The U.S.S. Indianapolis (CA-35) is part of a fascinating World War II story. The ship was a heavy cruiser that played an important role in the atomic bombing missions that led Japan directly to its surrender and the end of the war. Indianapolis was ordered in 1929 and her hull was laid down at the Camden Yard in New Jersey on March 31, 1930 by the New York Shipbuilding Corp. According to Naval History and Heritage Command, her displacement was 9,800 tons, her length was 610 feet, beam was 66 feet and draft was 17’4″. The ship was constructed to accommodate a crew of 1,269, achieve a speed of 32 knots and was armed with 9 8-inch and 8 5-inch guns. The Indianapolis was the second of two ships of the Portland class.
(Image credit: Naval History and Heritage Command)
CA-35 was the second vessel to bear the name Indianapolis. The first ship called the USS Indianapolis (ID-3865) was a cargo ship commissioned in 1918 and decommissioned in 1919.
During the peacetime years between World War I and World War II, the Indianapolis (CA-35) trained and served in various locations. On December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the ship was participating in a simulated bombardment off Johnston Island in the Johnston Atoll located west southwest of Hawaii. Indianapolis was immediately assigned to search for Japanese aircraft carriers. She sailed into Pearl Harbor on December 13, six days after the attack. Her first combat was on February 20, 1942 in the Pacific when she was one of several American ships that were attacked by 18 Japanese bombers. Indianapolis sustained no significant damage and most of the enemy bombers were shot down by antiaircraft guns and/or fighter planes from the carrier Lexington.
Other action noted was the ship’s service in New Guinea and Australia, followed by repairs and alterations back in the United States. She also participated in the battles for the Aleutians. Months later, she became the flagship for Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance for a number of months. In late 1943, Indianapolis took part in the battle for the Gilbert Islands, followed by the battle to reclaim the Marshall Islands. She then moved on to serve in the assaults on the Western Carolinas and Marianas by the summer of 1944.
Indianapolis continued to serve in the Pacific in 1944 and took part in the battles of Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima in early 1945. During the battle to reclaim Okinawa, she took a bomb to her port side that had been dropped from a single-engine Japanese fighter that has been described as a kamikazi attack. Though there was damage and flooding, after emergency repairs, the ship was routed to Mare Island for repairs to her propeller shafts, fuel tanks and water distilling equipment. After these and other alterations were completed, Indianapolis was assigned to a secret mission from July 19 to July 25, 1945 to transport part of an atomic bomb to the island of Tinian. After delivering the component, on July 28, she was ordered to sail first to Guam and then proceed directly and without escort to Leyte in the Philippines. Roughly two days out, Indianapolis was hit by two torpedoes fired from the Japanese submarine I-58 and sank within twelve minutes. Roughly four hundred of the crew are thought to have gone down with the ship. Survivors of the sinking floated for days in shark-infested waters. About half of them subsequently died of their injuries, exposure, salt poisoning or were lost to shark attacks until they were spotted on August 2, 1945 by the crew of a Ventura PV-1 bomber piloted by Lt. (jg) Wilbur C. Gwinn. Lt. Gwinn had been on a mission trying to spot enemy submarines and sighted an oil slick on the otherwise smooth surface of the ocean. A second plane was dispatched to the area, a PBY5A (a “flying boat”) piloted by Lt. Adrian Marks. Lt. Marks’ orders were to recon the area and report back. However, Marks said that as he was flying, he witnessed a shark attack a living survivor. So rather than leave them, Lt. Marks disregarded his orders, landed his aircraft near them and began rescuing the survivors until help could arrive. The first ship to reach the scene was the Cecil J. Doyle commanded by Captain W. Graham Clayton, Jr. Eleven more ships followed. Out of the crew of just under 1,200, only 317 survived the sinking and their ordeal at sea, including Captain Charles B. McVay III who had commanded the ship since November, 1944.
