Review of Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man

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The incredible amount of research on this latest book to come out about the loss of USS Indianapolis (CA-35), builds on and eclipses those previous. Navy veteran Lynn Vincent and filmmaker Sara Vladic do an amazing job re-telling the by now well-known tragic story in Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man. 

Having conducted interviews with over 100 of Indy’s survivors going back nearly 20 years, the authors mine some new, gruesome revelations, told by men now in their nineties. These stories only add to the horror most of us can only imagine. The details do not titillate, but rather add to the unfortunate fate these men found themselves in. The reader is able to share in the anger at the huge loss of life, especially after learning word of a distress call was sent out, but those who received it did nothing to expedite a rescue. The potential to save even more lives was therefore wasted.

Delving into the history of the storied cruisers exploits before and after the sinking, the story then shifts to the aftermath of the loss, focusing on the Navy’s court-martial and trial of Indy’s commanding officer, Captain Charles B. McVay III. The reader then learns about the decades-long efforts of her survivors to see their captain exonerated. By the 1990s, they enlisted the help of U.S. Navy Captain William Toti, skipper of the submarine USS Indianapolis (SSN-697). A young school kid researching a project on Indianapolis’ sinking, then helps lead the charge to have McVay’s named cleared. The results of all of their hard work and success on taking on Big Navy makes for an exhilarating read. The Navy should have known that the survivors of a tragedy on the scale of Indianapolis would never give up.

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USS Indianapolis (CA-35).

Having personally conducted research into USS Indianapolis for work, concerning the attempts by a non-governmental group to have a military medal awarded to Father Thomas Conway for his actions in the water before he passed on the third day, I have read several accounts from men serving aboard the rescue ships. These ships searched a wide area to pick up any survivors still possibly in the ocean. I thought the authors may pass over these first-hand eyewitness accounts, as the sailors discovering these bodies related nightmarish stories of dead men being eaten by sharks, or bodies falling apart while being brought onboard. Again, I feel the authors did a great job in not being exploitative or unnecessarily ghoulish, while also not sparing the reader the awful truths associated with the reality of the men’s situation.

As disheartening as it is to read the tragic tale of the crew of Indianapolis and their exploits in the sea after her sinking, it is almost as equally appalling to learn of the Navy’s brass towing the same party line for five decades. Indianapolis is a touching and lasting tribute to all the men, living and dead, who suffered so much in the service of their country during the Second World War.

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Indianapolis survivors onboard the Hollandia, headed for home.

 

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USS Helena (CL-50) Found Nearly 75 Years After Sinking During WWII Battle

https://news.usni.org/2018/04/12/paul-allen-finds-cruiser-uss-helena

USS Helena (CL-50) already had a long and proud history during the war before her tragic end. A survivor of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, she was the first ship to receive the Navy Unit Commendation award for her actions at Pearl, the Battle of Cape Esperance, Guadalcanal, the Solomons, and Kula Gulf.

Japanese propagandists also once complimented Helena’s gun crews. After a bombardment of Kolombangara Island in early 1943, Radio Tokyo announced that U.S. Naval Forces had employed a “new secret weapon-a 6-inch machine gun.” Although no such weapon existed, the Japanese were unwittingly heaping praise on the proficiency and speed of Helena’s gunners.

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USS Helena (CL-50) off Mare Island Navy Yard, California, following battle damage repairs and overhaul on 1 July 1942. Naval History and Command Photograph. NH 95813

Helena was sunk by three torpedoes during the Battle of Kula Gulf on July 6, 1943. Of the 900 men onboard that abandoned ship, all but 275 survived. Many were rescued by the destroyers USS Nicholas (DD-449) and USS Radford (DD-446). Some were not rescued for 11 days, after making it to Vella Lavella Island, where they evaded Japanese patrols, and received help from two coast watchers and several natives before they were picked up.

