Here's What You Need to Remember: The rescue of its commanding officer, Captain Charles McVay III, only adds to the mystery that has shrouded the incident for more than 50 years.
The story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis minutes after midnight on August 30, 1945, by torpedoes fired from the Japanese submarine I-58, remains one of the most publicized tragedies of World War II. And the rescue of its commanding officer, Captain Charles McVay III, only adds to the mystery that has shrouded the incident for more than 50 years.
In an interview with this writer, Captain William Meyer, USN (Retired), relates his untold story of the extraordinary rescue operation: “I was commanding officer of the USS Ringness—a high-speed destroyer transport,” Meyer began.
“On July 29, in company with the USS Register—another destroyer transport, skippered by Lt. Cmdr. John Furman—we departed Leyte Gulf as escorts for two jeep carriers, the Chenango and Gilbert Islands. Our destination was Ulithi in the western Caroline Islands."
“Our flotilla arrived off Ulithi in the early morning of August 1. And, after guiding the carriers safely inside the lagoon, the Ringness and Register hurriedly headed back to Leyte. We did not take time to refuel, however, which I later realized was poor judgment on my part."
“Late the following afternoon, we received a radio message from nearby patrol aircraft to help in the hunt for a possible enemy submarine in our area. The search proved negative, and we resumed our course to Leyte. About 8 pm, I received a short four-word message from cinpac [Commander in Chief Pacific]—‘Survivors in the water!’ The Ringness and Register were ordered to proceed, ‘at best possible speed,’ for a rescue mission 250 miles northeast of our present position. We steamed at 20 knots all night—arriving at the general area about 9 o’clock on the morning of August 3. The Register was directed to cover a search area to the north of the Ringness. Other rescue vessels were to the east and over the horizon."
“At 9:15 am, our lookouts sighted a lone sailor clinging desperately to a small raft. He was nearer the Register and that ship was instructed to pick the man up."
“We continued northeast where search aircraft were soon spotted. According to published books written on the subject, the Ringness made radar contact on a 40mm ammunition box. None of our officers or men, however, can recall this occurrence. It was the circling planes that directed our course."
The Search for Survivors
“As we approached the scene, all hands not required to man the engine, fireroom, the CIC, or the radio were called on deck, and stationed as high as possible to visually look for survivors. I decided not to use our four LCVP landing craft to pick people out of the water. Boat crews had limited horizontal sight, compared to lookouts on the ship. And, any men picked up by the boats would still have to be transferred to the Ringness."
“About 10 am, we came upon our first group of survivors—eight or nine men aboard three rafts that were lashed together. One of the men, an officer in khakis, was standing up and frantically waving his arms, as if we did not see the rafts and were going to run them down. The Ringness was carefully maneuvered alongside the rafts, and the survivors clambered up cargo nets with a minimum of assistance from our crew."
“The rescued officer proved to be Capt. Charles B. McVay III, commanding officer of the Indianapolis. Concerning the rescue, one author stated: ‘McVay stumbled to the bridge and stammered out his story to Lt. Cmdr. William C. Meyer, skipper of the Ringness.…’ This statement is just not true. When Captain McVay came aboard, he received immediate medical attention, and was bedded down in the CO’s cabin. He was too honorable a naval officer to interrupt a ship’s company involved in rescuing his men from the sea. My first personal contact with the captain was in my cabin about 1 o’clock. This was after I determined our sector had been fully covered, and I had checked with our ship’s doctor as to whether it would be all right to talk to Captain McVay."
”Our Presence Did Not Deter the Sharks One Bit”
“But to get back to the rescue operation. As the survivors climbed aboard the Ringness, they were assisted by members of my crew to remove oil-soaked life jackets and clothing. They were then escorted to sick bay where the medical team took over—cleaning the sticky oil from their bodies, and giving each man a physical examination. Clean dungarees—and a uniform for Captain McVay—were donated to the Indianapolis survivors by the men of the Ringness."
“The most memorable incident of the day was rescuing two sailors who were sitting on top of a rolled-up floater-net—a webbing of manila rope interlaced with cork balls to keep it afloat. The web mats—tied with light lashings—are located aboard ship, and float away if the vessel sinks. These men had left their net rolled up, and sat on the strange-looking barrel for about four days and nights without falling off—an incredible feat."
“Upon pulling alongside the floater-net, I was shocked to notice several large, hungry sharks circling the sailors—waiting for a man to fall off. Our presence did not deter the sharks one bit. Even after the sailors were saved, the sharks continued their vigil around the empty net."
“By 1 o’clock, we had rescued most of the Indianapolis survivors in our area. Only then did I feel confident that I could leave the bridge and check on Captain McVay. When I entered the cabin, the captain was resting comfortably. He did not get up, but continued to lie in the bunk. I sat in a nearby chair. McVay assured me that he was willing to talk about the loss of his ship, and wanted to contribute to a message I was preparing to send to cinpac regarding the results of our rescue efforts."
A Traumatized Captain Tells His Tale
“I had made a rough draft of the dispatch, and read it to Captain McVay—asking for his comments. McVay related the basic information as to conditions on the evening of July 29, and what he could remember concerning the sinking of the Indianapolis. At first, the captain was very emphatic that I should not include the fact that his cruiser was not zigzagging. It was evident to me, however, that this was bothering him. Understandably, he was still traumatized. But, I felt strongly that the truth had to be revealed since it would come out in any board of inquiry that would certainly be conducted. After much discussion, Captain McVay agreed to the final draft of the message:
‘Have 37 [Indianapolis] survivors aboard including Capt. Charles B. McVay III, commanding officer. Captain McVay picked up at Lat. 11-35, Long. 133-21, with nine other rafts within radius of four miles, and states he believes ship hit 0015, sunk 0030, July 30. Position on track exactly as routed by Guam. Speed 17 knots, not zigzagging. Hit forward by what is believed to be two torpedoes, or magnetic mine, followed by magazine explosion.’"
“We continued a search of the area, and late that afternoon noticed a plane drop a smoke flare some distance north of our location. The Ringness raced to the scene, and found a raft carrying the last two survivors—Pvt. 1st Class Giles McCoy, of the cruiser’s Marine detachment, and Seaman 1st Class Bob Brundige. McCoy, a typical Marine, refused help in climbing aboard ship. However, once on deck, he fell flat on his face—but was quickly revived in sick bay."
“The author of one book on the sinking of the Indianapolis wrote: ‘The last living man plucked from the Philippine Sea was Captain McVay, who was the last man to enter it.’ This statement is in error. The last living person to be saved would be either Bob Brundige or Giles McCoy—six or seven hours after McVay was rescued."
“A short time later, we discontinued our search and—in company with the Register—proceeded to Peleliu Island to transfer the Indianapolis survivors to a shore-based hospital."
“The resilience of the American sailor has never ceased to amaze me. We had picked up Captain McVay and 38 members of his crew. The survivors had spent more than four days in the unfriendly ocean—soaked in oil, without food or drinking water, and threatened by prowling sharks and physical exhaustion. And yet, when we reached Peleliu, many of the men were able to walk under their own power."
“One thing that I have always regretted, however, is not having made a transcript of Captain McVay’s comments prior to leaving the Ringness. As we approached Peleliu, McVay came to the bridge and requested permission to speak to my crew. The request was granted, and his heartfelt remarks of thanks and appreciation—on behalf of his men—showed the top-notch quality of Captain McVay. He was an officer and a gentleman—with deep-seated human qualities of humbleness and compassion—and a strong belief in the existence of a Higher Being."