Survivor recalls sinking of the USS Indianapolis

Published: Saturday, July 4 1998 12:00 a.m. MDT

Fifty-three years after the USS Indianapolis sank, a survivor says he can't put the horrible ordeal behind him until his captain is exonerated.

"It's not over yet," said Woody James, 75, who lives on Evergreen Avenue (3435 South) in Salt Lake County. "It'll never be over until we get his name cleared."More men died with the sinking of the heavy cruiser during the final weeks of World War II than in any other single American ship sunk by enemy action.

James was a 22-year-old coxswain from Alabama, the captain of Gun Turret Number One, when a Japanese submarine sent two torpedoes into the Indianapolis shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945. The scene was the open Pacific Ocean about 760 miles southwest of Guam.

The ship was manned by a crew of 1,196. Hundreds died in the attack, but an estimated 800 to 950 men escaped the ship and bobbed in heavy seas. Most had only life vests, though a handful were in floating pontoons that were pulled together.

When finally rescued on the fifth day after the sinking, the survivors numbered only 316.

A court-martial found Capt. Charles Butler McVay III guilty of failing to take evasive maneuvers. He committed suicide in 1968. But survivors, including James, maintain McVay was blamed to cover up a series of blunders.

Today Congress is considering a bill - House Resolution 3710 - to remove the stain from McVay's record and give the crew a citation.

Leading the campaign is an unlikely crusader, a 12-year-old from Florida named Hunter Scott, who learned about the Indianapolis while researching a school report and joined the drive to clear McVay.

The schoolboy has inspired more interest in the project than the survivors were able to do in the last half-century, James said during an interview in his quiet home.

The Indianapolis and its crew were veterans of several fierce engagements in World War II. As the war was ending, it delivered parts of the atomic bombs used against Japan. The Indianapolis left the parts at a base on Tinian Island then sailed to Guam.

Finally, it left for the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. McVay asked for a destroyer escort on the trip, but the request was denied because supposedly the ship did not need protection as the area was clear of submarines.

James was sleeping beneath the overhang of the gun turret where he was stationed. "The first torpedo hit about underneath me," he said. He was burned in the blast. He was banging between the deck and the overhang.

"I thought, `What in the heck?' . . . The second one hit about midships - total chaos, explosions and fire."

The first torpedo chopped off 40 to 60 feet of the bow, but communications were out and there was no way to tell the engine room to stop the screw propellers. As it drove through the waves, water slammed into the hole.

Sailors were yelling and attempting to get out from the wreckage. "We were trying to help people get from below decks. They were coming up covered with oil and screaming, `Don't touch me,' " he said.

Neither of the lifeboats could be launched in the 12 minutes the ship took to go down. James swam a short distance from the ship.

It was the middle of the night, but "you could see the silhouette" of the sinking ship. "It was stickin' out of the water like that - the screws were still going. Guys were jumping off it."

The first day they felt they were going to be rescued soon. People died of burns and other injuries, and others drowned, he said.

"The sharks showed up the first day. You could see 'em coming, their fins out of the water."

They attacked throughout the ordeal. The men slapped the water and yelled, hoping to drive off the sharks, but the effort failed. He would "see people get bit, a lot of them at night."

Others were dying of thirst. Starting the third day, people who couldn't stand the thirst would drink salt water - a fatal mistake - and they would become delirious. One convinced others that the Indianapolis was only 10 feet below, with fresh water in the fountains, and they would dive to find it.

The afternoon of their fourth day in the ocean a pilot on an antisubmarine PBY aircraft spotted the survivors. Ships arrived and picked them up the next day.

James could not walk because of his leg burns or talk because of salt ulcers in his throat. He had lost 66 pounds and was severely dehydrated. He does not think he could have lived another day in the water.

With the release many years later of documents about the disaster, survivors became certain of what they had suspected, he says: McVay was a scapegoat.

After the war, James settled down in Salt Lake City and married a war widow who had six children. He and his wife, LaRue, have 32 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren "at last count." In 1988 he retired from the freight business.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Was the captain responsible for the sinking?

Supporters of Capt. Charles McVay say he was unfairly blamed for the sinking of the Indianapolis. They cite these points:

- According to Woody James, the Indianapolis was denied a destroyer escort because it supposedly didn't need one, but the Navy knew four Japanese submarines were operating in the area. Three days before, another American warship was sunk in the same vicinity.

- A House resolution says McVay was blamed solely because he failed to run his ship in a zigzag course that night. However, it adds, "standing orders stated that zigzagging was not necessary during poor visibility," and visibility was reported to be "patchy" that night.

- The commander of the submarine that sank the Indianapolis testified at the inquiry that it would not have made any difference if the prey was zigzagging.

- McVay's orders gave him discretion over whether he should steer in a zigzag manner.

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