The sinking of the USS Indianapolis was the greatest single loss of American lives in the history of the U.S. Navy. The story of how it ended up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean started with the Manhattan Project and wouldn’t end until her captain, Charles B. McVay III, was exonerated in a court-marital.
In the first official trailer for “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,” (directed by Mario Van Peebles!) we see Nicolas Cage as the skipper of the Indianapolis, given a highly classified mission and then surviving the sinking of his ship. We also see his court-martial, which, as mentioned, is part of the ship’s real world story. In fact, much of what we see in this trailer really did happen to the ship’s crew.
The Indianapolis served with campaigns in New Guinea, the Aleutians, and the Gilbert Islands. As the flagship for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, she not only supported the Gilbert invasions but also Tarawa, Marshall Islands, Western Carolines, Saipan, Okinawa, and fought in the famous “Marianas Turkey Shoot.”
Her most famous mission sent her from San Francisco to Hawaii, carrying the bomb components for the atomic bomb Little Boy which would be dropped on Hiroshima. The ship also left port with half the world supply of Uranium-235. It departed San Francisco on July 16, 1945, delivering the parts ten days later. Because of its top secret mission, the Indianapolis had no escort and few knew the ship’s location.
On its way to join Task Force 95 for its next assignment, it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk in 12 minutes, with the loss of 300 of the 1,196 crewmen. The rest were adrift in the open water. The ordeal wasn’t over for the crew. For days, they fought exposure to the elements, dehydration, and extreme shark attacks – the most in human history. Only 321 of the surviving 880 were recovered alive.
In November 1945, Captain McVay was court-martialed and convicted for hazarding his ship with his failure to follow the Navy’s guidelines for avoiding submarines and torpedoes. McVay said he moved the ship in a zig-zag pattern, consistent with those guidelines. The star witness at McVay’s trial was Hashimoto Mochitsura, the commander of the submarine that sank the Indianapolis. He testified that zig-zagging would not have saved the ship, whether McVay followed the regs or not. McVay was the only captain in World War II to be court-martialed for the loss of his ship.
Some families still blamed McVay for the deaths of their sailors. McVay retired in 1949, but the guilt of losing the sailors stayed with him until the end of his life. He committed suicide in 1968 at age 70, found on his front lawn with a toy sailor in his hand.