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An Eyewitness Account of the

The Worst Naval Disaster in U.S. History

Loel Dene Cox, a Comanche, Texas resident, defies easy description. He is a father, grandfather, husband, neighbor, and much more – but more importantly, he’s a survivor.

An affable, genuinely warm person, his demeanor never hints that Cox was not only witness to, but actually survived, the worst Naval disaster in history.

Serving aboard the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser, Cox was just 19-years-old when the ship began the first leg of its final voyage – to deliver the components for the atomic bomb that would subsequently be dropped on Hiroshima.

After delivering their cargo, the ship was directed to proceed to the Philippines. They were advised that no escort was available and so set out alone.   On July 30, 1945, just after 12 a.m., the Indianapolis was torpedoed by the I-58, a Japanese submarine.

For years, Cox, who was also at Okinawa and Iwo Jima, could not discuss the events that unfolded over the next few days. Later, he found it somewhat easier to discuss the events, and did, because he felt it was important to share his story, because we have to learn from history, he said.

According to Cox, sometimes now, it all seems like a bad dream.

“The Indianapolis had been hit by a kamikaze while still in Okinawa,” Cox said. “And it knocked off two propellers. We came back to the United States to be repaired. After that, we were supposed to begin gunnery practice. But instead, they put a big box on board and we headed for Tinian. We didn’t know what was in the box – I even leaned up against it.”

According to Cox, “scuttlebutt”, or gossip, concerning the contents of the box, ran rampant. “My favorite story was that it was a big box of scented toilet paper for General McArthur ,” he laughed.

“Of course, we had no way of knowing how serious it was.”

“After we left the bomb at Tinian, we came back to Guam for supplies,” Cox said. “We were told to join the battleship USS Idaho, in the Philippines. Our ship carried no sonar, we depended on escorts, like destroyers. We asked for an escort, but we were told none were available. The captain was assured that the route was safe. What he wasn’t told, was that one of our ships, the USS Underhill, had been sunk by an enemy sub about five days earlier, on that same route. Zigzagging, to avoid enemy fire, is up to the discretion of the captain – there’s no standing law or rule. If it was really dark, then it wasn’t unusual for the ship to cease zigzagging. After night fell it was so dark, because of clouds, that our captain, Captain Charles McKay III, gave orders to stop zigzagging. But he told the officer of the deck, that if the weather cleared to start again.

“When I went on watch at midnight,” Cox said, “I went to the bridge. The captain had a little cubicle that he slept in up on the bridge. He happened to be sleeping up there that night. When I got up there, it was just as dark as pitch. Then the clouds began to break a little, and you could see some of the moon. Then it would cover back up – so we were not zigzagging at that point. On this night, my assignment was to communicate with the engine room, so I went up to the bridge and took the headphones.

 About five or 10 minutes later there was an explosion. I was blown up into the air about five feet and landed on my stomach. As I started to get to my feet, I looked up and there was water, flames, debris and everything up above me. I started on up and we were rocked by another explosion. Here we are, in the middle of nowhere, by ourselves, and wham! We didn’t know if it was our ammunition that had blown up or what.  We didn’t know for sure it was a torpedo, we didn’t know anything. Well the explosions had knocked the captain out of his bunk and he came up and took charge. I was told to go get the captain a life jacket and so I got one and helped him into it. All power was out. We couldn’t get any lookouts, couldn’t get to the engine room, we couldn’t reach anyone.

He called the Fire Control Officer and had him check on the ship. He came back and said, ‘Captain, we’re sinking.’   By this time, the ship was laying down on her right side at such a degree that you could nearly walk down the smoke stack."

“The captain said to pass the word to abandon ship. I took him at his word. I had heard how a ship when it sinks could suck you down and under. And I heard that a lot of times, that a captain will go down with the ship – and I was with Captain McVay – so when he said abandon ship, I left him.

There was a passageway one deck down and so I had to reach over and grab a hook and then swing out over the main deck and then hit the hull and then the water. It was about 40 feet from where I swung out. I had swallowed a bunch of oil and water and I began to vomit. I began to swim as fast as I could to get away from the ship, I was still concerned about the suction. When I looked back I saw the ship had already laid completely over on her side and then it just went straight down. You could see the propellers still slowly turning and men still jumping off. It took only 12 minutes for the ship to sink, and it was 610 feet long. I ran into this sailor, all by himself, and he was one of my best buddies. He had been flash-burned and somebody had put a lifejacket on him and put him overboard—he only survived and hour or two. I’ve been told there were rafts, but I never saw any. When the moon came out, I found a little group of about 30 men and we stayed together. We knew we’d be safer in a group than alone. When daylight came we were cold and shivering. We’d figured we’d be found pretty quickly, that people would be looking for us – so all that day we had pretty high hopes.” As the day wore on, the sun began to take its toll.

