IN HARM'S WAY
SAILING TO WAR
Dad, there's a war to be won out there, and I'm going out to get this thing cleaned up. I'll be back shortly.
ED BROWN, seaman first-class, USS Indianapolis
SUNDAY, JULY 15, 1945
San Francisco, California
The ship was still tied up in the harbor at Mare Island, but already the captain felt it was drifting out of his control.
Marching up the gangway of the vessel under his command, the USS Indianapolis, Captain Charles McVay was a man perplexed. Reaching the top, he turned toward the stern, saluted the flag, and strode on through the bronze light of the chill California morning, stepping past the electricians, painters, and engineers working on deck. No one watching the forty-six-year-old McVay, dressed smartly in his khaki and crisp campaign hatits black vinyl bill decorated with gold braid that the enlisted men called "scrambled eggs"would have guessed the depth of his concern. He hid it well.
He had just come from an early morning meeting at U. S. naval headquarters in downtown San Francisco. The meeting, with Admiral William R. Purnell and Captain William S. Parsons, had been disappointingly quick and to the point: this morning he was to take his ship from the Mare Island navy yard, thirty miles north of San Francisco, to Hunters Point navy yard, located just outside the city in San Francisco Bay. Once at Hunters Point, McVay was told, the Indy would take on board what was described only as a "secret project" before departing for the Pacific.
The meeting was over in less than an hour, and it failed to provide much information on his ship's new assignment.
McVay had a lot on his mind, much of it worrisome. Since May, the Indy had been docked at Mare Island, where it had been undergoing extensive repairs that were expected to take at least four months. Then suddenly everything had been accelerated. Three days ago, on July 12, McVay hadreceived mysterious orders from naval command to immediately ready his crew for a secret mission.
Hundreds of telegrams left the ship, calling the crew of 1,196 boys to sea; they hadat the mostjust ninety-six hours to execute the command. Some of the veteran crewmen were dispersed across the country, on leave or at temporary training schools. The majority of the crew had stayed at the marine and naval barracks at Mare Island, killing time by drinking beer, chasing girls, and playing cards. Still others were being called to the shipand to warfor the first time.
They came streaming to Mare Island and to the ship, stepping over tangled nests of air and water hoses, tools, and debris spread on her deck. McVay had watched as the newest crew members came on board, the older veterans cheering them on: "Hey, boys! Look at him," they cried out. "Ain't he pretty? Why, he doesn't even look like he's shaving yet!"
McVay understood how large the war loomed in the minds of these boys, "green hands" and veterans alike, who during these last few days had made love one last time, gotten drunk one last time, written last letters to mothers and fathers, and prepared to settle on board the Indy, into the rhythm of getting ready for sea. Rumors had started flying that the ship was headed back to the Philippines, then on to the massive invasion of Japan and its home islands, code names Operation Coronet and Olympic. But this morning, not even Captain McVay had any idea of their final destination.
He'd been told that the earliest the ship would leave San Francisco would be July 16, which was tomorrow. McVay had been given four days to do what seemed impossible. During the past twenty-four hours, he'd been crashing through night fog and heavy seas around the Farallon Islands, thirty miles west of the San Francisco coast, running the Indy through abbreviated but punishing sea trials. Thecrew had practiced radar alerts, radar jamming, and emergency turns. The Indy performed well, all things considered.
But how well was good enough? The ship was still fresh from the disaster that had necessitated all the repair work: on March 31, the Indy had suffered a nearly fatal kamikaze attack off the island of Okinawa. The incident had left nine men dead, twenty-nine wounded. One of McVay's boys, bugler second-class E. P. Procai, had been laid to rest at sea, accompanied by a twenty-one-gun salute. The remaining eight sailors were interred on one of the tiny islands west of Okinawa, a repair facility for damaged destroyers and a burial ground for the dead.
After the attack at Okinawa, the Indy had limped the 6,000 miles back across the Pacific. Two of her propeller shafts, a fuel tank, and her water distillation plant had been badly damaged. Back on land, some of the crew had begun asking for transfers off the ship. "When we get hit again," they were saying, "you'll be able to drive a bus through the hole." The Indy, they grumbled, had "turned poor."
They now wondered if she was an unlucky ship.
