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The sinking of the USS Indianapolis
July 5, 2012 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Over 350 US Navy ships were lost in combat during World War II. Only one of them resulted in the captain being court martialed.

Anyone who has seen the movie "Jaws" knows the basics of the story of the USS Indianapolis, the last ship to be lost in combat during World War II. She was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-58 at 12:14 a.m. on July 30, 1945. Over the next 4 days, exposure, injuries, madness, and shark attacks killed most of the approximately 900 sailors who survived the torpedo attack. Contrary to Quint's speech in Jaws, the Indianapolis did send a distress call in the 12 minutes between the attack and the ship sinking. It was ignored. The survivors were discovered by accident when an aircraft that noticed the oil slick from the ship. Only 321 men were found and pulled out of the water, 316 of whom survived the entire ordeal.

The sinking is considered one of the worst disasters in the history of the USN. The captain, Charles McVay III, son of a US Navy admiral, was court martialed for failing to direct his ship in a zig-zag path. The captain of the I-58, Mochitsura Hashimoto testified that it wouldn't have mattered and he'd have sunk the ship anyways. The Indianapolis was denied a destoryer escort even though she was not equipped with anti-submarine technology. And due to information classification issues, details of Japanese submarine activity in the area of his route were withheld from McVay. Captain McVay was found guilty.

The following year, Admiral Nimitz requested that the Secretary of the Navy remit McVay's sentence and restore him to active duty. McVay continued in his Navy career until his retirement from the service in 1949. While some of the families of the sailors who died sent McVay hate mail, the survivors of the Indianapolis lobbied in favor of clearing McVay's record. In 2000, the US Congress approved a resolution - signed by President Clinton - that McVay's record should reflect that he "is exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis."


In 1968, McVay killed himself with his Navy-issued revolver; when his body was found, he was found holding a toy sailor given to him as a child by his father.
posted by rmd1023 (64 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite

 
While answering an ocean-sinking-related askme, I noticed that there hadn't been a post about it which was kind of shocking and so I figured I'd fix that.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:59 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


So Hashimoto never had to pay for his actions? I guess he was just following his orders, but didn't we hang a bunch of Nazis for doing precisely that?
posted by Renoroc at 5:01 PM on July 5, 2012


So Hashimoto never had to pay for his actions? I guess he was just following his orders, but didn't we hang a bunch of Nazis for doing precisely that?

Hashimoto targeted a military vessel in the course of military duties in a military theater of war.

The german soldiers shoved women and children into gas chambers.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:03 PM on July 5, 2012 [105 favorites]


It's not a war crime to attack enemy soldiers.
posted by jacalata at 5:03 PM on July 5, 2012 [11 favorites]


I agree with pogo and jacalata. Also, to say Hashimoto never paid for his actions doesn't take into account what emotional toll war may have had on him.
posted by mapinduzi at 5:06 PM on July 5, 2012


Cool post. I love the idea of the submarine commander testifying in the court martial - did that happen in any other cases?
posted by jacalata at 5:07 PM on July 5, 2012


Just one of millions of stories of the infinite tragedy of war.
posted by JHarris at 5:07 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]



So Hashimoto never had to pay for his actions? I guess he was just following his orders, but didn't we hang a bunch of Nazis for doing precisely that?


He attacked a military vessel filled with military personnel during an active war - shouldn't we worry about why US Army Air Force pilots who firebombed civilian areas of Tokyo or Dresden were never prosecuted instead?
posted by thewalrus at 5:08 PM on July 5, 2012 [17 favorites]



Also, the OP left out the reason for the secrecy of the Indianpolis' mission. It was to transport (parts for) the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

It's also worth nothing that Quint (possibly) wouldn't have known he was wrong about the distress call - the Navy kept it a secret until the records were de-classified; a very long time after the war ended.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:08 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is something fascinating about Hashimoto testifying on behalf of Captain McVay, his former enemy. I'd be curious to know what kind of relationship, if any, the two developed and how they thought of each other.
posted by zachlipton at 5:13 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is something fascinating about Hashimoto testifying on behalf of Captain McVay, his former enemy. I'd be curious to know what kind of relationship, if any, the two developed and how they thought of each other.