Captain McVay was court-martialed in December, 1945. The charges included allegations that he failed to order the crew to abandon ship and that he had also failed to take evasive action and zig zag on his route. Roughly 700 ships were sunk during the war, but McVay was the only commander to be court-martialed for the loss of his ship. In hindsight, there seem to be reasonable defenses to the charges. The assertion could be made that it was the orders given to Captain McVay by the Navy and followed by him that exposed the ship to harm. Further, his orders were to “zig zag at his discretion, weather permitting.” In addition, the ship was not escorted and had been ordered to maintain radio silence. The Indianapolis was not previously alerted to the presence of the enemy submarine and no SOS went out. McVay was cleared of the charge that he had failed to execute the order to abandon ship, but found guilty of the charge that he had put the ship in a hazardous situation by his choice not to zig zag.
In February, 1946, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz remitted McVay’s sentence (that is, Nimitz declined to enforce it) and restored McVay to active duty. McVay retired from the Navy shortly thereafter at the rank of rear admiral, which has been called a “graveyard promotion.” Although some victims’ families blamed McVay, and he was said to have received phone calls and hate mail from them, many survivors strongly supported him. Nevertheless, in 1968 McVay took his own life. A movement to clear his record gained momentum in the 1990s, and in 2001 a resolution to that effect was passed by the United States Congress and signed by President William J. Clinton. Captain McVay was posthumously cleared of all wrongdoing in the loss of the ship.
(Image credit: Findagrave)
One crew member from Texas was Seaman First Class Loel Dene (L. D.) Cox, pictured above. Born in 1926, L. D. was a native of the West Texas community of Sidney, near Comanche. He was president of his 1944 high school graduating class, the largest class ever to graduate from Sidney. L. D. was active in the Future Farmers Association. He joined the Navy in Norman, Oklahoma right after he graduated and was among the 317 to survive the ordeal at sea. Cox was either on the deck or on the bridge when the torpedoes hit the ship, blowing him into the water. Cox added that during the four days at sea, he saw sharks every day. He noted that they were unpredictable and might just swim past or attack. The sun was blistering hot in the daytime and the water was chilling at night. As to why some men survived while others did not, one survivor was quoted as saying “It just wasn’t our time. All of us feel – whether we have religion or not – that we were saved by a higher power than ourselves.”
After the war, L. D. returned home and earned a degree from Texas A&M after attending Tarleton State College. He taught for a while at San Angelo Junior College and Comanche Vocational School. L. D. then became a sales representative for Moorman Manufacturing Company in 1952 and worked there most of his career. Along the way, Cox bought some farm land in the Comanche area and operated it for a number of years. He was active in various groups including the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, among others, and was a member of Church of Christ, Sidney, Texas. After his retirement, L. D. served on the board of Comanche National Bank. He enjoyed speaking about his experiences and did a lot of traveling to World War II reunions.
L. D. passed away in 2015 and is buried in the family cemetery in Sidney. The 84th Texas Legislature honored Mr. Cox with HR503 that said, in part, “WHEREAS, … L. D. Cox lived a long and remarkable life in which he experienced both tragedy and triumph, and he leaves behind a legacy that will continue to inspire all those who knew and loved him.”
Clifford Josey was one of the victims. He was 19 years old and was from Meridian, Texas. Josey was believed to have been in charge of one of the 40mm guns. Josey’s family was unaware of how he died until they met Cox, who told them that he knew Josey and was with him when he died from his injuries after the ship went down. Like some other families, the Josey family first blamed Captain McVay for the tragedy, but after meeting other survivors and reading books on the subject, came to support him and the effort to exonerate him.
Cleatus Lebow of Memphis, Texas was also a survivor. In an excellent article by Kathy Smith of the Hood County News, Smith tells that Lebow joined the Navy in 1943 and took his basic training in San Diego. Lebow said he’d had a premonition that something might happen to the ship before he shipped out the last time. He and his family were religious and his mother told him that (paraphrasing) God would be with him.
Lebow had been below, asleep in his bunk when the first torpedo hit the ship. He was assigned to the Indianapolis as a range finder and after the ship went down he went into the Pacific. At first he and the men around him floated, grabbing whatever debris they could find for assistance until he came upon what he called a cork floater net where he stayed until he was rescued. He was in a group of 121, some of whom died of their injuries or succumbed to shark attacks. Despite the difficulties, Lebow always believed that he would be saved and that things would turn out all right. Because of his strong faith, he said that he had peace during the ordeal. Lebow is believed to have been the last Indianapolis survivor to have passed away.
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