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a large ship caught in a wave with the text "The Lost Ship"
Illustration by Randy Pollak
The Lost Ship

A World War II ship destroyed at sea, a captain blamed for the tragedy, and a kid’s quest to change history  

By Kristin Lewis
From the Issue

Learning Objective: Students will read and identify main ideas and supporting details in an article about a ship that was torpedoed during World War II and the boy who cleared its captain’s name more than 50 years later. They will explain how the boy showed empathy and perseverance in his quest. 

Lexile: 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: V
DRA Level: 50
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Main Idea and Supporting Details

In this story, a boy named Hunter works tirelessly to right a wrong. As you read, look for details about what happened and what Hunter did.

On July 29, 1945, the USS Indianapolis sailed through the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. The ship was hundreds of miles from land, wrapped in the darkness of night—just a whisper of a shadow on an endless sea.

The air was blistering hot, and some crewmen had brought their bedding above deck to sleep under the stars. Despite the heat, the mood was hopeful. For nearly six years, more than 30 countries had been fighting in bloody battles across Europe and the Pacific. But the global conflict, known as World War II, was coming to an end. The war in Europe had ended with Germany’s defeat. It seemed only a matter of time before Japan, Germany’s ally, was defeated too. Then everyone could go home.

But the Indianapolis would never go home.

On July 29, 1945, the USS Indianapolis sailed through the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. The ship was hundreds of miles from land. It was wrapped in the darkness of night—just a whisper of a shadow on an endless sea.

The air was uncomfortably hot. Some crewmen had brought their bedding up to sleep under the stars. Still, the mood was hopeful. For nearly six years, more than 30 countries had been fighting in bloody battles. These fights stretched across Europe and the Pacific. But this conflict, known as World War II, was coming to an end. The war in Europe had ended with Germany’s loss. Japan, a country on Germany’s side, would likely be defeated soon too. Then everyone could go home.

But the Indianapolis would never go home.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Just before 11 p.m., Captain Charles McVay III headed to his cabin to get some sleep. McVay was proud to be the leader of the Indianapolis, a jewel of the American Navy. About the length of two football fields, the ship was lightning fast. Throughout the war, the Indianapolis had carried supplies, weapons, planes, and troops across the Pacific Ocean. It had survived many battles. In fact, the Indianapolis had just completed a mission and was now sailing away from the fighting.

And as far as Captain McVay knew, the ship’s route was safe.

“Things are very quiet,” one officer had told him before they set sail. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

This, it would turn out, was not correct.

As the crew went about their work, got some rest, or wrote letters home, a Japanese submarine spotted the Indianapolis—and fired. Two torpedoes shot through the water. They pierced the side of the Indianapolis. Fires broke out. Water gushed into the ship.

The force of the blasts knocked McVay out of bed. For the next eight minutes, he and the crew focused on examining the damage and sending a distress message. When it became clear the ship was doomed, McVay gave the order.

“Abandon ship.”

It took just 12 minutes for the ship to sink. Of the 1,200 men on board, nearly 900 made it into the water alive—including the captain.

For the next five days, the survivors drifted in the ocean. Twelve-foot waves tossed them around like rag dolls. Hunger clawed at their stomachs. Their throats were dry with thirst. Some began guzzling seawater in desperation, only to throw it up. Meanwhile, packs of hungry sharks circled the men, adding to their terror.

When help finally arrived, only 316 survivors remained.

Just before 11 p.m., Captain Charles
McVay III headed to his cabin to get some sleep. McVay was proud to be the leader of the Indianapolis. This ship was a jewel of the American Navy. It was about the length of two football fields and lightning fast. During the war, the Indianapolis had carried supplies, weapons, planes, and troops across the Pacific Ocean. It had survived many battles. In fact, the Indianapolis had just completed a mission. It was now sailing away from the fighting.

And as far as McVay knew, the ship’s route was safe.

“Things are very quiet,” one officer had told him before they started the trip. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

This was not correct.

As the crew went about their work, a Japanese submarine spotted the Indianapolis. It fired. Two torpedoes shot through the water. They went through the side of the Indianapolis. Fires broke out. Water gushed into the ship.