Read the sad, but interesting story of S1c General P. Douglas, a survivor of the sinking of USS Helena, whose remains were found on Ranongga Island in June 2006. See the link below:

http://www.douglashistory.co.uk/history/generaldouglas.htm

Hold the Potatoes: A Destroyer Officer’s Dream and His Legendary Crew

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USS O’Bannon (DD-450) moored in mid-1942. Wartime censors re-touched the image to remove her radar and Mark 37 gun director. She’s painted in Camouflage Measure 12 (modified). National Archives Photograph. 80-G-44177.

Seventy-five years ago today, on 5 April 1943, USS O’Bannon (DD-450), the legendary WWII destroyer, sank Japanese submarine RO-34 using a well-placed shot-and potatoes. Among the many sea stories of the US Navy throughout our nations history, the sinking of an enemy submarine from potatoes has become legendary. It sounds like something only Superman or Captain America could pull off, except in this case, what happened that day 75 years ago actually did occur. Minus the potatoes.

On 4 April 1943, several U.S. destroyers of Destroyer Squadron Twenty-One (DesRon 21) had shelled enemy shore installations on New Georgia. Among those destroyers were the USS Strong (DD-467), USS Taylor (DD-468), USS Nicholas (DD-449), USS Radford (DD-446), USS Jenkins (DD-447), and O’Bannon. All were steaming back towards their base at Tulagi Harbor after the mission, when at 0225 on the morning of 5 April 1943, O’Bannon proceeded to investigate a radar contact with Strong standing by to assist.

O’Bannon’s skipper, Cmdr. Donald J. MacDonald, received word from his radarmen of an enemy submarine running on the surface at 7,000 yards. He brought O’Bannon close enough to the enemy submarine that his lookout, the ship’s cook, from his watchstanding station on deck, later told his captain that he thought he could have thrown potatoes at the boat.

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Commander Donald J. MacDonald, Commanding Officer of USS O’Bannon (DD-450), received two awards of the Navy Cross, three Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit and two Bronze Star awards during the war. (National Archives Photograph. 80-G-44101-A). 

The legend holds that MacDonald prepared to ram RO-34, but suddenly worried at the last second the sub may have been in the middle of mine-laying operations. Fearing this would needlessly put his ship and crew in harm’s way, he ordered hard rudder left. Suddenly, O’Bannon was steaming parallel with the Japanese submarine. The American crew saw right away that the Japanese submariners were all asleep out on deck, but were unable to lower and fire their larger caliber guns at the sub, and did not carry small arms with them. The Japanese, finally waking up to Americans staring in amazement and curiosity at them, also had no weapons on hand. However, they did have a 3-inch deck gun that could fire upon the O’Bannon, and quickly made a run to reach it. In a newspaper article written some 40 years after the incident, some of O’Bannon’s veterans claimed the ship was able to fire “once” (they don’t say from which gun), took out the sub’s conning tower, and then found bins full of potatoes (why they’d be on the main deck and not on the galley deck is unknown) and began throwing them at RO-34, incredibly only “50 feet away”(!)

The Japanese, believing the potatoes to be either hand grenades, or having an irrational fear of vegetables, threw them overboard or back at the sailors on O’Bannon. But the sudden and inspired food fight worked. The Japanese were so distracted by the potato assault that every single one of them stopped running towards, or was unable to reach the 3-inch deck gun, and O’Bannon was able to pull away and then proceed to sink RO-34.

So what really happened?

MacDonald was a fighting captain (and an extremely highly decorated one to prove it). He immediately went into action. Attacking RO-34, he dropped three depth charges and also ordered his 20-millimeter and 40-millimeter gun crews to open fire. The depth charges straddled RO-34, while 16 rounds from the 20mm and 40mm guns struck her conning tower. O’Bannon came around for a second pass and dropped more depth charges while firing again from both of her 20mm and 40mm guns. RO-34 began to sink by her stern. By the time O’Bannon circled around and came in for her third attack, she reported the target “blew up as a result of firing.” The crew on deck watched as RO-34 jumped out of the water and was slammed down again, settling by her stern moments before feeling a violent explosion underwater.

