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{{Infobox Military Person
name= Charles Butler McVay III
placeofbirth= Ephrata, Pennsylvaniamarker
placeofdeath= Litchfield, Connecticutmarker
placeofburial_label= Place of burial
allegiance= United States of Americamarker
branch= United States Navy
serviceyears= {1916-1920 USNA} 1920-1949 US Navy
rank= Rear Admiral
battles=World War I

World War II
awards= Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart

Rear Admiral Charles Butler McVay III (July 30 1898November 6 1968) was a career naval officer and the Commanding Officer of the USS Indianapolis when it was lost in action in 1945 and rescue efforts were delayed, resulting in massive loss of life. In the wake of the incident he was blamed for it. After years of mental health problems he committed suicide. Following years of efforts by survivors and others to clear his name, Captain McVay was posthumously exonerated by the United States Congress in 2000.

In 1978, the events surrounding McVay's court-martial were dramatized in The Failure to ZigZag by playwright John B. Ferzacca. Actor Stacy Keach portrayed McVay in the 1991 made-for-television movie Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which depicted the ordeal of the men of the Indianapolis during her last voyage.

Education and career

Charles Butler McVay III was born in Ephratamarker, Pennsylvaniamarker on July 30, 1898 to a Navy family. His father, Charles Butler McVay Jr., had commanded the tender, Yankton during the cruise of the Great White Fleet (1907-1909). He was an admiral in the United States Navy during World War I. Later, in the earlier 1930s, he served as Commander-in-Chief, Asiatic Fleet.

Charles III was a 1920 graduate of the US Naval Academymarker at Annapolis, Marylandmarker. Before taking command of the Indianapolis in November 1944, Captain McVay was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the combined chiefs of staff in Washington, D.C.marker, the Allies' highest intelligence unit. Earlier in World War II, he was awarded the Silver Star for displaying courage under fire.

Captain McVay led the ship through the invasion of Iwo Jimamarker, then the bombardment of Okinawamarker in the spring of 1945, during which Indianapolis antiaircraft guns shot down seven enemy planes before the ship was struck by a kamikaze on March 31, inflicting heavy casualties, including 13 dead, and penetrating the ship's hull. McVay returned the ship safely to Mare Islandmarker in Californiamarker for repairs.

Sinking of the Indianapolis

Later that year, Indianapolis received orders to carry parts and nuclear material to be used in the atomic bombs which were soon to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Tinianmarker. After delivering her top secret cargo, the ship was en route to report for further duty off Okinawamarker.

Early in the morning of July 30, 1945, she was attacked by the Japanese submarine I-58 under Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto. Commander Hashimoto launched six torpedoes and hit the Indianapolis twice, the first removing over forty feet of her bow, the second hitting the starboard side at frame forty (below the bridge), the Indianapolis immediately took a fifteen degree list, capsized and sank within 12 minutes.

Delayed rescue

About 300 of the 1,196 men on board died in the initial attack. The rest of the crew, more than 880 men, were left floating in the water trying to survive without lifeboats until the rescue was completed four days (100 hours) later. Because of Navy protocol regarding secret missions, the ship was not reported "overdue" and the rescue only came after survivors were spotted by pilot Lieutenant Wilber (Chuck) Gwinn and copilot Lieutenant Warren Colwell on a routine patrol flight. Survivors suffered from lack of food and water, but the worst hazard came from constant shark attacks. Only 316 men survived. The tale was introduced to a new generation by way of Quint's monologue in the 1975 movie Jaws.

The seas had been moderate, but visibility was not good. Indianapolis had been steaming at 15.7 knots (31 km/h). When the ship did not reach Leytemarker on the 31st, as scheduled, no report was made that she was overdue. This omission was officially recorded later as "due to a misunderstanding of the Movement Report System". It was not until 10:25 on August 2 that the survivors were sighted, mostly held afloat by life jackets, although there were a few rafts which had been cut loose before the ship went down. They were sighted by a plane on routine patrol; the pilot immediately dropped a life raft and a radio transmitter. All air and surface units capable of rescue operations were dispatched to the scene at once.

