a large ship caught in a wave with the text "The Lost Ship"
Illustration by Randy Pollak

The Lost Ship

A World War II ship destroyed at sea, a captain blamed for the tragedy, and a middle schooler’s quest to change history

By Kristin Lewis
From the February 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: to identify key ideas in a nonfiction article about the tragic sinking of the USS Indianapolis and write a speech honoring the ship and its crew

Lexiles: 880L, 740L
Other Key Skills: author’s craft, text features, text structure, key ideas and details
AS YOU READ

As you read the article and study the images, think about what it took to clear Captain McVay’s name.

In July 29, 1945, the USS Indianapolis churned through the warm waters of the South Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of miles from land and wrapped in the darkness of night, the ship was a mere whisper of a shadow on an endless sea.

The night was blistering hot, and some crewmen had brought their bedding above deck to sleep under the stars. In spite of the heat, the mood was hopeful. After nearly six years of bloodshed, World War II seemed to be coming to an end. Already Adolf Hitler was dead, and the war in Europe had ended with Germany’s defeat. It seemed only a matter of time before the war with Japan ended too and everyone could go home.

But the Indianapolis would never go home. 

On July 29, 1945, the USS Indianapolis made its way through the warm waters of the South Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of miles from land and wrapped in darkness, the ship was a mere whisper of a shadow on an endless sea. 

The night was very hot. Some of the crewmen had brought their bedding above deck to sleep outside. In spite of the heat, the mood was hopeful. After nearly six years of bloodshed, World War II seemed to be ending. Already, Adolf Hitler was dead, and the war in Europe had ended with Germany’s defeat. It was only a matter of time before the war with Japan ended too and everyone could go home.

But the Indianapolis would never go home. 

Bettmann/Getty Images

Just before 11 p.m., Captain Charles McVay III retired to his cabin. McVay was proud to be at the helm of the USS Indianapolis, a jewel of the American Navy. About the length of two football fields, she was heavily armed and lightning fast. Throughout the war, the Indianapolis had carried supplies, weapons, planes, and troops across the Pacific Ocean. She’d seen many battles—and survived them all. In fact, the Indianapolis had just completed a mission and was now sailing away from the fighting.

And as far as Captain McVay knew, their route was safe.

“Things are very quiet,” Commodore James Carter had told McVay before they set sail. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

This, it would turn out, was not correct.

As the crew went about their work or got some rest or wrote letters home, a Japanese submarine spotted the Indianapolis.

And fired.

Two torpedoes shot through the water. They pierced the skin of the Indianapolis. Fires broke out. Water gushed into the ship.

The force of the blasts knocked McVay out of bed. He got to his feet and raced to the bridge. For the next eight minutes, he and the crew focused on assessing the damage and trying to send a distress message. When it became clear the ship was doomed, McVay gave the order.

“Abandon ship.”

A few minutes later, a giant wave swept him overboard into the sea.

It took just 12 minutes for the ship to sink. Of the 1,200 men on board, nearly 900 made it into the water alive—including the captain.

For the next five days, the survivors drifted through the ocean. Twelve-foot waves tossed them around like rag dolls. Hunger clawed at their stomachs. Dehydration parched their throats. Some began guzzling seawater in desperation, only to throw it up. Others became delirious, insisting that fresh water and ice cream awaited them on the sunken ship. They swam down and were never seen again. Meanwhile, packs of ravenous sharks circled the men, picking them off one by one.

When help finally arrived, only 316 survivors remained.

Just before 11 p.m., Captain Charles McVay III retired to his cabin. McVay was proud to be the captain of the USS Indianapolis. The ship was part of the American Navy. It was about the length of two football fields, heavily armed, and very fast. Throughout the war, the ship had carried supplies, weapons, planes, and troops across the Pacific Ocean. The ship had seen many battles. And it had survived them all. In fact, the Indianapolis had just completed a mission and was now sailing away from the fighting. 

Captain McVay thought their route was safe.

“Things are very quiet,” Commodore James Carter had told McVay before they set sail. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

It would turn out that this was not correct. 

As the crew went about their work or got some rest or wrote letters home, a Japanese submarine spotted the Indianapolis.

And fired.

Two torpedoes shot through the water. They hit the Indianapolis. Fires broke out. Water gushed into the ship.