The blasts were so strong they knocked McVay out of bed. For the next eight minutes, he and the crew looked over the damage and sent a distress message. When it was clear the ship was doomed, McVay gave the order:

“Abandon ship.”

It took just 12 minutes for the ship to sink. There had been 1,200 men on board. Nearly 900 made it into the water alive—including the captain.

For the next five days, the survivors floated in the ocean. Twelve-foot waves tossed them around like rag dolls. Hunger clawed at their stomachs. Their throats were dry with thirst. Some began gulping seawater then threw it up. Meanwhile, packs of hungry sharks circled
the men.

When help finally arrived, only 316 survivors remained.

Bettmann/Getty Images

The Ship

The Indianapolis was a type of ship called a heavy cruiser. In the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sailed aboard the ship several times. He even hosted a fancy party on its decks, entertaining important leaders from around the world.

The Trial

Twelve days after the rescue, Japan announced it would surrender. Yet as the world celebrated the end of the war, the families of the men lost on the Indianapolis grieved. How could such a terrible thing have happened? Could it have been prevented? Who was to blame?

The Navy came up with an answer: Captain McVay. He was put on trial by the military. During the trial, the Navy accused McVay of putting the ship in danger. They said he should have zigzagged, which means following a crooked path through the water. This, they claimed, would have prevented enemy torpedoes from hitting the Indianapolis.

After a two-week trial, McVay was found guilty. This verdict did nothing to bring back the men who had been lost. But it shattered McVay’s life. He was haunted by the loss of his men and his ship until his death in 1968.

That might have been the end of the story of the Indianapolis. But in fact, it was only the beginning.

Twelve days after the rescue, Japan announced it would surrender. The world celebrated the end of the war. But the families of the men lost on the Indianapolis grieved. How could such a terrible thing have happened? Who was to blame?

The Navy came up with an answer: Captain McVay.

The military put him on trial. They accused him of putting the ship in danger. They said he should have zigzagged. That means the ship should have followed a crooked path through the water. This, they claimed, would have stopped enemy torpedoes from hitting the Indianapolis.

After a two-week trial, McVay was found guilty. This verdict did nothing to bring back the men who had died. But it destroyed McVay’s life. He was haunted by the loss of his men and his ship until his death in 1968.

That might have been the end of the story of the Indianapolis. But in fact, it was only the beginning.

JIM MCMAHON/MAPMAN®

 

A School Project

In 1996—more than 50 years after the sinking of the Indianapolis and a world away—11-year-old Hunter Scott was watching a movie at his home in Florida. The movie was called Jaws.

Hunter was riveted by the story of a ferocious great white shark terrorizing a town. But it wasn’t the shark that really caught his attention. It was a three-minute speech by one of the characters about a ship Hunter had never heard of: the Indianapolis.

Hunter asked his dad if the story of the Indianapolis was true. His dad said it was.

Hunter decided to make the ship the topic of his sixth-grade history fair project. Like a detective working a case, Hunter set out on a search for information. He scoured the library and put an ad in the local Navy newspaper. Eventually, he connected with an Indianapolis survivor named Maurice Glenn Bell.

In 1996—more than 50 years after the Indianapolis sank—11-year-old Hunter Scott was watching a movie called Jaws at his home in Florida.

Hunter was riveted by the story of a great white shark terrifying a town. But what really caught his attention? A three-minute speech by one of the characters. It was about the Indianapolis.

Hunter asked his dad if the story was true. His dad said it was.

Hunter decided to make the ship the topic of his sixth-grade history fair project. Like a detective working on a case, Hunter searched for information. He read everything he could in the library. He put an ad in the local Navy newspaper. Soon, he connected with an Indianapolis survivor named Maurice Glenn Bell.

US Coast Guard/Getty Images

The War

World War II (1939-1945) was fought in two main areas—Europe and the Pacific. In the Pacific, the U.S. battled Japan for control of the islands that stretched from Hawaii to Japan. In Europe, the U.S. fought mainly against Germany, which controlled most of the continent. An estimated 80 million men, women, and children around the world died because of the war.