Not long after the captain's return, at about 10 A.M., Dr. Lewis Haynes heard the hiss of the Indy's PA system, a sound like air rushing through a hose, which was followed by the shrill piping of the boatswain's pipe. "Now hear this, now hear this!" came the announcement. The doctor listened as McVay's soft voice echoed through the morning air: "Men," he told his crew, "we are headed tomorrow morning to the forward area." This meant they were going back into the war zone.
The boys halted in midstride and in midchorebrooms and water hoses cradled in their arms as they cocked ears to the speakers tacked to the bulkheads, or outer walls, of theship. They were to depart immediately, the captain announced, for Hunters Point, a supply depot and loading point of final stores for Pacific-bound ships. And then the captain delivered the news that a sailor dreads hearing: all shore liberties for the evening were canceled. McVay signed off, "That is all." The PA line went dead.
A groan went up among some of the boys. They had plansand these included getting into San Francisco tonight. The city, still a Wild West town, was the last stop for Pacific-bound sailors, who congregated at all-girlie shows at the "Street of Paris" on Mason. In the three and a half years since Pearl Harbor, several million soldiers had passed through; in the last four months alone, the army and navy had shipped more than 320,000 troops from the port city.
McVay next gave the order to sail, and minutes later, the Indy backed from the pier at Mare Island and cruised past Alcatraz Island into the wide, placid water of San Francisco Bay. Soon, the sun having risen high and the morning's fog burned off, she was snug to the wharf at Hunters Point, standing motionless against her mammoth eight-inch mooring lines sprung from bow and stern.
Dr. Haynes had thought the abrupt change in the ship's plans was odd. The inquisitive, red-haired physician had been under the impression that preparations were being made to get the ship ready to join Task Force 95 for the invasion of Japan. At the moment, the task force was in the Philippines, and the invasion was scheduled for the end of the year, which was still about four and a half months away.
The war in Europe was over, and the Pacific theater was paused before this final assault on the Japanese homeland. Two months earlier, Germany had surrendered; the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, had left the U.S. First Army with 6,603 casualties, 1,465 of them fatal. But this paled in comparison to the estimated toll for the invasion of Japan: at least 500,000 American casualties. The boys of the Indy talked openly and often with one anotherabout whether they'd survive the battle. On the island of Tinian, which the Indy had bombarded and helped secure in 1944, there were reports that Japanese troops were still hiding in the jungle hills, resorting to cannibalism to survive, and that they could hold out another five years against an invading force. The end of the war seemed near to some, Haynes knew, yet to many it still felt like a dream.
This morning, he wondered how a ship like the USS Indianapolis was going to shorten the war. And he thought of home.
During the Indy's furlough, Haynes had been lucky enough to return to Connecticut for several weeks, where he played in the surf with his wife and two young sons and felt the pure joy of not being at war wash over him. At thirty-three, he was one of the oldest, most well-seasoned sailors aboard the ship. In 1941, on the destroyer Reuben James, he'd ridden out a North Atlantic hurricane that no one aboard thought they'd survive. He also held an informal record for continuous duty at sea. Before being assigned to the Indy, he'd logged thirty-nine months without a leave while aboard destroyers and the battleship USS New Mexico. He never complained to his superior officers about his unusually long stintexcept once, which was the same day he was awarded leave. His thinking was: he had an important job to do. And that was saving boys' lives.
He almost hadn't made it home to Connecticut last month. Scraping by on his meager lieutenant commander's pay, Haynes had decided he couldn't afford the train fare. He hadn't seen his wife or sons in six months, but he was broke. Then one afternoon as he was sitting at the tiny desk in his berth reading a Zane Grey novel borrowed from the ship's library, Father Conway, a priest from Waterbury, Connecticut, scratched at the black curtain that served as Haynes's door.
Haynes and the ship's dignified priest were friends, and sometimes they went on liberty together. Conway askedHaynes when he was going home. "Well, Tom," Haynes replied, "I have this problem. I can't afford it." Conway left, and Haynes returned to his novel. The next day, the priest tossed a handful of bills on the doctor's desk. "There now," he said, smiling, "you are going home!" Haynes could have wept over the kindness.