It got so hot on us that the sun was just blistering,” Cox said. “We prayed for darkness. When darkness. When darkness came we got chilled and began to shake. The water was so cold. Then we prayed for the sun. We had oil all over us. Some people say that the oil helped us, and I guess it did, but when that hot sun would beat down on you like that, you nearly fried. It was a terrible ordeal.”

“We saw sharks from day one,” Cox said, “but after a short while they became aggressive.” With their legs dangling in the water, the men were easy targets.

“We’d hear men scream,” Cox said, “and then the water would turn red – they were getting us. A shark got one of my buddies who was just a couple of feet from me – the shark’s tail and the water just covered me up, I was that close. If the sharks took a leg, or just bit them, then sometimes they would float back up – some did and some didn’t. Of course, they were all dead. We’d take their lifejackets and their dog tags.”

After a couple of days with no food or water, the men began to hallucinate. Several men attempted to drink the saltwater and died. After seeing a man undo his life-preserver and slip beneath the water “to return to the ship for a drink,” Cox tied several hard knots in his own life-preserver.

“Men also started saying they knew where there was an island,” Cox said, “and they’d swim off. After a little while you really didn’t know whether they were off or whether you were off, and there might really be an island, but I decided to stay put.” According to Cox, none of these men were seen again.

“Every day we’d see airplanes, way up, and we’d kick and scream and yell – but nobody saw us.”

Finally, after five nights and four days, a pilot saw them. Cox described it as the happiest day of his life.

“I heard an airplane,” Cox said, “and I looked up and there was a PBY seaplane, just above the horizon. We all started screaming and kicking and splashing, but he just kept on going. We just knew then that it was all over. There probably would not be another plane get closer to us than that. In a little while, maybe 30 minutes or an hour, we heard the motor again. It was coming from the other direction. It looked like the same plane but it was a little closer to us. We started yelling and kicking again. We thought he was on patrol and he didn’t see us – that was it, that would be our last chance. Then, just before dark we heard it again – and this time it was closer. Just then it turned and flew right over us. There was a guy in the door of the plane, waving at us, and we realized that we’d been found. The hair on my head stood straight up – I was so happy.”

The men still faced hours in the water, and some died before they could be rescued. “Later that night there was this bright light shining – it was like a light heaven,” Cox said. “It was a big flood light shining down on the water. One of the rescue vessels had turned on their flood lights to give us hope.”

Cox apparently lost consciousness for a while. “The next thing I remember was a bright light shining in my face,” he said, “and a strong arm pulling me into a little boat and taking me to the USS Bassett. I got on the deck, took two steps and fell on my face. Someone picked me up and carried me to a bunk – a canvas covered bunk. They laid me face down, with my hands under me, and I fell asleep. I don’t know how long it was before I woke up, but when I did, I realized that my hands were stuck to the canvas. When I rolled over, it nearly pulled the hide off. Two sailors from the Bassett took me and washed me down and tried to get the oil off me. I had sores all over me, they looked like burns, and the hide was just coming off. When I got to the hospital they took tweezers and took strips of skin off my shoulders from where my lifejacket had been. I lost all my body hair and I lost my fingernails and toenails. I had basically been pickled in salt water.”

 While still in the hospital, the men received word of the atomic bomb.

“They brought us a newsletter,” Cox said, and was told, ‘this is what you men were carrying and it’s been dropped by the Enola Gay.’ That was the first time we knew what we’d been carrying. "That was when they gave us our Purple Hearts.” The men also learned that of the original 1,197 men on the Indianapolis, only 317 had survived. “Up until a couple of years ago, all the reports said 316,” Cox said, “but there were actually 317.”

Not only did the Indianapolis survivors have their injuries and scars (physical and emotional) to deal with, but they discovered that their captain was being blamed. Cox was called to Washington to testify.

“They court-martialed our Captain,” Cox said.  “They said he didn’t give proper “abandon ship” orders – but I was with him when he did – I was standing right beside him, the charges were not true. But they did find him guilty of not ‘zigzagging.” They even humiliated him by bringing the commander of the Japanese submarine, Mochitsura Hashimoto, over to testify at his court-martial.”

Ironically, that testimony supported Captain McVay.