A Kid's Mission

Hunter traveled to Mobile, Alabama, to interview Bell in his home. During their conversation, Bell told Hunter about his final minutes aboard the Indianapolis. He also gave Hunter a list of 154 survivors who were still alive, and Hunter began writing to them.

The response was beyond anything Hunter could have imagined. The survivors, most of them in their 70s and 80s, sent him photos and letters. They wrote about friends they’d lost. They described the long days and nights wondering if rescue would ever come. Some spoke for the first time in decades about what they’d gone through.

But as the stories poured in, a larger story began to take shape. The survivors described McVay as a good leader, a man of honor, someone they respected. They said he had been unfairly blamed for what happened on that tragic night in 1945.

With their words echoing in his ears, Hunter realized that his project would be about a lot more than winning the history fair. His project would be a quest to bring back the respect that McVay deserved. To change history.

Hunter traveled to Mobile, Alabama, to interview Bell in his home. Bell told Hunter about his final minutes aboard the Indianapolis. He also gave Hunter a list of 154 survivors who were still alive. Hunter began writing to them.

The response amazed Hunter. The survivors, who were mostly in their 70s and 80s, sent him photos and letters. They wrote about friends they’d lost. Some spoke for the first time in decades about what they’d gone through.

But as the stories poured in, a larger story began to form. The survivors said McVay was a good leader. They respected him. They said he had been unfairly blamed for the terrible events of 1945.

Hunter realized that his project would be about a lot more than winning the history fair. His project would aim to bring back the respect that McVay deserved. To change history.

What Really Happened?

The tragedy of the Indianapolis, as Hunter would learn, could not be blamed on one man. It was the result of a series of mistakes and bad luck.

For example, before Captain McVay set sail, he asked for an escort ship to travel alongside the Indianapolis and help protect it from submarine attacks. But he was told an escort wasn’t necessary. By then, most of the war activity was far from where the Indianapolis would be sailing.

What Captain McVay didn’t know was that at least four enemy submarines were in the area. In fact, only days earlier, one had sunk another U.S. ship. But this crucial information was never given to him. If he had known, Hunter wondered, would McVay have changed the route? Would he have insisted on an escort?

Even worse, no one noticed when the Indianapolis did not arrive at its destination—an island in the Philippines called Leyte. The survivors were discovered by accident, when an airplane pilot spotted fuel spilled from the ship in the water.

Bell and many other survivors told Hunter the trial was unfair to McVay. Key information had been left out. The captain of the Japanese submarine, Mochitsura Hashimoto, was brought in to testify. He later said his words had been poorly translated from Japanese to English. This made McVay seem guilty of causing the disaster.

The claim that McVay should have zigzagged the ship was questionable too. No one was even sure whether zigzagging was effective. You could quite easily zigzag to avoid one torpedo and glide into another. What’s more, as far as McVay knew, the route was pretty safe. He had no reason to zigzag.

“[The trial] was the worst thing the Navy could have done,” Bell told Hunter. “It dishonored the captain and the crew.”

For decades, the survivors had been trying to clear their captain’s name—without success. They were frustrated and angry. During the war, more than 300 captains lost their ships. Only McVay was put on trial.

Could a middle schooler make the world listen at last?

The tragedy of the Indianapolis could not be blamed on one man, Hunter learned. It was the result of a series of mistakes and bad luck.

For example, before McVay started off, he asked for an escort ship. This ship would travel next to the Indianapolis and help protect it from submarine attacks. But he was told an escort wasn’t needed.

What McVay didn’t know was that at least four enemy submarines were in the area. Only days earlier, one of them had sunk another U.S. ship. But this crucial information was never given to him. What if McVay had known? Hunter wondered. Would he have changed the route? Would he have demanded an escort?

Even worse, no one noticed when the Indianapolis did not arrive at its destination—an island in the Philippines called Leyte. The survivors were discovered by accident. An airplane pilot spotted fuel spilled from the ship in the water.