He had been back on the ship two weeks now, working temporary duty in the naval yard's medical dispensary. Besides the usual cases of tonsillectomies and circumcisionsmany of the boys, apparently, hadn't been able to afford, or had never considered, getting a circumcision before joining the navy, and Haynes performed so many for the Indy's crew that they'd renamed her the "clipper ship"there were more disturbing, war-induced maladies. One crew member was admitted to the hospital with a case of tuberculosis. Another walked in with a harder-to-treat diagnosis of "nightmares." Haynes, like Conway, understood how hard it was for some of these boys to come back to the ship. He had heard them refer to the Indy's hurried departure from San Francisco as a major piece of "grab ass." How were they supposed to say good-bye so quickly to a place that had become their home away from home?
After the Indianapolis had sailed into San Francisco for repairs in May, many of the crew had telegrammed girlfriends, wives, and family members, who flocked to the city and rented apartments, found jobs, and set up housekeeping. New lives had quickly taken root on land. Some boys got married. Women got pregnant. Brothers were reunited.
The boys of the Indy fell in love with San Francisco, where in diners and soda shops Benny Goodman was on the radio; beer cost fifteen cents a bottle; Luckies were a dime a pack. In July, the Fillmore was showing Bob Hope's flickGive Me a Sailor, and the Paramount was playing The Call of the Wild, starring Clark Gable. If the boys were feeling flush, they'd drink at the Top of the Mark hotel overlooking San Francisco Bay; if they were broke, they would stumble into Slapsy Maxie's and drink on a tab the patriotic bartender was in no hurry to collect on. Their average age was nineteen, and for many this was their first time on their own.
During the summer, there had been no end to the ways the boys could get into trouble. (The Bluejackets' Manual, a sailor's handbook of proper conduct, had warned of all sorts of dangers: "Bad women can ruin your bodily health," admonished one chapter. "Bad women especially are the cause of much grief. Sexual intercourse is positively not necessary for healthy and proper manly development." And this bit of advice to the downhearted: "You will be homesick for a while. We all were. You are starting a new life. Grin and bear it as we all did. No man ever succeeded by hanging on to his mother's apron strings all his life.") One sailor was arrested for "attempting to urinate in public view," and another was cited for "possession of a knife while on liberty." The knife-wielding sailor lost the privilege of five future liberties, and the urinator was fined and sentenced to twenty days' confinement in the ship's brig, an airless cell deep in the Indy's stern. He was fed bread and water.
Captain McVay was billeted, along with his newlywed wife of one year, Louise, in a comfortable but spare officers' community of apartments named Coral Sea Village located within the confines of the Mare Island navy yard. With time on his hands while the Indy was undergoing repairs, McVay, like his young crew, also found ways to enjoy himself. Shortly before receiving his surprise orders, he'd taken a brief, impromptu fishing trip to a steelhead trout river north of San Francisco.
The more serious business of preparing the ship for departure was a round-the-clock-affair, however. Thousands ofrounds of ammo were loaded and dropped by elevator into the ship's magazine near the bow. Over 60,000 gallons of fuel oil were pumped into her tanks, and she took on 3,500 gallons of aviation fuel for the ship's reconnaissance plane. Food for the crew came aboard and was measured by the ton. One of the urns in the ship's galley could brew 40 gallons of the precious, eye-opening coffee in a single batch. A typical list of stores consumed each week included 300 pounds of bread, 295 pounds of squash, 26 pounds of avocados, 672 pounds of apples, 1,155 pounds of oranges, 670 pounds of grapefruit, 305 pounds of celery, 476 pounds of tomatoes, 845 pounds of cabbage, 300 pounds of turnips, 70 pounds of fresh fish, 423 pounds of carrots, 341 pounds of cauliflower, and 665 pounds of corn.
And ice cream. The boys could eat about twenty-five gallons of ice cream in a week, which the galley's cooks kept stored in walk-in freezers. Their favorite flavors were peppermint and tropical passion. Ice cream was so loved by sailors that mess-hall cooks ran an ice cream parlor aboard the Indy, called a "gedunk" stand. In the military, everything had a nickname. A beer parlor was called a "slop chute." Candy bars were named "pogey bait." A Dear John letter was also known as a "green banana," and the advance of a sailor's pay was called a "dead horse." But the men of the USS Indianapolis had no easy slang to describe the way most of them felt about leaving San Francisco.
