Charles B. McVay III

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Charles B. McVay III
McVay conference after sink.jpg
McVay talks to war correspondents in Guam about the sinking of his ship in August 1945
Birth nameCharles Butler McVay III
Born(1898-08-31)August 31, 1898
Ephrata, Pennsylvania
DiedNovember 6, 1968(1968-11-06) (aged 70)
Litchfield, Connecticut
Place of burial
Bayou Liberty, Louisiana
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branchUnited States Navy
Years of service1920–1949
RankUS-O8 insignia.svg Rear Admiral
Commands heldUSS Indianapolis (CA-35)
Battles/warsWorld War II
AwardsSilver Star
Purple Heart
Navy Unit Commendation
Elizabeth “Kinau” Wilder
(m. 1924; div. 1936)

Louise Claytor
(m. 1936; died 1961)

Vivian Brown
(m. 1961)
ChildrenKimo Wilder McVay
Charles Butler McVay IV

Charles Butler McVay III (August 31, 1898 – November 6, 1968) was an American naval officer and the commanding officer of the cruiser USS Indianapolis which was lost in action in 1945, resulting in a significant loss of life. Of all captains in the history of the United States Navy, he is the only one to have been subjected to court-martial for losing a ship sunk by an act of war, despite the fact that he was on a top secret mission maintaining radio silence. The testimony of the Japanese commander who sank his ship also seemed to exonerate McVay.[1] After years of mental health problems, he took his own life aged 70 years. Following years of efforts by some survivors and others to clear his name, McVay was posthumously exonerated by the 106th United States Congress and President Bill Clinton on October 30, 2000.

Education and career[edit]

Charles Butler McVay III was born in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, on August 31, 1898, to a Navy family.[2] His father, Charles Butler McVay Jr. (1868–1949), commanded the tender Yankton during the cruise of the Great White Fleet (1907–1909), was an admiral in the United States Navy during World War I, and served as Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Fleet in the early 1930s.

Charles III was a 1920 graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Before taking command of Indianapolis in November 1944, McVay was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., the Allies' highest intelligence unit. Earlier in World War II, he was awarded the Silver Star for displaying courage under fire.

McVay led the ship through the invasion of Iwo Jima, then the bombardment of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, during which Indianapolis anti-aircraft guns shot down seven enemy planes before the ship was struck by a kamikaze on March 31, inflicting heavy casualties, including eight dead, and penetrating the ship's hull. McVay returned the ship safely to Mare Island in California for repairs.

Sinking of Indianapolis[edit]

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

Early in the morning of July 30, 1945, it was attacked by the Japanese submarine I-58 under Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto. Hashimoto launched six torpedoes and hit Indianapolis twice, the first removing over forty feet of her bow, the second hitting the starboard side at frame forty (below the bridge). Indianapolis immediately took a fifteen degree list, capsized and sank within 12 minutes. Of the crew of 1,195 men, 879 men died.

Delayed rescue[edit]

About 300 of the 1,196 men on board either died in the initial attack or were trapped belowdecks and drowned when compartments were sealed in an effort to prevent sinking. The remainder of the crew, about 900 men, were able to abandon ship. Some were left floating in the water, many without lifeboats, until the rescue of 316 survivors was completed four days (100 hours) later. Because of Navy protocol regarding secret missions, the ship was not reported "overdue" and the rescue came only after survivors were spotted by pilot Lieutenant Wilber (Chuck) Gwinn and co-pilot Lieutenant Warren Colwell on a routine patrol flight. Of those who did abandon ship, most casualties were due to injuries sustained aboard the ship, dehydration, exhaustion, drinking salt water and shark attacks.[3] The seas had been moderate, but visibility was not good. Indianapolis had been steaming at 15.7 knots (29.1 km/h). When the ship did not reach Leyte 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".[4][5]


McVay was wounded but survived, and was among those rescued. He repeatedly asked the Navy why it took four days to rescue his men but 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 thought it was a Japanese ruse, and the third had given orders not to be disturbed.[6]

After a Navy Court of Inquiry recommended that McVay be court-martialed for the loss of Indianapolis, Admiral Chester Nimitz disagreed and instead issued the captain a letter of reprimand. Admiral Ernest King overturned Nimitz's decision and recommended a court-martial, which Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal later convened. McVay was charged with failing to zigzag and failure to order abandon ship in a timely manner. He was convicted on the former. Prior knowledge of Japanese submarines being identified in the area was withheld from the court and from McVay, prior to sailing, as well. Following McVay's conviction for hazarding Indianapolis by failing to zigzag, Admiral King recommended setting aside the punishment.[7][8] Hashimoto, the Japanese submarine commander who had sunk Indianapolis, was on record as describing visibility at the time as fair, which is corroborated by the fact that he was able to target and sink Indianapolis in the first place. He also testified that zigzagging would not have made a difference, as he would have still sunk Indianapolis due to being in such a good position to do so. American submarine experts testified that "zigzagging" was a technique of negligible value in eluding enemy submarines. Hashimoto also testified to this effect.[1] Despite that testimony, the official ruling was that visibility was good, and the court held McVay responsible for failing to zigzag.