The force of the blasts knocked McVay out of bed. He got to his feet and raced to the bridge. For the next eight minutes, he and the crew focused on assessing the damage and trying to send a distress message. When it became clear the Indianapolis was doomed, McVay gave the order.

“Abandon ship.”

A few minutes later, a giant wave pushed him into the sea. 

It took 12 minutes for the ship to sink. Nearly 900 of the 1,200 men on the ship made it into the water alive. Captain McVay survived too.

The survivors drifted through the ocean for the next five days. Twelve-foot waves tossed them around. They were very hungry and thirsty. Some began drinking seawater in desperation, only to throw it up. Others became delirious and insisted that there was fresh water and ice cream waiting for them on the sunken ship. They swam down and were never seen again. Meanwhile, packs of hungry sharks circled the men. The sharks picked them off one by one.

Help finally arrived. But only 316 survivors remained. 

Bettmann/Getty Images

The Ship

The Indianapolis was a type of ship called a heavy cruiser. In the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sailed aboard the ship several times, and even hosted a fancy party on her gleaming decks, entertaining important leaders from around the world.

The Trial

Twelve days after the survivors were plucked from the sea, Japan announced it would surrender. Yet even as the world celebrated the end of the war, the families of the men lost on the Indianapolis grieved. They wanted to know how, in the last days of the war, such a terrible thing could have happened. They wanted to know if it could have been prevented. They wanted to know who was to blame.

The Navy came up with an answer: Captain McVay. He was court-martialed—put on trial by the military. During the trial, the Navy accused McVay of putting the ship in undue danger. They said he should have zigzagged, which means following a crooked path through the water. This, they claimed, would have prevented enemy torpedoes from hitting the Indianapolis.

After a two-week trial, McVay was found guilty. This verdict did nothing to bring back the men who had been lost. But it shattered McVay’s life. He was haunted by the loss of his men and his ship until his death in 1968.

That might have been the end of the story of the Indianapolis.

But in fact, it was only the beginning.

Japan announced it would surrender 12 days after the survivors were rescued. But as the world celebrated the end of the war, the families of the men lost on the Indianapolis grieved. They wanted to know how such a terrible thing could have happened in the last days of the war. They wanted to know if it could have been prevented. They wanted to know who was to blame. 

The Navy came up with an answer: Captain McVay. He was put on trial by the military. During the trial, the Navy accused McVay of putting the ship in unnecessary danger. They said he should have zigzagged. This means following a crooked path through the water. The Navy claimed this would have stopped enemy torpedoes from hitting the Indianapolis

After a two-week trial, McVay was found guilty. This decision did nothing to bring back the men who had been lost. But it destroyed McVay’s life. He was haunted by the loss of his men and his ship until his death in 1968. 

That might have been the end of the story of the Indianapolis

But it was only the beginning.

A School Project

In 1996—50 years after the sinking of the Indianapolis and a world away—11-year-old Hunter Scott was watching a movie at his home in Florida. The movie was called Jaws.

Like many kids fascinated by sharks, Hunter was riveted by the story of a ferocious great white shark terrorizing a town. But it wasn’t the shark that really caught Hunter’s attention; it was a three-minute speech by one of the characters about a ship Hunter had never heard of: the Indianapolis.

Hunter asked his dad if the story of the Indianapolis, a ship whose crew had met a terrible fate after being torpedoed, was true. His dad said it was. Hunter decided to make the ship the topic of his sixth-grade history fair project. The theme was “Triumph and Tragedy.”

Like a detective working a case, Hunter embarked on a search for information. He scoured the library and put an ad in the local Navy newspaper. Eventually, he connected with an Indianapolis survivor named Maurice Glenn Bell.

In 1996, 50 years after the sinking of the Indianapolis, 11-year-old Hunter Scott was watching a movie at his home in Florida. The movie was called Jaws.

Hunter was riveted by the story of a ferocious shark terrorizing a town. But it wasn’t the shark that really caught Hunter’s attention. It was a short speech by one of the characters about a ship. The ship was called the Indianapolis

Hunter asked his dad if the story of the Indianapolis, a ship whose crew had met a terrible fate after being torpedoed, was true. His dad said it was. Hunter decided to make the ship the topic of his sixth-grade history fair project. The theme was “Triumph and Tragedy.” 

Hunter started searching for information. He searched the library and put an ad in the local Navy newspaper. Eventually, he connected with a survivor from the Indianapolis named Maurice Glenn Bell.

