Volume 51 | Number 3 | July–September 2023

Inglés Español

Saved by a Substitute
Reprint of Saved by a Substitute, 1995

By Dr. O. Talmadge Spence

Many heart-rending stories have arisen from the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis on its fatal voyage after leaving the little island of Tinian near Guam in the South Pacific. It was an overcast night, July 30, 1945, when a Japanese submarine took advantage of a momentary break in the clouds to locate and torpedo the Indianapolis. The ship was on its way to the Philippines when the fatal blow was struck. This was the last U.S. Naval vessel to be lost in World War II. Of the 1,198 crew members, including 39 marines, 317, including 9 marines, survived 5 days in shark-infested waters before finally being rescued; only 129 of the crew, as of August 1, 1995, are alive.

The Indianapolis was a magnificent ship. She was 610 feet 3 inches in length and 66 feet 1 inch at the widest point. Her design flank speed was 32 knots. Total horsepower was rated at 107,000, delivered through four screws. Her weaponry abounded: nine 8-inch guns placed in three turrets, two fore and one aft. She also had four 5-inch guns, twenty-four 40mm intermediate range guns, and thirty-two 22mm Oerlikon guns.

Following final fitting out, the Indianapolis was accepted by the Navy and commissioned November 15, 1932, from the Philadelphia Navy Yard. She is “still at sea,” and especially so since July 30, 1945.

There remains the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization, with one of the thirty-nine crew survivors, Giles McCoy, as chairman. He is listed as a private first class of the Marines on the crew roster of the last voyage. Since 1960, as a founding member, he has worked with great energy for the true story to be memorialized, as well as for the restoration of the name and character of the ship’s skipper, Captain Charles B. McVay III, from the indignity of his trial and dishonorable discharge, having been blamed for the tragedy. In reality, it is firmly believed by survivors of the crew that the skipper became a scapegoat for the failures of officers above him. Captain McVay took his own life later in the aftermath of his naval disgrace. We rejoice to see that, finally, a proper memorial will be erected in Indianapolis, Indiana, located on the new Indianapolis Water Canal, Senate Avenue at Walnut Street, in the downtown area.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

I was in the United States Navy towards the end of the War and was rostered as a standby alternate for a member of the crew assigned to the USS Indianapolis. I was stationed at Mare Island, Vallejo, California, having completed two naval schools for electrician’s mate in St. Louis and New York, and had been placed in what was called the “bull pen,” a three-day waiting period to board the ship. The day before, I had checked up on my Navy friend who was listed to board, but he was in sickbay with a fever of 104°F. As an alternate, I proceeded to ready myself because the pharmacist mate informed me, “This crew member will not leave sick-bay tomorrow or this week for any ship going anywhere.” The next day roster, however, brought me within two hours of boarding the Indianapolis (1600; 4:00 pm), as my sick mate came in packed, ready to board in my place, seeming to be completely well and able. I had been quickly saved by a substitute. That day, June 29, 1945, was my nineteenth birthday, and I was stayed by the providence of God from leaving on that final voyage. On that day, 30 new officers and 250 newly enlisted men, many inexperienced (of which I would have been a “green” one too), boarded the ship. The ship had completed only a few days of “sea trials,” after spending about three months in port for repairs from its damage at Okinawa. Captain McVay received orders on July 12 and July 16 to move the ship to Hunter’s Point Navy Yard in San Francisco, where the secret cargo would be carried aboard (a cargo which was the large part of the atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan to end the war).

And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and long-suffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? (Romans 2:3, 4).

While the Indianapolis was in Mare Island dry-dock, the War Department chose the ship to transport “The Bomb” even before they were certain it would work. But the Manhattan Project, based at Los Alamos, New Mexico, proved a success for the bomb test in the very early hours of July 16, 1945. In the early morning hours of that very same day, shrouded in security and secrecy, atom bomb components were loaded aboard the Indianapolis.

But the bomb was safely conducted about 100 miles north of Guam to Tinian Island by the Indianapolis and arrived July 26. Tinian was one of several islands from which B-29 bombing raids were conducted. Tinian Island is along the Mariana Trench, nearly 5,300 nautical miles from California. A B-29, the Enola Gay, would carry “The Bomb” by air to Hiroshima and, within a few days, another bomb to Nagasaki as well. The first bombing was August 6, 1945, when a 6,000- pound payload was delivered by the Enola Gay from an altitude of 30,800 feet above Hiroshima and at 1,980 feet detonated over the city, to its destruction.

Captain McVay was informed only that his precious cargo was “a secret weapon that could end the war swiftly.” But none of the sailors could have guessed that the crate which was loaded with the detonating mechanism of a bomb that could blow up an entire city and more had boarded their ship. The canisters contained the fuel for the bomb, a subcritical quantity of uranium 235, about half the amount available in the United States, with the other half being sent to Tinian by air. At 8:00 am, the Indianapolis cast off and glided through the Golden Gate Bridge, July 17, 1945. The ship made an almost record-breaking voyage, at 29 knots per hour, left its precious cargo, headed toward Leyte in the Philippines and the last leg of its fatal journey after a brief stop at Guam, and then proceeded in the Mariana Trench.