“Hashimoto said it would not have made any difference if the captain had been zigzagging or not,” Cox explained, “that he would have gotten us anyway. Not long before Hashimoto died, he wrote a letter to Congress asking that Captain McVay be exonerated, saying that he (the Japanese commander) believed that our captain was not at fault. “

According to Cox, the survivors of the Indianapolis had been saying the same thing for years – to no avail. Then, several years ago, a young boy became so involved in his school history project about the Indianapolis that he was able, literally, to rewrite history.

“There was an 11-year-old boy in Florida, Hunter Scott,” Cox explained, “and one day he was watching “Jaws” on television with his daddy. In the movie, the captain of the ship is explaining why he hates sharks so much – because he was aboard the USS Indianapolis. Hunter asked his dad if that was a true story , had there really been an Indianapolis?”

Hunter and his dad immediately began researching the subject. After discovering that it was indeed a real ship, Hunter decided to use his research for a history paper at school.

“He put an ad in the paper asking anyone with knowledge of the Indianapolis to please contact him,” Cox said, “and he found one of the survivors, Maurice Bell. He interviewed Maurice and wrote about it.”

After countless hours of research and survivor interviews, Hunter was appalled that Captain McVay had been court-martialed.

“He told his daddy that it just wasn’t right, that there was nothing to justify it,” Cox said, “which is what we’d all been saying for 50 years.   Captain McVay had been so humiliated – in fact, he quit the Navy. Even though the U.S. lost 700 ships during World War II, he was the only captain who was court-martialed. I honestly feel he was a scapegoat. Even years later, he received hate mail from the families of men who were killed when the Indianapolis sank. They would write things such as, ‘if it hadn’t been for you, our son would be with us this Christmas.’ He went through so much.”

Eventually, it became too much for McVay to bear. “In 1968 he killed himself,” Cox said.
According to Cox, the more young Hunter talked about the injustice, the more people began to take notice and become involved.

“Hunter went on the Letterman show,” Cox said, “and he was on 20/20. He made our reunions, and in fact, we made him an honorary survivor. He and his Congressman, along with the survivor’s help, fixed a bill to go before Congress to exonerate our captain. People from all over wrote their congressmen and even went to Washington. I went to see some of the Senators. Still nothing was being done and the bill we presented died in both houses. We submitted another. It finally happened in 1999. The president signed a bill that both houses passed, exonerating Captain McVay and saying he should not have been tried and was not at fault. But the Navy is still fighting it – and what infuriates us, the survivors, is that the whole thing casts a shadow, not just on the captain, but on the whole ship. Hunter, who is now a young man, believes, as we do, that Captain McVay should receive a Presidential pardon."

The renewed interest in the Indianapolis led to television appearances for several of the survivors and they welcomed the chance to share their stories – and their faith in their captain. One episode, on ABC’s 20/20, won an Emmy award.

“And the Discovery Channel sent a man, Kurt Newport, to the Pacific Ocean to lead an expedition to find the Indianapolis,” Cox said. “They wanted to have some of the survivors there. They took me and three other survivors over to Guam. One of the things we survivors wanted to do, if the ship was located, was to lay a wreath, so to speak, at the location. It was really a granite marker with a U.S. flag on it. Finally, everyone thought we’d located the ship. When they got down there, it was just a big rock, a huge rock, two miles down. It looked as big as a ship We had all been so caught up in the search, even the crew, the soundmen, the photographers, everyone. We were all so disappointed. We did go ahead with the ceremony and dropped the marker for our shipmates that were still down there.”

The survivors have a reunion every other year in Indianapolis, Indiana. They have also erected a beautiful monument to the USS Indianapolis in that city.   At the monument dedication ceremony, one speaker asked that everyone consider for a moment what the world would have been like if the 1,197 men of the Indianapolis had not succeeded in their final mission and had not delivered the atomic bomb. It was a staggering, sobering thought.

NOTE: I originally wrote this story in January of 2000. In 2003, I had a chance to visit with Mr. Cox again, at a Memorial Day ceremony, and he told me that the Navy finally did exonerate the ship’s captain, Captain Charles McVay. “It took a long time,” Cox said, “but it is finally done.”

Another thing that was a “long time” coming was the Unit Citations the Navy issued to the men of the Indianapolis – more than half a century after the war ended.

Mr. Cox spends a good portion of his time speaking to children at schools near his hometown of Comanche , Texas. He and his wife, Sara Lou, have one son, and one grandson.

—— by Laura Kestner