Under the feet of marine private Giles McCoy, the ship's gray, steel quarterdeck, located in the middle of the ship, hummed. The low-wave frequency came up through his bones, shook him, told him: something's in the wind today, boy.
At Mare Island, after Captain McVay's announcement that they would sail this morning to Hunters Point, marine captain Edward Parke had gathered his detachment of thirty-nine marines and explained that at Hunters Point they were about to assume special guard duties of the utmost importance.
An imposing man in his early thirties, with sandy hair, a barrel chest, and blue eyes that some of his men said pierced like daggers (more than one thought he bore a striking resemblance to Burt Lancaster), Parke had said nothing more; that was all they would need to know.
A marine detachment aboard a navy ship sleeps in its own separate compartmentaway from the ship's crewand operates the onboard brig, or jail; fires the guns during battle; and provides all-around security for the ship. As part of this group, Private McCoy was eager for the opportunity to be part of something big. He looked up to Captain Parke, a hero who had fought at Guadalcanal and earned the Purple Heart. Parke sometimes let him tag along on liberty; before setting out for a night on the town, he would unpin his insignia identifying him as an officer but then warn McCoy: "Don't think this means I'll cut you any slack back on the ship. Because I won't." McCoy felt he always knew where he stood with Parke.
Before being assigned to the Indy, in November 1944, McCoy had spent two months as part of a marine assault force on the island of Peleliu, a hellish, confusing place where he contracted malaria. The fighting had been vicious, and often it was hand to hand. The dead bodies piled up around McCoy and would hiss and explode in the hot sun as he hunkered in the mud and coral, praying the mortars would miss him. Even the battle itself had a strange but seemingly apt name: Operation Stalemate. At unexpected moments, the Japanese soldiers would mount banzai charges, bayonets fixed, running in crazed sprints straightfor McCoy and his First Marine Division buddies. The marines would shoot and shoot, but still some of the Japanese would make it all the way to the marines' defense line. It was an experience McCoy didn't like to talk about.
Now, after docking at Hunters Point, McCoy stood belowdecks in his tiny compartment before a stainless steel mirroron warships, broken glass is a hazardstaring at the face that had become his own during his thirteen-month tour of duty. At eighteen, he had the sharp eyes of a boy but the quick grimace of an old man. He fastidiously dry-shaved, ran a comb through his black wavy hair, did a quick re-buff of his duty shoes, and bounded up the ladder, or stairs, topside for duty.
Usually, Hunters Point harbored some fifteen warships, all in various stages of repair and resupply. But this morning the shipyard was empty; only a few seagulls screeched into the pale blue sky. Accompanying them were the musical lap and ping of black water against the Indy's gray, steel hull. Along the rail of the ship, the crew milled and stared at the wharf, as if trying to read signals from the silent tableau of warehouses, camouflaged trucks, and empty piers.
Approaching Captain Parke, McCoy requested an inspection of his appearance before assuming duty. Parke checked the razor creases in McCoy's pants, the angle of his cover, or hat, atop his head.
"You may proceed, McCoy."
A dock crew had wheeled a gangway up to the Indy's quarterdeck, which served as its main entry and exit. McCoy stepped down and assumed his position of duty: chest out, hands at his sides, a loaded Colt .45 hanging from his canvas duty belt, one round in the chamber.
Until given further orders, he was to let no man onto the ship who was not authorized. He was scheduled to get off duty at noon; because of the mid-morning relocation toHunters Point, his watch was slightly abbreviated. He hoped the cargo came on before he was relieved, however.
The Indy was operating in a battle-ready state known as Condition Able, which meant that the boys were on watch for four hours and then off for four, an exhausting, relentless schedule that left little time for sleep and induced in the boys a dreamlike state of jittery wakefulness. And yet, McCoy felt lucky to be aboard the Indy. On a ship, marines liked to say, no one was ever shooting at you, at least at close range. The competitiveness between the two military branches was good-hearted but persistent. Sailors called marines "gyrenes," and marines called sailors "swabbies." New officers were mocked as "shave-tails." (There was no end to the nicknames: Engineers were called "snipes"; the bridge crew was known as "skivvy wavers," because they waved flags while executing semaphore, a silent means of communication between ships at sea; and members of gunnery crews were called "gunneys.")