An additional point of controversy is evidence that the admirals in the United States Navy were primarily responsible for placing the ship in harm's way. For instance, McVay requested a destroyer escort for Indianapolis,[9] but his request was denied because the priority for destroyers at the time was escorting transports to Okinawa and picking up aircrew downed in B-29 raids on Japan. Also, naval command assumed McVay's route would be safe at that point in the war.[1] Many ships, including most destroyers, were equipped with submarine detection equipment, but Indianapolis was not, which casts the decision to deny McVay's request for an escort as military incompetence.

On July 24, 1945, just six days prior to the sinking of Indianapolis, the destroyer Underhill had been attacked and sunk in the area by Japanese submarines. Yet McVay was never informed of this event and several others in part due to issues of classified intelligence.[1] McVay was warned of the potential presence of Japanese subs, but not of the actual confirmed activity.

Although about 380 ships of the U.S. Navy were lost in combat in World War II,[10] McVay was the only captain to be court-martialed for the loss of his ship.[11] It was widely felt that he had been a fall guy for the Navy.[12] The conviction effectively ended McVay's career as he lost seniority, although the sentence was overturned by Secretary James Forrestal owing to McVay's bravery prior to the sinking, and McVay was finally promoted to rear admiral when he retired from the navy in 1949, although he apparently never got over his treatment.[13][14]

In his book Abandon Ship, author Richard F. Newcomb posits a motive for Admiral King's ordering McVay's court-martial. According to Captain McVay III's father, Admiral Charles B. McVay Jr., "'King never forgot a grudge". King had been a junior officer under the command of McVay's father when King and other officers snuck some women aboard a ship. Admiral McVay had a letter of reprimand placed in King's record for that. "Now," he raged, "King's used [my son] to get back at me."[15]


On November 6, 1968, McVay took his own life by shooting himself at his home in Litchfield, Connecticut. He used a Colt pistol, an Officer's Model Target 38 Special.[16] It was manufactured in 1906 and was not issued to the US Navy despite what the name could lead some to believe, according to the USS Indianapolis Legacy Organization. Commonly this pistol has been referred to as McVay's service pistol, which it was not. There is another myth, that he was holding in his hand a toy sailor he had received as a boy for a good luck charm.[17] This is also untrue, as police reports obtained by the Legacy Organization do not mention this nor show any other objects in the pictures aside from his pistol.[16] He was found oin his back porch by his gardener.[18] Though a note was not left, McVay was known by those close to him to have suffered from loneliness, particularly after losing his wife to cancer in 1961.[19] McVay also struggled throughout his life from the impact of vitriolic letters and phone calls he periodically received from grief-stricken relatives of dead crewmen who served aboard Indianapolis.[19]


USS Indianapolis survivors organized, and many spent years attempting to clear their skipper's name. Many people, from McVay's son Charles McVay IV (1925–2012) to author Dan Kurzman, who chronicled the Indianapolis incident in Fatal Voyage, to members of Congress, long believed McVay was unfairly convicted. Paul Murphy, president of the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization, said: "Captain 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 student in Pensacola, Florida, 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 project for the National History Day program, the young man interviewed nearly 150 survivors of the Indianapolis sinking and reviewed 800 documents. His testimony before the U.S. Congress brought national attention to the situation.[20][21][22]

In October 2000, the United States Congress passed a Sense of Congress resolution that McVay's record should reflect that "he is exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis." President Clinton also signed the resolution.[23] Commander Hashimoto died five days before the exoneration (on 25 October).

In May 2001, Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England ordered Captain William Toti, former commanding officer of USS Indianapolis (SSN-697), to enter the Sense of Congress resolution into McVay's official Navy personnel record.[24][25]

Awards and decorations[edit]

Silver Star
Bronze Star
Purple Heart
Navy Unit Commendation
Navy Expeditionary Medal
World War I Victory Medal
China Service Medal
Bronze star
American Defense Service Medal with one bronze service star
American Campaign Medal
Bronze star
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one bronze service star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three bronze service stars
World War II Victory Medal

In popular culture[edit]

McVay's ship, but not McVay himself, is mentioned in the 1975 blockbuster movie Jaws, in which the character of Quint is portrayed as a survivor of the incident.