Sort of along those lines, and tying back to Renoroc's question, I'm pretty sure that after the war Nimitz went to Nuremberg to testify in favor of U-boat officers on trial, saying that he ordered the US Navy to do in the Pacific exactly what the Germans were being tried for doing in the Atlantic.
posted by COBRA! at 5:19 PM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


That clip of Quinn's speech from Jaws still makes my blood run cold. You can see it on Schneider and Dryphus' faces too; they are like us, just audience, and are just as blown away as we are.
posted by localroger at 5:25 PM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's also worth nothing that Quint (possibly) wouldn't have known he was wrong about the distress call - the Navy kept it a secret until the records were de-classified; a very long time after the war ended.

Wow. According to the Wikipedia article:
The Indianapolis sent distress calls before sinking. Three stations received the signals; however, none acted upon the call. One commander was drunk, another had ordered his men not to disturb him and a third thought it was a Japanese prank.[10] For a long time the Navy denied that a distress call had been sent. The receipt of the call came to light only after the release of declassified records.
The fact that the Navy knew of significant submarine threats along the Indianapolis's route, failed to warn McVay, refused his request for an escort, ignored the distress calls three times over for absolutely moronic reasons, and subsequently covered all this incompetence up is appalling. I can understand the desire to make McVay the fall guy for all this, but what a horrible thing to do to the man.
posted by zachlipton at 5:26 PM on July 5, 2012 [21 favorites]


I figured the bomb is the least interesting part of the story, since the Indianapolis was sunk on the way back from the delivery.

If she'd been sunk on the way out to do the delivery, well, there would have been a somewhat different endgame to the war, I think.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:28 PM on July 5, 2012


I'd be curious to know what kind of relationship, if any, the two developed and how they thought of each other.

According to this, it doesn't sound like they ever developed much of a personal relationship, but Hashimoto maintained his opinion that McVay had been unjustly convicted his whole life, and developed a relationship with some other Indianapolis survivors through that. In 1999 (when he was 90 year old Shinto priest) he wrote a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee supporting McVay's exoneration.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 5:29 PM on July 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


In '99 (I think) Hashimoto wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee (who was that then, anyway?). At that time he was a Shinto priest and he said something along the lines of our respective countries peoples have forgiven each other for the war so maybe it's time y'all forgive McVay. Hashimoto died 10 years or so ago. In 2000 Congress passed legislation that noted that McVay was not culpable for the loss of the USS Indianapolis and that his military record should show as such.

(Some say that I have a weird fascination with war stories (for a female anyway, as if that matters) and this was one I remember reading and being interested enough in to remember. LOVE this FPP!)

On preview, shoot! strangely stunted trees beat me to it!
posted by youandiandaflame at 5:32 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is something fascinating about Hashimoto testifying on behalf of Captain McVay, his former enemy. I'd be curious to know what kind of relationship, if any, the two developed and how they thought of each other.

It appears that Hashimoto was ordered to testify by the United States, occupying Japan after the war. It doesn't seem that there was any kind of relationship between the two men. Here is Hashimoto's testimony (from http://www.saipanstewart.com/essays/Lossoftheindy.html):

Q: State your name, rank and present duty.
A: Hashimoto, Mochitsura, commander, in His Imperial Japanese Majesty's Navy, Reserve; at the present, here at the disposition of this Court.
Q: How long have you been a commander?
A: I have been a commander since September ninth of this year since September sixth, correction, please; since September sixth of this year.
Q: What duties were you performing in the Japanese Navy during the night of 29 30 July, 1945?
A: Serving as captain of submarine I-58.
Q: In what position was your ship at or about 2305 on that evening?
A: In position bearing 355 degrees from Palau, distance 290 miles.
Q: If anything happened at or about 2305 zone minus nine time on that evening in question, that was of particular interest to you, tell the Court what it was, to you, Commander Hashimoto, anything which happened that was of particular interest to you, tell the Court what it was.
A: On the supposition that at that time the visibility would have improved and the moon would be out, he brought his submarine to the surface. Thereupon, under the moon, he discerned a dark object and crash-dived immediately, and then swung his ship around to head in its direction.

Q: And what from his knowledge now was the position of his ship relative to the dark object at that time?

