On July 30, 1945, just days after delivering the atomic bomb “Little Boy” to the island of Tinian, the cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35), steaming alone en route from Guam and heading to Okinawa, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Nearly 900 of its 1,195-strong crew died. 

Now, the eight surviving crewmembers were honored by Congress. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in a virtual ceremony, awarded the crewmen with the Congressional Gold Medal on the anniversary of the ship’s sinking. 

“On behalf of the 1,195 Sailors and Marines who served aboard USS Indianapolis, it is an honor to receive a Congressional Gold Medal,” Harold Bray, 93, the youngest remaining survivor and chair of the USS Indianapolis CA-35 Survivors Organization, said to USNI News in a statement on Wednesday.

“Eight survivors remain today, and we are proud to represent our shipmates who are no longer with us. We are very grateful to Congress for this special recognition,” Bray added.

Retired Navy Captain Bill Toti spoke on behalf of the crew of the Indianapolis. He was the commander of the nuclear attack submarine USS Indianapolis (SSN-697). He also helped the crew members get the recognition they so rightly deserved and to clear the name of their captain, Charles McVay, the commander of the Indianapolis who was court-martialed by the Navy after the ship was sunk.

“The survivors of the sinking of the World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis struggled for almost five days in the water just to survive,” Toti said.

“Then for the next five decades, they continued to fight. They did not fight for recognition for themselves, they did not fight for restitution from the Navy for the awful fact that they were forgotten in the water and left to die — they fought to clear their captain’s name.”

In March of 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, a Japanese plane unleashed a bomb from just 25 feet and then crashed into the port stern of the Indianapolis, causing extensive damage and killing nine sailors. But she was able to steam under her own power to San Francisco for repairs.

After an overhaul and repairs were done to the ship, the Indianapolis was given the secret mission to deliver the components for the atomic bomb to the island of Tinian. The Indianapolis left San Francisco on July 16, 1945, and raced across the Pacific to Pearl Harbor. Traveling at top speed, she set a record of making the trip in 74.5 hours averaging a speed of 29 knots (33 mph) and arriving on the 19th of July. 

After refueling, the Indianapolis then set off for Tinian, delivering the atomic bomb on July 26th. She then headed to Guam where many of the ship’s crew were relieved, having fulfilled their tour of duty and were replaced with fresh sailors. She sailed from Guam on July 28, heading toward Leyte en route to rejoin Vice Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf’s Task Force 95 offshore of Okinawa. 

Just after midnight of July 30, the Indianapolis was sighted by the Japanese submarine I-58, captained by Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto. The Japanese commander thought he had spotted the battleship Idaho. At 0015 hrs, two of the Japanese Type 95 torpedoes slammed into the bow and amidships of the Indianapolis on her starboard side. 

She rolled over on her side and sank in just 12 minutes. About 300 of the crew of 1195 went down with the ship. The remainder, including Captain McVay, who was one of the last people off the ship, were set adrift with very few lifeboats and lifejackets. Of the nearly 900 men who went into the water, only 316 survived. Of those rescued, two died later in August.

The men were subject to hypothermia, dehydration, and a massive number of shark attacks. A documentary on Discovery Channel stated that the sinking of the Indianapolis resulted in the most shark attacks in history. 

Unfortunately for the crew, due to an oversight by the Navy, they were not even reported as overdue until a Navy flying boat saw survivors in the water three days later. They were then rescued by a PBY Catalina and surface ships.

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Captain McVay was court-martialed in November 1945 on two charges: failing to order his men to abandon ship; and hazarding the ship. Cleared of the charge of failing to order abandon ship, McVay was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag.” Even with the testimony of Commander Hashimoto, who stated that zig-zagging would have made no difference, the jury was not swayed. 

Admiral Chester Nimitz remitted his sentence, and McVay was restored to his rank, retiring from the Navy as a rear admiral in 1949. However, many survivors continued to blame McVay who was haunted by the loss of his ship and his men. He committed suicide in 1968.

In 2000, Captain McVay was exonerated of all charges (thanks, in part, to the investigative work of then-12-year-old Hunter Scott). Finally, in July 2001, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England ordered McVay’s official Navy service record to be cleared of any mention of wrongdoing. Now he and his crew are finally recognized.