As a petty officer at that time in the field of electronics, I had been reassigned to the USS Yarnall 541 destroyer, and later via a transport to island duty. I was on the island of Guam the day the B-29’s returned, many crippled in the last four or five days leading up to the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.

For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:7, 8).

Now, in my seventh decade of life, and forty years in the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, I do not consider this experience that came to me early in life as something that magnifies me or my ministry. I simply believe that the goodness and mercy of Almighty God kept me from the experience of that fatal voyage so that I might become a born again, Bible-believing minister.

Discharged from the U.S. Navy in my nineteenth year of age, I was saved by the grace of God when I was twenty years and ten months old at Bob Jones College. I was in my freshman year, under the able ministry of my esteemed friend, Dr. Bob Jones, Jr. He had faithfully preached that morning in Chapel as the Holy Spirit convicted me of my sins.

In these days of increased world crisis, I am confident in the hope and word of the Saviour that His mercy and goodness will endure forever. To God be the glory! Amen!

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time (1 Timothy 2:5, 6).

My dear wife and I were present for the three-day sessions and the final ceremony and unveiling of the large blue-black granite memorial stone with the engraved names of the 1,198 members of the crew. These were the days of July 31, to noon of August 2, 1995. It was the largest meeting in my life with people of deep and genuine emotion who had been involved in a most heart-rending experience. The sessions always had a thousand present; the banquet, three thousand; and the estimate of the final memorial and unveiling was given as ten thousand people.

In one of the Tuesday sessions, each of the 129 remaining survivors was given a blue marbleized plaque with his name inscribed. However, it was emphasized over and over again that the three-day memorial services were to honor the entire crew and Captain Charles B. McVay III, along with the survivors. Not one person was magnified above another. I could not tell the difference between the lowest crew member and the highest officer. Their “fatal voyage” had brought them all to the same position of esteem as a survivor.

In the Tuesday afternoon session, Giles McCoy, a marine attached to the Indianapolis, was honored for a job well-done and presented with a picture by another survivor, Paul McGinnis.

A new board was elected to continue the Survivors Association with reunions set for every two years.

A “Second Watch” had been organized for the memory to be perpetuated through a second-generation of the children and grandchildren for future years.

I believe only one electrician’s mate remains among the survivors of 28 who served the Indianapolis.

But further details and even corrections were brought forward by the various sessions, including captains or crew members from ten ships (water and air) who assisted in the rescue operations at last. This session was filled with passion and compassion, and was one of the most moving sessions of all.

However, some items which were corrected were set forth in the official USS Indianapolis Memorial Dedication booklet of 126 pages. Although I have read three other larger books about the Indianapolis, I had not known these facts before. The following is quoted from pages 33–36:

As the news of the sinking of the Indianapolis spread, the American public became outraged. This was compounded by the ship’s illustrious war record, which had been extremely well publicized by the media of the day, and exploits of the famous Flag Officers who had utilized her as their flagship throughout the Pacific Campaign. Many sons of wealthy and influential, mostly East Coast families, with sons aboard the Indianapolis, began to bring pressure to bear on their congressmen and senators as well as directly on the Navy itself. Someone had “to pay” for this tragedy! These self-same families had earlier “pressured” the same people to get their sons assigned to this very high profile ship (pages 33, 34).

Fleet Admiral Ernest King led the court martial against Captain McVay and made him the scapegoat, believed by Navy scholars since then to have been a mistake.

In 1960 Charles McVay and his wife attended the INDIANAPOLIS Survivors’ Reunion which was held in Indianapolis (this was the first reunion). Typical of the man, was something so minor as his name tag. The name tag for the guest of honor listed his title as Admiral McVay. Stating “He’d never really been an Admiral,” he asked that the tag be changed to read Captain McVay. His crew welcomed the man with open arms and hearts. It was to be the last time they would ever see their beloved captain again.

Tragedy continued to stalk McVay. In retirement he continued to receive what could only be called “hate mail,” and emotionally charged phone calls. His lovely wife contracted cancer and passed away within a few short years of their move home. Eventually, the weight of loneliness and approbriation [sic] took its toll on the man. In the fall of 1968 Charles Butler McVay III, last captain of the USS Indianapolis, stepped out on his front home stoop and took his own life using his navy issue service revolver. The Indianapolis had claimed its final victim (page 36).

Captain McVay was given a dishonorable discharge December 19, 1945, but reputedly had been restored and given the office of Admiral. But his words given in 1960 at the first Survivors Reunion Association make it all questionable indeed.

I look back upon my own modest involvement with the Indianapolis and often contemplate both the puzzle of man and the providence of God. For so many, it was a puzzling tragedy; for others like myself, it was the merciful providence of God.

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).