A: His position was established still, roughly. at ten thousand meters, be aring ninety degrees from true with the target bearing ninety degrees true.

Q: Then what did you do after sighting this dark object?

A: He submerged and headed towards the object and prepared to fire torpedoes and launch KAITENS (1).
Q: How long after sighting this target did it take you to arrive at the estimate of course and speed of the target?
A: It took about ten minutes to swing around and steady on a course heading for the target, and at the end of that time he was, roughly, he had roughly made up his mind as to the target's course and speed.
Q: And what was that?
A: Speed, 12 knots, course, 260.
Q: You have said that you took ten minutes to arrive at an estimate of the target's course and speed; then what did you do?
A: He completed preparation for firing torpedoes; he set up the problem on his director; that is. he put in the estimates, and then awaited the proper time to fire.
Q: Then what did he do?
A: It became apparent that the target was approaching off his starboard bow, so he swung his ship to starboard, then when the target had approached within a distance of 1500 1500 meters, he fired his torpedoes. After firing, he put up his periscope and saw his torpedoes make three hits in the forward part of the ship between the bridge and the bow. Thereafter he heard an explosion from what he took to be a fourth torpedo hit, and saw a cloud of water aft of the ship's bridge. Thereafter he swung his ship further to the right, and he had bounced up when he fired his torpedoes, and at the same time lowered his periscope. At that time he heard explosions, of which several were louder than the rest.
Q: How did you know you scored three hits on the target?
A: Of the three torpedo hits scored in the forward part of the ship, the center hit produced a flame which revealed three columns of water, a center column and one on either side.
Q: What kind of torpedoes did you fire?
A: Type 95 torpedoes, propelled by oxygen.
Q: What kind of warheads were on these torpedoes?
A: Five warheads were magnetic, one inertia type.
Q: Did you fire these torpedoes independently, or did you use a spread?
A: The torpedoes were fired with a spread of three degrees and at intervals of three seconds.
Q: What do you mean by a "spread” of three degrees?
A: By a "spread of three degrees” is meant that there was an angle of three degrees between each of the torpedoes fired, with the exception that to be strictly accurate, between the two center torpedoes there was an angle of two degrees. `
Q: Why did you not use KAITENS?
A: KAITENS weren't used, first, because he was delayed in determining the type of target; secondly, because it was night; and, thirdly, because torpedoes were considered to be sufficient.
Q: Did you recognize the type of ship which was your target?
A: At the time when the target had approached to a distance of about three thousand yards, at which time the foremast and main mast had separated, he recognized it as a ship of ten thousand ton cruiser class or bigger.
Q: Did you make any further studies in relation to the type of ship which was your target?
A: Subsequent to the the time that he fired the torpedoes, he looked into a book of silhouettes for the ship that he saw at the time of firing.
Q: How did you know that this target was not a Japanese ship?
A: At the time the submarine left Kure, there were no Japanese vessels navigating in this area. The arrangements were made to be advised by wireless if subsequent to the time of departure friendly vessels should navigate in this area, and as he had no advice by wireless, he knew in this instance that it wasn't a Japanese vessel.
Q: Did you take any prisoners from this ship you testified you torpedoed?
A: He took no prisoners.
Q: Was the target zigzagging at the time you sighted it?
A: At the time of the sighting of the target, there was an indistinct blur, and he is unable to was unable to determine whether or not it was zigzagging.
Q: Was it zigzagging later?
A: There is no question of the fact that it made no radical changes in course. It is faintly possible that there was a minor change in course between the time of sighting and the time of attack.
Q: Would it have made any difference to you if the target had been zigzagging on this attack?
A: It would have involved no change in the method of firing the torpedoes, but some changes in maneuvering".

The accused did not desire to recross-examine this witness. Commander Hashimoto left the Courtroom and was returned to Japan. He later described his visit to the United States as “pleasant” . Soon after the end of the war he became a Shinto Priest.

posted by cairdeas at 5:32 PM on July 5, 2012 [16 favorites]


'The testimony that undoubtedly saved Doenitz's life at Nuremberg came from Admiral Nimitz'
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:36 PM on July 5, 2012


Incidentally, one of the biggest complaints about the Germans was that they refused to take on survivors. This was also something that the Allies didn't want investigated too publicly. In 1942 a passenger ship called Laconia was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. It quickly became clear that many of the men in the water were Itallian POW's, and the German commander radioed for all vessels in the area to help rescue survivors.