But as sailors liked to tell those who thought navy life was comfortable, "When the battle-shit hits the fan on a ship, you can't dig a hole and hide. You have to stand and take it."
Private McCoy had been pulling temporary guard duty at the main entrance gate on Mare Island when he received the call to return. It was a job he liked; he enjoyed the way the amputees, many of them his age and veterans of the invasion of Iwo Jima that had taken place almost five months earlier, hooted and hollered as they raced their wheelchairs down the steep hill leading from the hospital to the guard shack.
He was easy on them when they tried smuggling booze into the marine barracks. They hid the bottles in the hollow of their fake legs, and McCoy could hear them clunking around insidestep, shuffle, clunk-stepas they approached.
"For crissakes," he told them, "why don't you wrap thosethings in towels? Your sergeant catches you, you'll be court-martialed!" They smiled, and he let them pass.
McCoy marveled at how these boys had accepted the awful things that had happened to them in war; he wondered how he would react in a similar situation. He hoped he wouldn't have to find out.
But McCoy had faith in his ship. The Indy was a vessel on which he was proud to servethe honored flagship of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which was under the command of Admiral Raymond Spruance. The Indy was a heavy cruiser, a fast thoroughbred of the sea, whose job it was to run and gun enemy emplacements on land and blow enemy planes from the sky. She was a floating city, with her own water plant, laundry, tailor, butcher, bakery, dentist's office, photo lab, and enough weaponry to lay siege to downtown San Francisco.
The first time Private McCoy rounded the corner at the Mare Island navy yard and saw the Indy, he was awestruck. God, he thought, now that's a ship!
She towered 133 feet from her waterline to the tip of her radar antennae, called "bedsprings" because of their appearance, and she cast an alluring silhouette. McCoy couldn't help thinking that if she were a womanand sailors have traditionally thought of their ships as womenshe'd be wearing a gray dress cut low in the back and looking coyly over a cocked shoulder. But there was a saying about ships like the Indy: "She wears paint, but she carries powder"meaning gunpowder. Translation: she was not a lady to be trifled with.
Commissioned in 1932, she had been chosen by Roosevelt as his ship of state. He liked to stand at the stern on her wide fantail, above the massive, churning propellers, while smoking a cigar and watching the New York skyline drift by during a ceremonial review of America's naval fleet. From her deck, he also toured South America, docking in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, on a prewar "good neighbor" tour. (During the trip, Roosevelt dined on fresh venisonand watched Laurel and Hardy's Our Relations on a movie screen painted on one of the ship's bulkheads especially for the occasion.) The Indy trained at war exercises off the coast of Chile and became the flagship of the navy's scouting fleet. With her hull painted bone-white, her afterdecks spanned by sparkling awnings, an aura of luck and privilege had enveloped the ship.
McCoy loved to boast that at 610 feet long, she was the size of nearly two football fields, but she was smaller and nimbler than battleships, like the USS South Dakota, whose job it was to bomb enemy inshore installations with their gargantuan 16-inch guns. The Indy was bigger and better armed than destroyers, which hunted submarines with underwater sonar gear and provided at-sea security for ships like the Indianapolis. In battle formation, a cruiser flanked the more ponderous aircraft carriers and battleships and directed anti-aircraft fire at enemy planes, while the flotilla itself was prowled by vigilant destroyer escorts. Ever since the seventeenth century, navies had relied on ships that could strike quickly, raid enemy lines, draw fire, and then muster the speed to sail away before being sunk, leaving the heavy work of shore destruction to battleships. At her top speed of 32.75 knots, few ships, enemy or friendly, could keep up with the USS Indianapolis.
Yet, as McCoy understood, what a cruiser gives up for its astonishing speed is armor: the Indy was protected midships with only three to four inches of steel (battleships carried an average of thirteen inches), while her decks were laid with two inches. In her day, she had been the queen of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's naval fleet. But on this morning in July, she was considered old, past her prime. Newer cruisers were not as beautiful, but they were bigger, faster, and better armored.