US Coast Guard/Getty Images

The War

World War II (1939-1945) was fought on two fronts: in Europe and in the Pacific. In the Pacific, Japan and the U.S. battled for control of the islands that stretched from Hawaii to Japan. Planes rained bombs from the sky. Submarines prowled beneath the waves. An estimated 80 million men, women, and children died due to the war. 

Here American troops are pictured arriving on the island of Iowa Jima in 1945.

A Middle Schooler’s Mission 

Hunter traveled to Mobile, Alabama, to interview Bell in his home. During their conversation, Bell told Hunter about his final minutes aboard the Indianapolis. He showed Hunter his Purple Heart, a special military award given to those wounded in combat. Bell also gave Hunter a list of the 154 survivors who were still alive, and Hunter began writing to them.

The response was beyond anything Hunter could have imagined. The survivors, most of whom were in their 70s and 80s, sent Hunter photographs and letters. They wrote about friends they’d lost. They described the long days and nights wondering if rescue would ever come. Some spoke for the first time in decades about what they had gone through.

But as the stories poured in, a larger story began to take shape. The survivors described McVay as a leader, a man of honor and integrity, someone they respected. They said that he had been unfairly blamed for what happened to them on that tragic night so long ago.

With their words echoing in his ears, Hunter realized that his project would be about a lot more than winning the history fair. His project would be a quest to restore a good man’s name.

To change history.

Hunter traveled to Mobile, Alabama, to interview Bell in his home. During their conversation, Bell told Hunter about his final minutes on the Indianapolis. He showed Hunter his Purple Heart, which is a special military award given to those hurt in combat. Bell also gave Hunter a list of survivors who were still alive. There were 154 of them. Hunter began writing to them.

The response was beyond anything Hunter could have imagined. The survivors, most of whom were in their 70s and 80s, sent Hunter photographs and letters. They wrote about friends they’d lost. They described the long days and nights wondering if rescue would ever come. Some spoke for the first time in decades about what they had gone through.

But as the stories poured in, a larger story began to take shape. The survivors described McVay as a leader. A man of honor and integrity. A man they respected. They said that McVay had been unfairly blamed for what happened to them on that tragic night so long ago.

After hearing these stories, Hunter realized that his project would be about a lot more than winning the history fair. His project would be a mission to restore a good man’s name.

Courtesy of Hunter Scott

Hunter’s display board for his history fair project

What Really Happened?

The tragedy of the Indianapolis, as Hunter would learn, could not be blamed on one man. It was the result of a series of missteps, oversights, and bad luck.

For example, before Captain McVay set sail, he asked for an escort ship, for protection, but was told an escort wasn’t necessary. By then, most of the war activity was far from where the Indianapolis would be sailing. And on the day of sinking, McVay had ordered the Indianapolis to travel at half speed to conserve fuel, a common practice at the time.

What Captain McVay didn’t know was that at least four enemy submarines were in the area. In fact, only days earlier, one had sunk another U.S. ship. But this crucial information was never given to him.

If he had known, might McVay have increased the ship’s speed? Hunter wondered. Might he have changed the route? Might he have insisted on an escort?

Even worse, no one noticed when the Indianapolis did not arrive at its destination—an island in the Philippines called Leyte. As hundreds of men fought for their lives in the water, no one even realized they were missing. In fact, they were discovered by accident, when a pilot happened to spot an oil slick on the water—spilled fuel from the ship.

Bell and many other survivors told Hunter the courtmartial was a sham. Key information had been left out. The captain of the Japanese submarine, Mochitsura Hashimoto, was brought in to testify; he would later say his words had been mistranslated in a way that made McVay seem guilty of causing the disaster. And yet, Hashimoto insisted, the ship was doomed the moment it appeared in his submarine’s scopes.

As for whether McVay should have zigzagged the ship, that too was questionable. The effectiveness of zigzagging was debated. You could quite easily zigzag to avoid one torpedo and sail into another. What’s more, as far as McVay knew, the route was relatively safe. He had no reason to zigzag.

“[The court-martial] was the worst thing the Navy could have done,” Bell told Hunter. “It dishonored the captain and the crew.”

For decades, the survivors had been trying to exonerate their captain—without success. They were frustrated and angry. During the war, more than 300 captains lost their ships. Only McVay was court-martialed.

Could a middle schooler make the world listen at last?