Two more U-Boats arrived on the scene, and French ships showed up too. They filled the decks with survivors and took lifeboats in tow. The U-Boats spread big red cross flags across their decks and when they saw a US plane, they signalled to it to help them in the rescue.

That order was countermanded by a low-level US officer, who instead commanded his plane to bomb the submarines. Cutting the lifeboats free, the Germans dived for safety. Those standing on deck were cast off into the water to drown.

After that, the Germans never stopped to rescue survivors. The allies made propaganda hay out of this terrible decision, but when the end of the war came they knew that no German commander could be prosecuted for it. It was they, after all, who had bombed their own men, women and children in the September waters of the Atlantic.
posted by Dreadnought at 5:39 PM on July 5, 2012 [56 favorites]


What a fine FPP, rmd1023.
posted by mosk at 5:42 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was going to comment that the person they should have made the fall guy was Lt. Stuart Gibson, who recorded the Indianapolis as having arrived in port, but then I had a wikipiphany.

Wikipiphany: the realization that the conversation we're having is based on everyone's having read the same wikipedia article.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:42 PM on July 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


This is a good post. Thank you for making it.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:44 PM on July 5, 2012


Another detail which deserves mention: one of the reasons the Indianapolis incident happened the way it did was that the Americans had come to the erroneous conclusion that large warships were essentially invulnerable to submarine attack. So nobody was looking out for a cruiser to be sunk, nobody was there to protect it, and people were genuinely shocked when it happened.

McVay was very much a scapegoat, but his prosecution was plausible, in the eyes of many, because it was so surprising that a Japanese submarine had managed to pull off the attack.

By the time he was returned to service, the developments of the early Cold War had overtaken this perception, but in 1945 the case was not so clear-cut as it appears today.

Incidentally, this all led to some very interesting technical developments as the Cold War progressed, developments which (for all their secrecy and obscurity) nearly took the world to the brink of nuclear war. But that's a story for another time.
posted by Dreadnought at 5:46 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]



I figured the bomb is the least interesting part of the story, since the Indianapolis was sunk on the way back from the delivery.


It sort of is and sort of isn't. A historian I spoke with about this* noted that it was very probably** because of the secrecy of the mission that the Indy had no escort and no help. Their plight was certainly compounded by other ... institutional inefficiencies - but in the main the Navy wanted little to no attention drawn to that cruiser behind the curtain.


*I've mentioned before that my grandfather was in the navy in WWII. He related to me during a conversation late in his life*** that he lost a couple of his friends on that vessel, and that was how I became interested in it. Back in the day, I subscribed to several usenet WWII newsgroups which could be a excellent source of information and data about the war.

** It's not as though there was a strict directive, but still, the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Indy were... unique in many respects. You'll have to judge for yourself how much of the loss was Navy secrecy and/or ineptitude and how much was just plain bad luck.

*** It's very upsetting to me that he never chose to tell me these things earlier. And that I never sought to try. He carried a lot of pain with him to his grave, and I still believe, maybe foolishly, that I could have helped him with some part of that. I miss him so, sometimes.

posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:49 PM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Hashimoto targeted a military vessel in the course of military duties in a military theater of war.

After the war, two German admirals, Karl Dönitz and Erich Raeder, were charged with crimes against humanity for ordering unrestricted submarine warfare against the Allies. The charge carried the death sentence.

During the trial, a letter was introduced stating that the Allies, by direct order of the most senior officers in the US Navy, had deliberately and intentionally engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare against the Empire of Japan.

The letter was signed "Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN"

Admirals Dönitz and Raeder were acquitted of that particular charge, though they were convicted of others and spent some time in prision after the war.

"I tell you, war is Hell!"
-- Gen. William T. Sherman
posted by eriko at 5:55 PM on July 5, 2012


It's important to note, though, that the unrestricted submarine warfare charge was about attacking merchant ships, not warships.
posted by Dreadnought at 6:00 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hence unrestricted.
posted by zamboni at 6:12 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


In 1968, McVay killed himself with his Navy-issued revolver; when his body was found, he was found holding a toy sailor given to him as a child by his father.

