This amazing documentary tells the tragic story of the USS Indianapolis in the crew's words

The USS Indianapolis (CA-35), pictured off the Mare Island Navy Yard, Calif., in July 1945. (Photo: U.S. Navy Historical Society)

The USS Indianapolis (CA-35), pictured off the Mare Island Navy Yard, Calif., in July 1945. (Photo: U.S. Navy Historical Center)

Troy Nunley was 17 years old when he left the farm and joined the Navy. He was assigned to the USS Indianapolis (CA 35), and as he stood on the pier at Mare Island he couldn’t believe any man-made thing could be so massive.

“I’d never seen a tractor that big,” he says.

The recollections of Nunley and over a hundred others are the main thread of “The USS Indianapolis: The Legacy Project,” a documentary directed and produced by Sara Vladic who spent over ten years putting it together. Her choice to let the surviving crew members tell their own story has resulted in a powerful film, one that tells the story of a star-crossed surface combatant while also capturing the timeless themes of survival, courage, and the fight to set the record straight on behalf of the man who led them.

The Indianapolis was very active in the early years of World War II, fighting in campaigns across the Pacific Ocean, from the Aleutian Islands and Iwo Jima where the ship was close enough to see what was going on ashore.

“They said they’re raising the flag, and I said big deal and walked away,” says Adolfo Celaya, who was a fireman’s apprentice aboard the big battle cruiser. “How did I know it was going to be famous?”

At Okinawa the Indianapolis’ luck ran out. After shooting dozens of Japanese kamikazes out of the sky, one got through and hit the ship on the fantail. The airplane’s bomb knifed through several levels until it exploded in the engine room, killing nine members of the crew and injuring 30 others. The ship was forced to limp back to San Francisco for repairs, sailing the entire leg of the journey with a 17-degree list.

As the ship was being repaired at Mare Island, the crew was given 30 days of leave, and when it was over many of them returned fearing what the next leg of their deployment might bring.

“The last day I was home my mother was sitting on the front porch, and she said, ‘I know something’s wrong. You don’t act like yourself,” Cleatus LeBow says. “And I said, ‘I’m dreading going back this time.”

The Indianapolis stopped by Hunter’s Point on the way out to sea and picked up a large crate that was heavily guarded and bolted to the passageway outside of the commanding officer’s cabin. Rumors started to fly among the crew about what the mysterious cargo might be.

Lebow says his guesses were, “Cadillac for MacArthur or whiskey for everybody to sell at the end of the war.”

“The best scuttlebutt I heard was that we were carrying was that we had 20,000 rolls of scented toilet paper for Douglas MacArthur,” adds Paul Murphy, who was a third class petty officer at the time.

As the Indianapolis sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the senior enlisted men turned to Buck Gibson and said, “Look at that bridge good. A lot of us will never see it again.”

The ship transited the Pacific at a record pace, averaging 29.5 knots between San Francisco and Tinian.

“There was more gold braid on that pier that I’ve ever seen before,” Clarence Hershberger says.

After unloading its mystery cargo, the Indianapolis headed west across the Philippine Sea for Leyte. The ship was sailing solo in spite of the fact that, as Hershberger says, “It is stated many times in Navy manuals that our ship our size must have a destroyer escort.”

At midnight on July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis was hit by several torpedoes fired from a lurking Japanese submarine. The first one sliced the bow off; the second ignited the aviation gas stores, causing many of the sailors to burn to death. The ship sank in 12 minutes.

“I had only been on the ship for 13 days,” Donald Blum remembers.

The crew spent five days and nights in the water, fighting thirst, sun, and sharks. Some men succumbed to madness and swam for a mirage only to drown or be attacked by sharks. Some drank seawater and died of dehydration.

On the fourth day, a lone PV-1 spotted the survivors. From that point forward, the pilot, Lt. Chuck Gwynn, would be known to them as “our angel.”

Another pilot landed a PBY seaplane and loaded 56 men aboard, including laying them across the top of the wing. Ships started arriving in the area, shining searchlights, which hazarded them in potentially enemy sub-infested waters but raised the spirits of the survivors.

The survivors were loaded aboard the rescue vessels, and only then — after the oil-soaked men identified the ship that they were attached to — did the rest of the fleet realize that the Indianapolis had been sunk. Of the 1,197 men who went into the water, only 317 were pulled out of the water alive.

In time, the survivors were taken to Guam to convalesce.  In mid-August, one of the nurses showed a group of them a newspaper with the headline that the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. The mystery of their cargo was finally solved.

But their trial wasn’t over, literally. That fall the Indianapolis commanding officer, Capt. Charles McVeigh, was court-martialed for “failure to zigzag” and for waiting too long to give the order to “abandon ship.” In a wild twist of fate, the Navy called the commander of the Japanese submarine, Mochitsura Hashimoto, to testify.

Hashimoto said that zigzagging wouldn’t have saved the Indianapolis, but the court found McVeigh guilty anyway. Admiral Chester Nimitz later remitted his sentence, but the court of public opinion never did. McVeigh — harboring great guilt for those lost under his command — shot himself on his front lawn, holding a toy sailor in his other hand. He was 70 years old.

The remaining survivors, always of a mind that their skipper got a raw deal from the Navy, kept pushing for legislation that would clear his name. The finally found a champion in Cdr. Bill Toti, the CO of the new USS Indianapolis, a nuclear submarine. Toti invited the survivors to join him at the commissioning ceremony for his sub, and after sitting down with them and realizing their enduring love and respect for their skipper, he led an effort to get the Navy to exonerate Capt. McVeigh’s record. President Clinton signed the resolution in 2000, 55 years after the Indianapolis went to the bottom of the Pacific.

(Editor’s note: Sara Vladic won “Best Female Director” honors at this year’s GI Film Festival that was just held in the Washington, DC area.  For more on “The Legacy Project” go here.)

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