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View of ship’s after 20-millimeter battery, on the fantail, while at sea, c.1943.
 (National Archives Photograph. 80-G-K-3975).

At 0250, she reported to the task group that the enemy vessel was still on the surface and damaged but “unable to dive.” Cmdr. MacDonald later wrote: “This contact may be considered a destroyer officer’s dream…First there were radar contacts, then sight contact, then the submarine was hit and remained dead in the water while the O’Bannon came in close enough to throw depth charges at her and finally send her to the bottom.” RO-34 sank shortly after with all 66 hands. Already by 1943, O’Bannon’s crew, under MacDonald became legendary fighters, never losing a single man during the war. Their skipper recalled, “All I had to do was say, ‘Commence firing!’ and they put on a wonderful show.”

When daylight finally arrived on 5 April, pilots reported a thick oil slick, as well as debris from the location, giving O’Bannon credit for a probable sinking of the submarine. However, the American press quickly picked up the story, and printed it as the epic tale of an American destroyer that attacked an enemy submarine by throwing potatoes at surprised Japanese sailors standing around on their ship. O’Bannon even received a plaque from a group called the Maine Potato Growers, to honor the occasion. The tall tale began taking on such a huge life of its own that even some of O’Bannon’s own former crewmen began telling and re-telling it to audiences, making it more difficult to disprove. But long after the war, MacDonald himself admitted, “I’ve been trying to drive a stake through this story for years.” He agreed that he maneuvered O’Bannon close to RO-34, but explained that even the crewmember with the best throwing arm could not have tossed a potato or anything else across the gap. “From that single remark [of the cook] has grown the entire legend of the use of Maine potatoes to sink a Japanese submarine.”

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Commander Donald J. MacDonald, CO, USS O’Bannon (DD-450) (left), and Captain Thomas J. Ryan, CO, Destroyer Division Twenty-One (DesRon 21) (right). Commander MacDonald received the Navy Cross on board his ship on 22 August 1943. Captain Ryan presented the award. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. 80-G-56139).

Bibliography:

Colleen Johnson, “This Spud’s For You: Shipmates Recall Holding off Japanese Sub,” The Pittsburgh Press, July 14, 1984.

John Sherwood, “The Legend of the Deadly Potatoes,” Washington Times, April 17, 1974.

John Wukovits, Tin Can Titans: The Heroic Men and Ships of World War II’s Most Decorated Navy Destroyer Squadron (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2017), 132.

USS O’Bannon (DD-450) War Diary, Monthly War Diary, June 1942 to October 1945

Wreckage of USS Juneau Located

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USS Juneau (CL-52) off of New York City in February 1942. Source: Wikimedia

Seventy-six years after she was sunk in the Battle of Guadalcanal by Japanese torpedoes, taking 687 sailors with her, including the five Sullivan brothers, billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen located the doomed cruiser USS Juneau (CL-52) on 17 March 2018, St. Patrick’s Day.

Paul Allen Locates USS Juneau

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The prop of USS Juneau resting on the seafloor. Courtesy of http://www.paulallen.com

Allen has been on a roll lately, having only in the last few weeks located the sunken aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2), and this past summer finding USS Indianapolis (CA-35); the latter sharing a legacy with Juneau of epic tragedy and the sad loss of many young American servicemen.

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USS Juneau (CL-52) in New York Harbor, 11 February 1942. National Archives Photograph

A statement from Lt. Roger W. O’Neill, the senior surviving officer of USS Juneau. Unknown to many, there were actually 14 survivors from Juneau. Ten were pulled from the sea, but there were four ship’s company men that had been transferred to USS San Francisco (CA-38) the very same day Juneau was sunk. They had been sent over to help with wounded. Lt. O’Neill was one of them, and he took three Pharmacist’s Mates with him. He details that, and the sinking of their ship here:

https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/disasters-and-phenomena/the-sullivan-brothers-and-the-assignment-of-family-members/report-on-loss-of-uss-juneau-cl-52.html