Sitting in my bedside stand right now is a .45 ACP Colt 1911 with a very low serial number, marked "United States Property". My old man bought it from a widow who ran a boarding house he was where was staying (he paid $50, sometime in the '50s probably). She was a widow, because one evening her husband, a (retired?) Army Officer, went into the back yard and sat down under a tree. He put the barrel of that gun, his sidearm, in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I wonder what that poor guy couldn't stop thinking about.
I've shown that gun to a number of people, who at first really admire it, but when I tell them that story, there's a strong visceral reaction even among the most hard-hearted.
posted by 445supermag at 6:29 PM on July 5, 2012 [13 favorites]


There is an excellent Dutch wikipedia entry for the Laconia Incident. Includes the text of the radio transmissions between U-boat Captain Werner Hartenstein and Admiral Karl Dönitz - who ordered two more U-boats to the coordinates to assist in the rescue. And Hartenstein's all-ships-hail transmission in English:
If any ship will assist the ship-wrecked "Laconia" crew, I will not attack providing I am not being attacked by ship or air forces. I picked up 193 men. 4, 53 South, 11, 26 West. --German submarine.
After the bombing, the three U-boats and an Italian submarine that also came to aid scattered. The (Vichy) French ships managed to re-rescue around 1,000 people later that day.

Dönitz spent over ten years in Spandau - but not for the Laconia-Befehl.
posted by likeso at 6:34 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just saw Jaws for the first time yesterday; a local movie theater was showing it for July 4th. I found it generally much sillier than I anticipated, but Quint's monologue was staggering.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:35 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The US Navy certainly hasn't followed the grand tradition set by the R.N. "pour l'encouragement des autres", which was based on a true story.
posted by wilful at 6:41 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just a small correction to a good post: anytime a ship is lost the Captain is brought before a Court Martial. McVay might have been the only one in World War 2 that was convicted, tho.
posted by Snyder at 6:43 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


KAITENS weren't used, first, because he was delayed in determining the type of target; secondly, because it was night; and, thirdly, because torpedoes were considered to be sufficient.

I didn't know what these were, so I looked up KAITEN. Holy crap, I didn't know there was ever such a thing as manned torpedos. How ghastly.
posted by floam at 6:56 PM on July 5, 2012 [11 favorites]


God, the stupidity that McVay was crucified for that bad luck of coming across an enemy submarine in the openness of the Pacific, combined with the incredible multiplier of the Navy IGNORING THE MAYDAY and not looking for the ship when it FAILED TO SHOW UP. It was luck that anyone survived.

But the court marshal reminds me if what the US did to the Captain of the Pueblo, a largely defenseless ship (one machine gun on deck) sent ALONE to spy on a very hostile and unpredictable North Korea. We court marshaled him for not fighting off four warships with his piddly deck gun, and for then signing an obviously false confession (where he indicts his masters, Barney Fife and Gomer Pyle) to the North Koreans after being tortured.
posted by zippy at 6:58 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in a neighborhood where this really cool guy who had a large trampoline in his backyard lived. (This was the '70's in small-town Indiana; it might have been the only privately owned one in town.) His own kids played on it of course, and he'd allow other kids on it as long as their parents signed a release. I don't recall my parents ever being willing to do so, however. My dad would say, "Well, yeah, that Adrian Marks, he's a character"; I heard it as an unspoken "Jesus Christ! That crazy Adrian Marks!"

Although we grew up knowing that he was a WWII vet, I don't think it sunk in until I got to history class in high school and Adrian Marks came in to do his yearly talk for the students that my father's view of him wasn't based just on the fact that he had a trampoline he let kids play on.