Around 2 P.M., the PA crackled to life, calling all hands to their stations.
Dr. Haynes, standing on the forecastle deck, located on the bow, could see planes circling overhead in tight patterns, keeping careful watch. The dock was lined with some ten marines carrying automatic weapons. Whatever was coming on board, Haynes figured it was hot property. The tall physician waited, pensively smoking his cigar.
Shortly, two army trucks thundered to a stop on the wharf, and a detachment of armed marines silently stepped down. Haynes watched as the canvas flaps on the rear of the trucks were parted. Two large items emerged: the first was an enormous wooden crate, measuring some five feet high, five feet wide, and fifteen feet long. Then came a metal canister, painted black, about knee-high and eighteen inches wide. Two marines struggled to lift it down from the truck.
A line from a crane aboard the Indy snaked down above the crate, which was secured with straps. Haynes's eyes followed the crate as it was lifted skyward and set securely in the port hangar, a fifty-square-foot-wide area normally used for observation planes. There the crate was lashed down.
Following a marine guard, the bearers of the ominous-looking receptacle struggled up the gangway. The heavy canister hung between them on a metal pole.1 They marched with it to the flag lieutenant's cabin located in a part of the ship near the bow called officer's country, a placestrictly off-limits to enlisted men. (The flag lieutenant, a member of Admiral Spruance's staff, was absent from the ship.) Accompanying them were two army officers, Major Robert Furman and Captain James Nolan, who announced themselves as artillery officers. Haynes didn't recognize them. He thought they were nervous-looking menNolan, in particular.
A few minutes later, Captain Nolan reported to Captain McVay on the bridge. He explained that with the aid of the ship's welder, they had fastened the canister to the deck of the flag lieutenant's cabin, and that it had been padlocked. Nolan would hold the key throughout the ship's journey.
McVay thought for a moment and said, "I didn't think we were going to use biological warfare in this war." He was clearly fishing for further information.
Captain Nolan left the bridge without explanation.
Looking down from the bridge, about forty-five feet above the main deck, Captain McVay surveyed the ship's state of disarray. A noontime farewell luncheon held on board with his officers and their wives had gone off hurriedly but without a hitch; now, with the cargo safely loaded, he could at last turn his attention to more pressing concerns, such as his ship's seaworthiness.
What the captain didn't know was that another cruiser, the USS Pensacola, which had been moored next to the Indianapolis at Mare Island's Pier 22S, had originally been chosen to set sail in their stead. But a week earlier, after an overhaul and refitting, she had failed her sea trials when her engines had quit in especially rough seas. Immediately, a search had begun for a replacement ship. And the spotlight had fallen on the Indy.
Before the surprise orders were given, it had been assumedthat she would spend at least another six weeks of repair in the yard, followed by two weeks of sea trials to complete necessary shakedowns. Much still remained to be tested, such as the calibration of her radar range finders, firing drills for her main battery of 8-inch guns, automatic weapons tracking drills, intraship flag drills, voice radio drills, coding board drills, and anti-aircraft tracking drills. Belowdecks, yard welders were still at work mending the ship's steel frames.
Even under McVay's previous sailing orders, which had him leaving San Francisco in another two months, the repairs had been running behind schedule. And the end results of some of these repairs were uncertain.
One of the ship's major problems, leading to the removal of one of the plane-launching catapults, had been solved, although never explained. After the catapult's removal, however, the ship had developed a curious, albeit slight, three-degree list, or tilt, toward its lighter side. (If she was going to list, it should have been in the direction of the now heavier side.) The condition had been corrected by shifting freight and by the added weight of the oncoming fuel. McVay was also worried about the ship's water condensers, supposedly repaired since they were damaged in the kamikaze attack; they were malfunctioning again. The condensers were used to make steam to run the Indy's four turbine engines. Because they weren't working to capacity, Captain McVay had posted an alert on board that all potable water had to be reserved for the engines. The crew was not allowed one drink from the scuttlebutts, or drinking fountains, dotted around the ship. But still, in the midst of all the activity on board, it was possible no one was paying attention to the alert.