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On board USS Juneau (CL-52) at the time of her commissioning ceremonies at the New York Navy Yard, 14 February 1942. All were lost with the ship following the 13 November 1942, Battle of Guadalcanal. The brothers are (from left to right): Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George Sullivan. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. NH 52362)

A list of the Juneau survivors:

https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/disasters-and-phenomena/the-sullivan-brothers-and-the-assignment-of-family-members/list-of-uss-juneau-survivors.html

More on USS Juneau and the Sullivan Brothers:

https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/disasters-and-phenomena/the-sullivan-brothers-and-the-assignment-of-family-members/the-loss-of-uss-juneau.html

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Capt. Lyman K. Swenson, Commanding Officer, USS Juneau (CL-52), went down with his ship when it was torpedoed on 13 November 1942.

Lady Lex Found Off Australia

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USS Lexington (CV-2) was recently discovered some 500 miles off the eastern coast of Australia in the Coral Sea by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen this past Sunday.

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https://www.paulallen.com/uss-lexington-wreck-located-rv-petrel/

“Lady Lex,” as she was known, was scuttled after receiving numerous bomb and torpedo hits from Japanese aircraft during the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942. The battle was the first in history in which the various ships from opposing sides never sighted nor fired upon one another. The battle was mainly fought by fighter, torpedo and dive bomber aircraft from the U.S. and Japanese fleet carriers, which included Lexington and USS Yorktown (CV-3), as well as Imperial Japanese Navy carriers Shoho and Shokaku. To prevent her capture, Lady Lex was sent two miles to the bottom by USS Phelps (DD-360), taking 216 crew members with her.

The photos taken by R/V Petrel show sections of Lexington, as well as some of the 35 aircraft that had also been sent to the bottom. Among some shots of almost pristine looking Devastator torpedo bombers, a much-talked about Grumman F4F Wildcat complete with Felix the Cat insignia of VF-3, as well as the markings for four aerial kills, has led to speculation over whom the pilot of the fighter had been. Many have speculated it was Ensign Dale Peterson, who had flown alongside famed pilots Lt. Butch O’Hare and Lt. Cmdr. Jimmy Thach. However, Ens. Peterson was killed on May 8, 1942, during an air mission flying escort for bombers of VT-2 against Shokaku, hundreds of miles away from Lexington. He also had only 1.5 kills in his tragically brief career as a fighter pilot. Some have also claimed the owner of the White F5 was Lt. Noel Gayler, a decorated pilot who later retired from the Navy as an admiral.

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Despite ongoing research and arguments concerning the U.S. Navy aircraft lying two miles below the Coral Sea, the discovery of Lady Lex, following so closely after Allen’s discovery of the tragic USS Indianapolis (CA-35), has really left World War II and naval history buffs excited.

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75 Years Ago: Cmdr. Howard W. Gilmore and USS Growler (SS-215)

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Battle flag of Growler depicts the enemy ships she had sunk as well as her eleven war patrols, with the gold star indicating she was on eternal patrol. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph UA 80.01.01)

Sorry I’m a few days late with this. 75 years ago on 7 February 1943, Lt. Cmdr. Howard W. Gilmore sacrificed his life for his men after Growler rammed the Japanese patrol vessel Hayasaki. After the Japanese sailors opened up with machine guns, killing two of Growler’s crew and wounding Cmdr. Gilmore, the skipper ordered his XO, Lt. Cmdr. Arnold Schade to “Take her down.” Lt. Cmdr. Gilmore received the Medal of Honor posthumously, becoming the first of seven U.S. submarine skippers awarded the medal for actions “Above and beyond the call of duty” in WWII.

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Drawing by Fred Freeman, 1949, depicting Cmdr. Howard W. Gilmore giving his last order: “Take her down,” after Growler had collided with a Japanese patrol boat on 7 February 1943. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph NH 53787)

Here is a link to Growler’s ship history: USS Growler (SS-215) DANFS entry

“The Battle for Tarawa” by CM3 Claude Hepp

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Drawing, charcoal on paper, by Kerr Eby, 1944. A Marine continues forward in grim determination, rifle in hand, as he struggles out of the surf of Betio Atoll and onto the beach to fight the Japanese.