In 1978, the events surrounding McVay's court-martial were dramatized in The Failure to ZigZag by playwright John B. Ferzacca. The 1991 made-for-television movie Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis depicts the ordeal of the men of the Indianapolis during her last voyage (with McVay portrayed by Stacy Keach), as does the 2016 film USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (with McVay portrayed by Nicolas Cage). Also in 2016, USS Indianapolis: The Legacy was released. It is an in-depth film where the survivors tell the story of what happened and they speak about the aftermath of the tragic event. In 2019, PBS released a 90-minute documentary titled USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Stanton, Doug (2003). In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. ISBN 0805073663.
  2. ^ "Charles Butler McVay III". Naval History and Heritage Command. October 11, 2016. Archived from the original on June 3, 2021. Retrieved June 29, 2021.
  3. ^ Vincent, Lynn; Vladic, Sara (2018). Indianapolis (1st ed.). Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1501135941.
  4. ^ "Researchers Announce Wreckage from USS Indianapolis Located". Archived from the original on 2018-08-20. Retrieved 2018-07-17.
  5. ^ "'We knew the ship was doomed': USS Indianapolis survivor recalls four days in shark-filled sea". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2018-07-17. Retrieved 2018-07-17.
  6. ^ Maier, Timothy W. ""For the Good of the Navy" by Maier, Timothy W. – Insight on the News, Vol. 16, Issue 21, June 5, 2000". Archived from the original on February 27, 2020. Retrieved August 20, 2017.
  7. ^ Capt. William J. Toti, USN (Retired) (30 July 2014). "The Legacy of USS Indianapolis". Archived from the original on 2015-11-28. Retrieved 2015-10-20.
  8. ^ "Captain McVay". USS Archived from the original on 2009-02-04. Retrieved 2009-06-03.
  9. ^ "USS Indianapolis sinking: 'You could see sharks circling'". BBC News. Archived from the original on 2018-04-18. Retrieved 2018-06-20.
  10. ^ Silverstone, Paul H. US Warships of World War II. pp. 394–408.
  11. ^ Thomas, Joseph J. (2005). Leadership Embodied: The Secrets To Success Of The Most Effective Navy And Marine Corps Leaders. Naval Institute Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-1591148609. Archived from the original on 2014-07-03. Retrieved 2016-09-20.
  12. ^ LCdr. C. R. Woodward, USMC (1988). "The U.S.S. Indianapolis—Tragedy Amid Triumph". Archived from the original on 2008-12-12. Retrieved 2008-12-21.
  13. ^ "The Argus-Press". Archived from the original on 2020-02-27. Retrieved 2016-09-20 – via Google News Archive Search.
  14. ^ Stout, David (14 July 2001). "Captain, Once a Scapegoat, Is Absolved". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2017-08-23. Retrieved 2017-08-25.
  15. ^ Newcomb, Richard F. (2001). Abandon Ship. ISBN 9780380819041.
  16. ^ a b "Research". indy. Retrieved 2023-02-03.
  17. ^ "Captain McVay". Archived from the original on February 4, 2009. Retrieved June 3, 2009.
  18. ^ "Main page". USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization. Archived from the original on February 26, 2000. Retrieved 2007-10-22.
  19. ^ a b "USS Indianapolis CA-35". Archived from the original on 2015-03-18. Retrieved 2010-10-01.
  20. ^ "Newspaper article". Detroit News. 1998-04-23.
  21. ^ Kakesako, Gregg K. (November 10, 1997). "Navy 'scapegoat' may be absolved". Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Archived from the original on March 5, 2016. Retrieved May 31, 2017.
  22. ^ Frankston, Janet (June 20, 2006). "A duel for the glory of captain's exoneration". The Honolulu Advertiser. Associated Press. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved May 31, 2017.
  23. ^ "Seeking Justice: A Victory in Congress". USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization. Archived from the original on 2007-10-29. Retrieved 2007-10-22.
  24. ^ Stout, David (July 14, 2001) "Captain, Once a Scapegoat, Is Absolved." The New York Times, New York, NY
  25. ^ England, Gordon R. (July 11, 2001), Memorandum for the Chief of Naval Operations from the Secretary of the Navy. Subject: Addition to the Military Personnel Record of Rear Admiral Charles B. McVay, III, USN.

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