When some 80 aging Navy vets meet in Indianapolis on Aug. 10, the Navy's hatchet job on the USS Iowa investigation will hover over them like a dark shadow. These men from another generation know what it is like to be vilified by Navy investigators.
The Navy has admitted that it probably goofed in assuming that a lovesick sailor blew up himself and 46 shipmates by exploding the Iowa gun turret in April 1989. Yet for 45 years, the Navy has refused to be as candid with the men of the USS Indianapolis.
In 1945, the Indianapolis, at sea after unloading the main parts of the Hiroshima atomic bomb on a Pacific island, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. In all, 880 men died, making it the Navy's worst ocean disaster.
The survivors feel their skipper, Capt. Charles McVay III, was used as a scapegoat for the tragedy, just as the Navy sought to use the Iowa's hapless gunner's mate, Clayton Hartwig. More than 700 Navy ships were sunk in World War II alone, but McVay was the only captain ever court-martialed for the loss of his ship in battle.
The Indianpolis survivors and McVay's family are working anew to clear McVay, bolstered by an investigative book to be published next month.
Journalist Dan Kurzman, author of "Fatal Voyage," told us that McVay was railroaded by the Navy to quiet the political clamor over the deaths. Kurzman's list of outrages in the McVay case reads like a banana republic show trial:
A document buried in an obscure file admits that the charge on which McVay was convicted probably had nothing to do with the sinking of the ship. One Navy memo characterizes the charge as "super-technical."
That charge, failure to zigzag in potentially dangerous waters, was of dubious merit. McVay's orders left the zigzagging up to him.
The Navy's information about Japanese sub sightings in the area, which may have alerted McVay to be more cautious, was kept under wraps for "security" reasons.
The submarine data was suppressed by an officer who worked for Vice Adm. George Murray. Incredibly, Murray sat on the board that recommended McVay be tried. Murray should have been on the witness stand, not in the judgment seat.
McVay's crew clung to lifeboats and debris in the shark-infested waters for five days. By the time they were rescued, only 316 were alive. Yet no high-level Navy officer was ever disciplined for failure to respond immediately when the Indianpolis disappeared.
Information that might have cleared McVay was found, but it was secretly edited out of public documents. To this day, the Navy has refused to release the information.
It doesn't matter to McVay anymore. He shot himself through the head with his Navy pistol on the front lawn of his house in Litchfield, Conn., in 1968.
But justice still matters to the Indianapolis survivors. They had hoped that before their reunion in August, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) would appeal the case to the White House after agreeing to look into it for them. But Lugar's office told us that a great deal of study is still needed in what it called the highly complicated case.