Future U.S. Secretary of the Navy W. Graham Claytor Jr. was commander of the destroyer escort Cecil J. Doyle. After receiving the location from the seaplane, without orders, Captain Claytor took the initiative to speed to the area to check the reports of men floating in the water. As he approached at night, he turned searchlights on the water and straight up on low clouds, lighting up the night and exposing his ship to possible attack by Japanese submarines but rescuing almost 100 survivors of the sunken cruiser. Destroyers Madison and Ralph Talbot were ordered from Ulithi, and the destroyer escort Dufilho with attack transports Bassett and Ringness from the Philippine Frontier to the rescue scene, searching thoroughly for any survivors.

Upon completion of rescue operations, August 8, a radius of 100 miles (160 km) had been combed by day and by night. However, the effort was able to save only 316 of the crew of 1,199 men.


Although he was wounded, Captain McVay, commander of Indianapolis, survived and was among those rescued. He repeatedly asked the Navy why it took five days to rescue his men, and he never received an answer. The Navy long claimed that SOS messages were never received because the ship was operating under a policy of radio silence; declassified records show that 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.

There was much controversy over the incident. In November 1945, McVay was court-martialed and convicted of "hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag." Several circumstances of the court-martial were controversial: One very obvious circumstance was that McVay's orders were to zigzag under his discretion. Testimony from the survivors all concurred that visibility was poor, yet despite that, the official ruling was visibility was good. Plus, there was overwhelming evidence that the United States Navy itself had placed the ship in harm's way; for instance, the captain was denied a destroyer escort, making it the only US warship during the war that sailed without an escort. The Indianapolis did not have anti-submarine equipment so the decision to deny him an escort was absurd. The Navy had intercepted and deciphered Japanese code that confirmed submarine activity in the path the Indianapolis was sailing, yet McVay was not warned of the danger. And the rescue operation didn't even exist until a bomber pilot luckily spotted the crew. Then the commander of I-58, Mochitsura Hashimoto, testified that zigzagging would have made no difference; and, although 700 ships of the U.S. Navy were lost in combat in World War II, McVay was the only captain to be court-martialed

It was widely felt that he had been a fall guy for the Navy. Despite the fact McVay was promoted to rear admiral when he retired in 1949, the conviction effectively ended McVay's career in the Navy, and he was hounded and blamed for the rest of his life by grief-stricken relatives of the dead crewmen. McVay committed suicide by shooting himself with his service revolver at his home in Litchfieldmarker, Connecticutmarker on 6 November 1968, holding a toy sailor in his hand. He was found just outside of his back porch by his gardener.


USS Indianapolis survivors organized, and many spent years attempting to clear their skipper's name. Many people, from son Charles McVay IV, to author Dan Kurzman, who chronicled the Indianapolis incident in Fatal Voyage, to members of Congress, long believed Capt. McVay was unfairly convicted. Paul Murphy, president of the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization, said: "Capt. McVay's court-martial was simply to divert attention from the terrible loss of life caused by procedural mistakes which never alerted anyone that we were missing."

Over fifty years after the incident, a 12-year-old schoolboy in Pensacola, Floridamarker, Hunter Scott, was instrumental in raising awareness of the miscarriage of justice carried out at the captain's court-martial. As part of a school history project, the young man interviewed nearly 150 survivors of the Indianapolis sinking and reviewed 800 documents. His testimony before the US Congress brought national attention to the situation.

In October 2000, the United States Congress passed a resolution that Captain McVay's record should reflect that "he is exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis." President Clinton also signed the resolution.

:"I would not have hesitated to serve under him again. His treatment by the Navy was unforgivable and shameful."
::From statement submitted at September 1999 Senate hearing by Florian Stamm, one of the USS Indianapolis survivors

Despite this congressional resolution, and a later admission by the U.S. Navy that McVay was not responsible for the loss of the ship, the formal conviction still remains on his service record.

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