And just now, after watching the Jaws clip, I realized that Adrian Marks was in the PBY Quint mentions.
posted by worldswalker at 7:17 PM on July 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


I keep wanting to make an "Anyway, we set us up the bomb" joke, but after watching the clip of that scene from Jaws, I can't. I was twelve when the movie came out and responded mostly to the horrorshow/thrilling aspects of it, but that whole speech went right over my head. Now, though, I reflect that some of the survivors of that disaster were probably not much older than I am now at the time that that movie came out. Jeez.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:19 PM on July 5, 2012


As someone who spends a fair amount of time bobbing around in the Pacific in a seal suit, I am in complete denial when it comes to possibility of a shark attack. Therefore, with limited apologies, I will post this tasteless Quint parody (nsfw) from Whitest Kids U'Know.
posted by eddydamascene at 7:33 PM on July 5, 2012


My grandfather's friend Ace was a survivor of the USS Indianapolis. Ace was one of his hunting buddies. Ace would sit in the bed of the pickup truck with a bottle of Christian Brothers and a case of beer. By the end of the car ride to wherever they were hunting, both the brandy and the beer would be gone.

We always bring a bottle or two of Christian Brothers with us when we go North, and we always toast Ace.

"To Ace!" and echoed "To Ace - up there," and then a meaningful look at the ground, "or down there." And then we drink.

To Ace.

.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:40 PM on July 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


I didn't know what these were, so I looked up KAITEN. Holy crap, I didn't know there was ever such a thing as manned torpedos. How ghastly.

You want to know the really ghastly thing? Americans were shocked to the core by Japanese suicide attacks: they thought them completely incomprehensible... fair enough.

Within a decade of the start of the Cold War, both the Soviets and the Americans had developed suicide weapons for use at sea.

War doesn't just change people; it changes cultures.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:51 PM on July 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


.
posted by limeonaire at 8:04 PM on July 5, 2012


I didn't know what these were, so I looked up KAITEN. Holy crap, I didn't know there was ever such a thing as manned torpedos. How ghastly.

Fascinating. And insane.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:19 PM on July 5, 2012


Within a decade of the start of the Cold War, both the Soviets and the Americans had developed suicide weapons for use at sea.

What are you referring to, here?
posted by zamboni at 8:39 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


floam: "KAITENS weren't used, first, because he was delayed in determining the type of target; secondly, because it was night; and, thirdly, because torpedoes were considered to be sufficient.

I didn't know what these were, so I looked up KAITEN. Holy crap, I didn't know there was ever such a thing as manned torpedos. How ghastly.
"

I have been inside a decommissioned one in Hawaii as a child.

It's worse that Wikipedia makes it seem. Thank Deity I was a skinny child.
posted by Samizdata at 8:47 PM on July 5, 2012


Within a decade of the start of the Cold War, both the Soviets and the Americans had developed suicide weapons for use at sea.

What are you referring to, here?


It might be this- note the nifty phrase :"The blast radius from the nuclear warhead was greater than the ASTOR's range"
posted by pjern at 9:01 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


What are you referring to, here?

There were two kinds of systems.

The first is the nuclear torpedo. Nuclear torpedoes have a 100% kill radius that is greater than the running distance of the torpedo (submarines are killed by nuclear blasts further out than surface ships are, as the Americans discovered in the Crossroads tests of 1946). The Soviets actually tested their nuclear torpedo before they deployed it: they had a submarine launch the weapon and then race behind an island so the shock wave wouldn't kill them.

The fig-leaf placed on this was that the torpedoes would be used to attack ports. This, however, was not consistent with either testing or actual deployment of the weapons. For example, the Soviets deployed nuclear torpedoes aboard the Foxtrot-class subs that got caught up on the Cuban Missile Crisis. It seems clear that the purpose of these weapons was to attack amphibious formations invading Cuba, which are one of three effective targets for nuclear weapons at sea (amphibious formations, aircraft carrier battle groups and... yeah, submarines). Two of these weapons were prepared for launch against US carrier battle groups during the Crisis.

You read that right, by the way, two Soviet nuclear torpedoes were loaded into their tubes to fire against American forces at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Had one of them been launched, it would have inevitably caused a nuclear war. According to one account (and we don't know if it's true), the decision to launch the nuclear torpedo on the submarine B-59 came down to a sort of vote between the three senior officers on board. All three had to agree to launch the torp. Two voted yes, one voted no. If true, then that one guy saved not only himself and his crewmates, but also the whole rest of the world.