Bell and many other survivors told Hunter the trial was unfair to McVay. Key information had been left out. The captain of the Japanese submarine was brought in to testify. He later said his words had been poorly changed from Japanese to English. This made McVay seem guilty of causing the disaster.

The claim that McVay should have zigzagged the ship was doubtful too. No one really knew whether zigzagging was helpful. What’s more, as far as McVay knew, the route was pretty safe. He had no reason to zigzag.

“[The trial] was the worst thing the Navy could have done,” Bell told Hunter. “It dishonored the captain and the crew.”

For decades, the survivors had been trying to clear their captain’s name—without success. They were frustrated and angry. During the war, more than 300 captains lost their ships. Only McVay was put on trial.

Could a middle schooler make the world listen at last?

Courtesy of Hunter Scott

The Mission

Hunter was key to helping to get Captain McVay’s name cleared. But as he will tell you, many people worked together to make that happen. 

A New Mission

In 1997, Hunter wrote to President Bill Clinton and to the Secretary of the Navy, John Dalton. He asked for McVay to be cleared of all wrongdoing. The answer he received was no.

But Hunter wasn’t discouraged. “Giving up never crossed my mind,” he says. “I just felt this was the right thing to do and that other people would also see it was the right thing to do.”

Luckily, a member of Congress in Hunter’s hometown of Pensacola heard about Hunter’s project. He decided to showcase it in his office. A story appeared in a local newspaper, and before long, it had been picked up by the national news. “Boy’s School Project Aims to Revise History” read one headline.

In 1997, Hunter wrote to President Bill Clinton and to the Secretary of the Navy. He asked for McVay to be cleared of all wrongdoing. The answer he received was no.

But Hunter wasn’t discouraged. “Giving up never crossed my mind,” he says. “I just felt this was the right thing to do and that other people would also see it was the right thing to do.”

Luckily, a member of Congress in Hunter’s hometown heard about Hunter’s project. He decided to show it in his office. A story appeared in a local newspaper. Before long, the story was in the national news. “Boy’s School Project Aims to Revise History” read one headline.

Honor Restored

For the next four years, Hunter worked on his Indianapolis research day and night. He filled binders with notes and detailed timelines. Hunter even uncovered new information that had not been presented at McVay’s trial. He found that before the ship sank, its distress calls had been received by at least three people. But no one responded.

Eventually, two members of Congress took up Hunter’s cause. They invited Hunter, along with survivors and other people from the Navy, to Washington, D.C. Hunter gave powerful testimony.

Finally, in 2001, Hunter received the news he had been waiting for: McVay’s name had been cleared at last. It had been five years since Hunter watched Jaws, the movie that started it all. He had given up after-school activities and time with friends. And yet, he will tell you that his sacrifice was nothing compared with what Captain McVay and the crew of the Indianapolis suffered.

Today, Hunter is a pilot in the U.S. Navy. It was not a career he imagined for himself when he started his project all those years ago. But the time he spent with the survivors changed him.

“What those men sacrificed, the courage and honor they showed,” he says. “I joined the Navy for them.”

For the next four years, Hunter worked on his Indianapolis research day and night. He filled binders with notes and timelines. He even uncovered new information. He found that before the ship sank, its distress calls had been received by at least three people. But no one responded. These facts had not been presented at McVay’s trial.

Soon, two members of Congress decided to help Hunter. They invited Hunter, plus survivors and other people from the Navy, to Washington, D.C. Hunter gave powerful testimony.

Finally, in 2001, Hunter received the news he had been waiting for: McVay’s name had been cleared at last. It had been five years since Hunter watched Jaws, the movie that started it all. He had given up after-school activities and time with friends. Yet he will tell you that his sacrifice was nothing compared with what Captain McVay and the crew of the Indianapolis went through.

Today, Hunter is a pilot in the U.S. Navy. It was not a job he imagined for himself at age 11. But the time he spent with the survivors changed him.

“What those men sacrificed, the courage and honor they showed,” he says. “I joined the Navy for them.”

This article was originally published in the May/June 2021 issue.