Of his crew, more than 250 of the 1,196 men were new to the ship, some fresh from boot camp and training school. How would these green hands perform in the open sea? Or battle? Of McVay's eighty officers, thirty-five were alsonewat least one had graduated just weeks earlier from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. The navy had a nickname for the fresh Officer Candidate School graduates: they were called "ninety-day wonders." The captain estimated that 25 percent of his crew was inexperienced, and he knew it would be a challenge to sharpen them into naval fighters before joining the invasion's task force.
As the afternoon wore on, McVay could see nothing but problems. Until yesterday, the ship hadn't even been loaded with her complement of required life vests; then a double order arrivednearly 2,500 vests. With available storage space tight, where was he supposed to stow all the extras? And to make matters worse, earlier, before announcing this special mission, naval command had ordered the Indy to taxi nearly 100 extra navy personnel to Pearl Harbor for further assignment; now these men were showing up with seabags in hand, looking for berths. McVay, frustrated by the increasingly crowded conditions aboard ship, worried about his ability to run his new crew through their regular battle drills once at sea. It was a madhouse.
It was going to be a long night.
For the crew, the night ahead was filled with possibility. The sudden order to sail affected the boys in odd ways. Sailor Bob Gause, from Tarpon Springs, Florida, hatched a scheme to sneak off the ship to see his wife one last time. As a quartermaster, he had been so busy on the bridge during the last few days' preparation that he hadn't even had time to tell her the ship was sailing.
Others were bolder in their plans. Sailor Ed Brown had been plotting his escape since morning, when the captain first announced that all liberties were canceled. Brown, from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, felt he had always beenluckyhe never failed to find a way to get around things. He joined the navy in 1944 and left for boot camp an hour after playing his last high school basketball game. He and his father had had to hurry to make it to the train station to catch the troop train passing through; there wouldn't be another for a week.
As the train pulled away, his father ran alongside shouting, "Now, son, I gotta tell you about the birds and bees! I forgot to tell you about the birds and bees!"
And his dad cupped his hands and said, "You're gonna meet some women, and the only thing they want is your money!"
Brown shrugged, confused. "Okay, Dad. Bye. Tell Mom I love her."
He sat down, wondering, "What the hell's he talking about? I don't even have any money."
Four months later, he was aboard the Indianapolis, and he thought he understood what his father had meant about the birds and bees. While the Indy was in overhaul these past two months, he had met a girl and they had made plans to go dancing tonight at the Club Lido.
Down in his compartment, four decks below the bridge where McVay stood fretting about the problems of the ship, Brown now stripped and dressed in his navy bluesblue woolen pants and a jumper, the standard uniform for a sailor on libertyand then over these he pulled on his dungarees and denim work shirt.
Racing up the ladder topside, Brown grabbed a garbage can from the hangar deck and walked down the gangway, trying to appear at ease under his uncomfortable bundle of clothing. His ruse worked; to anyone watching, he looked like a sailor on work detail dumping the ship's trash.
Once he was on the wharf, he cut behind a warehouse building and tore off his dungarees and shirt and stuffed them in the trash can, covering them with newspaper. Andthen he sprinted through the yard's main gate and stuck out his thumb for a ride into San Francisco. He was free!
But things did not come off quite as he expected.
MONDAY, JULY 16, 1945
At around 5 A.M. Monday morning, the shrill blast of the boatswain's pipe came over the ship's PA. Rolling over and scratching, naked or dressed in skivvies, the boys whose turn it was to go on duty grumpily set to getting the ship ready to sail.
Lines were sprung from the bow and stern, and navy tugs prepared to back out of the harbor with the Indy in tow. On the wharf, a lone figure came running, his hand waving wildly; it was Ed Brown.
"What the hell are you doing off the ship!" yelled an officer standing at the top of the gangway. The tugs had now started the lean against the hawsersthe Indy was pulling away.
The officer was so flustered by the sight of Brown pulling his sailor suit from a trash can that he could barely speak. He watched in astonishment as Brown stuffed his clothes under his arm and sprinted up the gangway, judged the six feet between him and the departing ship, and jumped. In another five seconds, he would have missed it altogether.