November 20th was the 74th Anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa. A young American named Claude William Hepp, born in Iowa, enlisted in the Navy on 13 January 1943, and became one of the famed Seabees (serving in Naval Construction Battalion 18) that fought throughout the Pacific in WWII. A Carpenter’s Mate third class, his unit was assigned to the 18th Marine Combat Engineers, (3/18), Second Marine Division, and sent to the South Pacific.

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WWII recruiting poster for Navy Seabees

CM3 Hepp wrote this poem after participating in the bloody battle at Tarawa from 20-23 November 1943. Claude died of wounds he sustained during the bloody invasion of Saipan on 16 June 1944, and was buried at sea just two days after his 22nd birthday. His name is among those listed in the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (“The Punchbowl”). For all the Marines, Navy Corpsmen, Seabees, airmen and others that suffered and bled at Tarawa, I’ve added CM3 Hepp’s poem in full in honor of their memory.

The Battle for Tarawa by CM3 Claude Hepp

“The time has come,” the commander said,
“When we must fight once more;
So pack your gear and shoulder your gun,
We will board the ship at four.”
We boarded the ship in New Zealand
For a place we knew not where.
But deep down in our hearts we thought
Of the hardships we’d have to bear
Twenty long days and twenty long nights
It took to reach the Atolls
We wiped off our guns and counted our shells
And loosened the straps on our rolls
Then came the word, “All hands topside”
And our boats were lowered to sea
I’ll tell you every man was scared
And we prayed for the things to be.
Our fleet was constantly pounding the isle
To make things easier on shore
Then they finally slacked up around noon
To let our fighting men score
The first wave shoved off for “Helen”
The coral reefs made it tough;
The tank bogged down, the boats were sunk
My God, those boys died rough.
Machine gun nests were thick on the beach
But our men struggled nearer the sand
Some of them died in the water
Some of them died on the land.
That was the first wave I have told about
Then the second wave moved in
‘Twas the same thing, but their lines grew weak
And some of the boys wore a grin.
Now the Marines kept pouring in
From the places a rat wouldn’t go
They tromped over bodies of dead Nipponese
And onward to finish the foe.
Then our boys had formed a line
And darted from tree to tree
But the Japs were camouflaged so slick
It made them hard to see.
Jap snipers in the tree tops
Pill boxes on the ground
Mortar shells were flying everywhere
Hell was all around.
Those pill boxes I spoke about
Were concrete, logs and steel
And the contents of the hole below
Our bombs could not reveal.
Our tanks pulled right up to those holes
And fired again and again
Now you can bet that it made Hell
For those stubborn Japs within.
Flame throwers left a path of death
And burned everything in sight
It didn’t take long for those Japs to decide
That the Marines, too, could fight.
Imperial Marines the Japs called themselves
They were supposed to be tough
But they soon found out that U.S.M.C.
Was built of the rugged and rough.
Do not under-estimate our slant-eyed foes
They were fortified to the tee
But it took the Second Division
To set up another V.
Exterminated Japs filled every hole
And soon began to smell
On blood-stained coral we made our beds
And slept in that living Hell.
Four thousand Japs were slain on that island
Pill boxes numbered five hundred
Soon the air strip was repaired
Again our Air Force thundered.
More than eleven hundred Marines lost their lives
They put up a damn good fight
I salute each and everyone
Whom we buried the following night.
Just one word for the Seabees
In discussion they’re always left out
But the fighting 18th was there from the first
And they were the last to move out.

1 bn 8 rgt 2nd Marine Div in lcvp headed to Tarawa 21 Nov 43 vargas pinup

Marines from 1st Bn, 8th Rgt, 2nd Marine Division, in an LCVP headed for Tarawa on 20 November 1943 look at a Varga pinup girl.