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Today In Radiation Safety History

On November 6, 1968; Charles McVay died. Better known as Captain Charles McVay he commanded the “Portland Class” cruiser the “USS Indianapolis”. Captain McVay led the ship through the invasion of Iwo Jima, then the bombardment of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, during which the Indianapolis shot down seven enemy planes before being struck by a kamikaze on March 31st. The ship suffered many casualties and had to return to Mare Island in California for repairs. After the repairs were finished, the ship received orders to carry the first two atomic bombs to Tinian Island in the Pacific theater. After delivering the top secret payload to Tinian the ship sailed to Okinawa for further orders. Early in the morning of July 30, 1945: the ship was hit by two torpedoes by the submarine I-58 commanded by Commander Hashimoto. The Indianapolis was ripped open and sank within 12 minutes. About 300 of the 1,196 men on board died in the initial attack. The rest of the crew, more than 880 men, was left floating in the water without lifeboats for four days until a rescue was completed. Because of Navy protocols regarding secret missions, the ship was not reported “overdue” and the rescue only came after survivors were spotted by pilots on routine patrols. Although survivors suffered from food and water most had life vests, the worst hazard came from constant shark attacks. Only 316 men were rescued, over 500 had been taken by sharks. By August 2nd over 100 square miles had been searched and only 316 men of the original 1,196 survived. The Captain, Charles McVay, faced court martial charges for bringing the ship in harm’s way for not using a zigzag pattern while at sea. The Indianapolis did not have anti-submarine equipment so the decision to deny him an escort was absurd. The Navy had intercepted and deciphered Japanese code that confirmed submarine activity in the path the Indianapolis was sailing, yet McVay was not warned of the danger. And the rescue operation didn't even exist until a bomber pilot luckily spotted the crew. Then the commander of Japanese submarine testified that zigzagging would have made no difference; and, although 700 ships of the U.S. Navy were lost in combat in the war. McVay was the only captain to be court martialed. He spent his life, grief stricken by this event and on November 6, 1968 he committed suicide by shooting himself with his service revolver. He was found at his home holding a toy soldier in his hand.

Over fifty years after the incident, a 12-year-old schoolboy named Hunter Scott raised awareness of the miscarriage of justice carried out at the captain's court-martial. As part of a school history project, the young man interviewed nearly 150 survivors of the ship sinking and reviewed 800 documents. His testimony before the US Congress brought national attention to the situation. In October 2000, the Congress passed a resolution that Captain McVay's record should reflect that "he is exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis." then sitting President Clinton also signed the resolution.