As the security detail of planes appeared in the pale blue sky, the Indy moved out into the harbor. Around them, navy patrol boats prowled in crossing patterns, keeping a respectful distance. But then, at 6:30 A.M., the Indy did something unexpected. She halted, as if waitingbut for what, it wasn't exactly clear.
One thousand miles to the east, on an expanse of scrubby desert in New Mexico, a tremendous flash filled the morning sky. It was an explosion of improbable magnitude, vaporizing the 100-foot tower from which it emanated. The searing blast turned the desert sand beneath it into glass. In high school textbooks, this moment would come to be known as the Trinity test; it was the first explosion of a nuclear device in the history of the world.
The men aboard the Indianapolis knew nothing of this explosion. But shortly after the ship paused, a marine delivered a message by motor launch. It was presented to Dr. Haynes, who, as a senior medical officer of Admiral Spruance's flagship staff, was authorized to open it.
Haynes quickly perused the message, then took it to the captain on the bridge. It read: INDIANAPOLIS UNDER ORDERS OF COMMANDER IN CHIEF AND MUST NOT BE DIVERTED FROM ITS MISSION FOR ANY REASON.
Essentially, President Harry S. Truman was ordering the ship ahead at any cost.
Captain McVay appeared neither pleased nor anxious. He gathered his officers and informed them, "Gentlemen, our mission is secret. I cannot tell you the mission, but every hour we save will shorten the war by that much." He also told them that in the event of a sinking, the black canister, which had been loaded on board with such care the previous afternoon, was to be placed in its own raft and set adrift. Only after doing this were the men on board to tend to their own safety.
McVay rang the engine room. Soon the propellers caught the waterthe whole ship began to quake. It was like the movement of a freight train, imperceptible at first, but communicating power, the promise of speed.
Lashed to the port hangar deck, the large, wooden box rode easily as the Indy's nose swung for the Golden Gate Bridge. The box was made of plywood and one-by-fours and resembled a heavily constructed packing crate; the screws were all countersunk and sealed carefully with red wax to prevent tampering. An area of thirty feet by thirty feet was cordoned off around it with red tape.
In the middle of the space, Private McCoy stood guard. He had orders to consider the watch "live ammunition duty," which meant that he was to keep one round in the chamber of his .45 at all times. He was to use the weapon if necessary. It seemed sillywho was he going to shoot? He knew all these guys. He watched as the crew pressed to the tape, peering in, guessing out loud about the crate's contents. They imagined it was everything from Rita Hayworth's underwear to gold bullion.
Behind McCoy, inside the wooden crate, sat the integral components of the atom bomb known as "Little Boy." In the canister welded to the flag lieutenant's cabin was the carefully packed uranium-235, totaling half the fissible amount available in the United States at the time, its value estimated at $300 million. In twenty-one days, the bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima.
The contents of the crate were known to only a handful of people: President Truman and Winston Churchill; Robert Oppenheimer and his closest colleagues at the Manhattan Project; and Captain James Nolan and Major Robert Furman, who were now aboard the Indy. In reality, Nolan was a radiologist and Furman an engineer engaged in top-secret weapons intelligence.
For Nolan and Furman, the past three days had been an intense ordeal as they moved the bombwhat Oppenheimer and others bemusedly called "the gadget"by a secret, plain-clothes convoy from Los Alamos, New Mexico, to Kirtland Army Air Force base in Albuquerque, where theblack canister was given its own parachute and set aboard a transport plane on a seat between Nolan and Furman. After landing at San Francisco's Hamilton Field, each stoplight and intersection along the route to Hunters Point had been timed and mapped in advance to ensure a safe, predictable arrival. Nolan and Furman had slept near the gadget with loaded .45s in a safe house at Hunters Point, their fake artillery uniforms laid out and ready for the dawn departure.
Now, as the Indy began steaming for the open ocean, Truman was with Churchill in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. He was about to deliver the Potsdam Declaration to Japan: surrender, or be annihilated. Earlier, the USS Indianapolis had paused after leaving the wharf to await the test results of this instrument of annihilation; if it had failed, she would have been ordered back to the pier.
But the Trinity test had succeeded, and, by 8:30 A.M. on July 16, 1945, Captain Charles Butler McVay had cleared the San Francisco harbor and was sailing to war.
Copyright © 2001 by Reed City Productions, LLC.