The other suicide weapon is even stranger. In the early years of the Cold War, there was a big internal wrangle within the US military establishment about which services would get control of nuclear weapons. In order to essentially 'keep their hand in', the US Navy came up with a plan to put nuclear bombs on small aircraft. The planes were single-seat, propeller driven A-1 Skyraiders left over from the Second World War. Their job was to drop Hiroshima-style bombs on enemy airfields from very low-altitude, to reduce fighter-interceptor attrition for the big bombers coming through overhead.

Here's how it worked: the A-1's would fly toward their targets 'on the deck', meaning as low as they could go without actually crashing in to the water. As they neared their targets, they would start to do a loop-the-loop, and as they hit forty-five degrees they would release the bombs, 'lofting' them toward their targets. At the apex of the loop, as the bomb was still flying toward the enemy airfield, they were to flip over and go into a steep dive away from the blast, rushing right down to the 'deck' again and thus picking up speed. If they got everything just right, they had a small chance of getting out of the 100% kill radius of the blast without hitting the water a few feet below them. They even painted the backs of the planes white so they wouldn't burn as easily.

Of course this was for morale really. Nobody seriously expected any of the pilots to survive the blast, or even complete the end of the manoeuvre, because they would have to do that last, desperate dive toward the surface of the sea after being blinded.

Yes, blinded. You see, they didn't yet have those special goggles that go black when a nuclear bomb goes off in front of you, and they would be expected to carry out this plan while all these other bombs were also being dropped on their targets ahead of them.

So the idea was that they flew toward the target with one eye closed. By the time they got to the point where they were to launch their weapons, the open eye would have been blinded by all the flashing, so they were told to open the other eye so that they would be able to see the instruments which told them when to launch the bomb. Naturally that eye wouldn't last all that long either, but it should hold out long enough to complete the operational part of the mission. After that, they just had to flip their aircraft at the exact right time and flawlessly complete the escape manoeuvre by... buy guesswork, I suppose.

But, then, does it really matter? I mean if you're conducting a nuclear bombing raid, what is there to fly back to?

Oh yes, welcome to the world I inhabit every day of my working life... and people wonder why I'm such a happy person!
posted by Dreadnought at 9:28 PM on July 5, 2012 [112 favorites]


Holy crap, Dreadnought.

After watching Jaws I immediately read up on the USS Indianapolis. The first-person accounts are an awful read.
posted by schroedinger at 9:50 PM on July 5, 2012


The Japanese also developed smart missiles in WWII, called Ohkas. Rocket-powered suicide planes.

The German tested and considered deploying piloted V-1 rockets.
posted by zippy at 10:00 PM on July 5, 2012


From the ASTOR nuclear torpedo link above: "[when they became obsolete] the ASTORs were ... fitted with conventional warheads and wake homing guidance systems, then sold to foreign navies as the Mark 45 ... Freedom Torpedo"
posted by zippy at 10:32 PM on July 5, 2012


Also of note is the fact that the 2000 Congressional Resolution mentioned in the post was due in no small part to the effort of Hunter Scott—who, in 1996, at the age of eleven, did a school history project on the Indianapolis; three years later he was testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee in support of Captain McVay's exoneration.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:42 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Snyder: Thanks for the correction. I knew there was some measure of inquiry but didn't know it rose to the level of court martial automatically.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:40 AM on July 6, 2012


Re: Quint's monologue in Jaws...
A good deal of why that monologues is so stunning is due to the positions held by his audience of two, Brody (Scheider) and Hooper (Dreyfuss). Brody and Hooper represent a distilled representation of the real movie audience...Those who had never even heard of the Indianapolis (Brody) and those who knew about it but only as something abstract from history (Hooper). To Brody, the tale Quint tells hits him like a modern horror story. To Brody, it's something he's only known as a piece of history, now writ-large-and-bloody by an actual survivor.

It's easily the best scene in the whole movie. Powerful stuff.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:37 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


My father's ship, the USS Wasp (CV-7), was also sunk by Japanese torpedoes. He was one of the 1900 or so sailors who jumped from the flight deck into water in a total abandonment that lasted less than 40 minutes. Wasp's Captain, Forrest Sherman, was awarded the Navy Cross and rose to the rank of Admiral.