Hunter eventually learned that the tragedy of the Indianapolis could not be blamed on one man. It was the result of a series of mistakes, oversights, and bad luck.

For example, before Captain McVay set sail, he asked for an escort ship for protection. But he was told this wasn’t necessary. By then, most of the war activity was far from where the Indianapolis would be sailing. And on the day of sinking, McVay had ordered the Indianapolis to travel at half speed to save fuel. This was a common practice at the time.

Captain McVay didn’t know that at least four enemy submarines were in the area. In fact, one had sunk another U.S. ship only days earlier. But this important information was never given to him.

Hunter had questions. If he had known, might McVay have increased the ship’s speed? Might he have changed the route? Might he have insisted on an escort?

Even worse, no one noticed when the Indianapolis did not arrive at its destination of an island in the Philippines called Leyte. As hundreds of men fought for their lives in the water, no one even realized they were missing. In fact, they were discovered by accident. A pilot happened to spot spilled fuel from the ship. 

Bell and many other survivors told Hunter the trial was a sham. Important information had been left out. The captain of the Japanese submarine, Mochitsura Hashimoto, was brought in to testify. He would later say his words had been mistranslated in a way that made McVay seem guilty of causing the disaster. But Hashimoto insisted that the ship was doomed the moment his submarine spotted it.

It was also questionable whether McVay should have zigzagged the Indianapolis. It was debated whether zigzagging actually worked. You could easily zigzag to avoid one torpedo and sail into another. What’s more, as far as McVay knew, the route was relatively safe. He had no reason to zigzag. 

“[The trial] was the worst thing the Navy could have done,” Bell told Hunter. “It dishonored the captain and the crew.”

For decades, the survivors had been trying to exonerate their captain. They were not successful. They were frustrated and angry. During the war, more than 300 captains lost their ships. Only McVay was put on trial. 

Could a middle schooler make the world listen at last? 

A New Mission

In 1997, Hunter wrote to President Bill Clinton and to the Secretary of the Navy, John Dalton, asking for McVay to be cleared of all wrongdoing. The answer he received was no.

But Hunter would not be discouraged. “Giving up never crossed my mind,” Hunter says. “I just felt this was the right thing to do and that other people would also see it was the right thing to do.”

Luckily, a congressperson in Hunter’s hometown of Pensacola heard about Hunter’s project and decided to showcase it in his office. A story appeared in a local newspaper and before long, it had been picked up by the national press. “Boy’s School Project Aims to Revise History” read one headline.

In 1997, Hunter wrote to President Bill Clinton. He also wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, John Dalton. He asked for McVay to be cleared of all wrongdoing. The answer he received was no. 

But Hunter would not be discouraged. “Giving up never crossed my mind,” Hunter says. “I just felt this was the right thing to do and that other people would also see it was the right thing to do.”

Luckily, a congressperson in Hunter’s hometown of Pensacola heard about Hunter’s project and decided to display it in his office. A story appeared in a local newspaper. Before long, it had been picked up by the national press. “Boy’s School Project Aims to Revise History” read one headline.

Courtesy of Hunter Scott

Hunter gives a press conference in Washington, D.C., before legislation was introduced to clear Captain McVay’s name. Representatives Julia Carson (far left) and Joe Scarborough (far right) were among those who helped craft the legislation. Indianapolis survivors stand behind Hunter.

Powerful Testimony

For the next four years, the Indianapolis dominated Hunter’s life. Hunter filled binders with notes and created detailed timelines. There was no question he couldn’t answer, no detail he missed. News crews followed him around at school. It seemed like every other weekend, he was flying off to give an interview. He gave a speech at the Indianapolis survivors’ annual reunion and marched alongside them in a parade.

He even uncovered new details that had not been presented at McVay’s trial, including that before the Indianapolis sank, its distress calls had been received by at least three people—but were not responded to. Finally, two members of Congress took up Hunter’s cause. They invited Hunter, along with survivors and representatives from the Navy, to Washington, D.C. Hunter gave powerful testimony.

Hashimoto, by then 90 years old and living as a Shinto priest in the Japanese city of Kyoto, even sent a personal letter to one senator who had heard Hunter’s testimony.

I have met many of your brave men who survived the sinking of the Indianapolis, Hashimoto wrote. I would like to join them in urging that your national legislature clear their captain’s name. Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences. Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction.