will never know. What we know is that Charles Butler Mcvay III was convicted of a crime. He became the navy’s scapegoat. This was a terrible injustice and he was simply sent out In Harm’s Way.

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