It's hard, therefore, to see what happened to Captain McVay as anything but revenge for what happened after the abandonment.
posted by tommasz at 6:20 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


OK, I'll bite. Dreadnaught, what on Earth do you do for a living?
posted by Frayed Knot at 6:38 AM on July 6, 2012


He could tell you, but then he'd have to kill you.
posted by likeso at 6:51 AM on July 6, 2012


Haha! No, I'm just a historian. I write about navies, intelligence, and historical methodology, and my current project is about the early Cold War.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:30 AM on July 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Great. Now I know, too. Thanks so much, Frayed Knot.

(Seriously: so very cool, Dreadnought. Would you be willing to tell us some titles? Memail, if you'd prefer.)
posted by likeso at 7:54 AM on July 6, 2012


Ahh, the "what the fuck were we thinking" years.

25 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, some part of Harvard (Kennedy School of Govt?) got a bunch of the US folks and the USSR folks who had all been in the appropriate decision making rooms all together and talked about what each side was thinking at the time. I skimmed some of the write-ups of it back 7 or 8 years ago, and man, there's some crazy. Lots of "wait, you what? we totally thought some other thing. *pause* fuuuuuuck."

I'm not sure in my heart that teenaged me ever expected to live this old without getting nuclear bombs dropped on my head. (yay living in eastern MA, home of PAVE-PAWS)
posted by rmd1023 at 8:02 AM on July 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you think Quint's speech in the movie is eerie, then read the book "In Harm's Way" by Doug Stanton. I had goosebumps for hours on end, and just seeing the spine of the book on my shelf still raises my hackles. Horror upon horror.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:33 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


That said, this is one of the best pure (if tragic) stories around. Thanks for the FPP, rmd1023: you did them proud to renew their memory.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:34 AM on July 6, 2012


Horror upon horror.

Yeah, that about sums it up. I think "In Harm's Way" was the book I read about it years back. And 'horrifying' really is the best word to describe the whole ordeal - the thirst-induced madness, in particular, like one guy saying "no, it's fresh water if you dive down about 10 feet! i'm going to go drink some!"
posted by rmd1023 at 8:45 AM on July 6, 2012


Lots of "wait, you what? we totally thought some other thing. *pause* fuuuuuuck."

Makes sense, Both sides had an overwhelming distrust of the other and of course were working from incomplete information. And they had cultural difference in between them too.

I was reminded of this last week playing RoboRally. There were a couple times where two perfectly reasonable choices in programming existed but both were dependent on an opponent who also had two perfectly reasonable options deciding which way they were going to go. Choose wrong and instant death awaited. It's even worse when the 2x2 decision matrix has two entries with instant death for both players and the the other two options have instant death for only one player (IE: of the 4 possible outcomes 2 lead to both players dying, 1 results in player A dying and 1 results in player B dying).
posted by Mitheral at 9:27 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


As they neared their targets, they would start to do a loop-the-loop, and as they hit forty-five degrees they would release the bombs, 'lofting' them toward their targets. At the apex of the loop, as the bomb was still flying toward the enemy airfield, they were to flip over and go into a steep dive away from the blast, rushing right down to the 'deck' again and thus picking up speed.

Toss bombing.

For more on this, here's a fascinating article.
This article began as a study of lofting or tossing nuclear weapons.I became fascinated with the notion of using the prop-driven Skyraider for this purpose, and the story evolved into an account of what it would have been like to drive this WWII-era plane to Sevastopol on the first day of World War III.
posted by zamboni at 1:47 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


One chapter of David Mitchell's number9dream, which has been discussed here before, includes a fictional(ized?) journal of someone training to be a Kaiten pilot. I remember, reading it, being shocked that such a thing existed.
posted by rodii at 12:57 PM on July 7, 2012


According to one account (and we don't know if it's true), the decision to launch the nuclear torpedo on the submarine B-59 came down to a sort of vote between the three senior officers on board. All three had to agree to launch the torp. Two voted yes, one voted no. If true, then that one guy saved not only himself and his crewmates, but also the whole rest of the world.

here's the Wiki entry on the 'No'-voting Soviet officer in that account:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasili_Arkhipov
posted by Bwithh at 3:13 PM on July 10, 2012


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