Saturday, July 30, 2016

Happier Times: USS Indianapolis before World War II

USS Indianapolis (CA 35) is a ship whose name will be familiar to any student of World War II. After delivering the atomic bomb to the island of Tinian on 26 July 1945, she set a course for Leyte Gulf to join with the rest of the U.S. fleet in preparing for the invasion of Japan. Just after midnight on 30 July, the Japanese submarine I-58 spotted Indianapolis and fired six torpedoes. One hit the bow and the other struck amidships next to the fuel tank and magazine. Within minutes, an explosion ripped the ship apart. Of the 900 men who made it into the water, only 317 were rescued after a five-day ordeal that subjected them to exposure, starvation, thirst, and shark attacks.

It is unfortunate that this tragic end overshadows other events from earlier in the ship’s fourteen-year operational history. Prior to World War II, Indianapolis carried out an important diplomatic duty when she transported President Roosevelt to the 1936 Pan-American Conference in Buenos Aires. Captain Henry Kent Hewitt assumed command of Indianapolis in March of that year. The cruiser sailed to Panama for tactical exercises before returning to the east coast where she operated through the fall. On 18 November, Roosevelt boarded Indianapolis in Charleston, SC, following installation of a special elevator for the President’s wheelchair. USS Chester (CA 27) served as an escort and sailed in the lead during the voyage south to prevent any possibility of the President’s ship being involved in a collision.

Thirty-Five Knots, USS INDIANAPOLIS
Arthur Beaumont, 1936
Gift of Mrs. Floride H. Hewitt to the Naval War College Foundation
NWCM 1973.06.01

Given Roosevelt’s strong naval background (he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913-1920), it is not surprising that he took a strong interest in the ship’s activities. Hewitt recalled one such instance as the ship set out from Charleston:

Commander Badger reported the ship ready for getting under way and the lines singled up. Just as we let go, and the ship began to move ahead, two bells were struck. Later, as we left the harbor and steadied on our southerly course, the president commented to me, "Skipper, I noted that you were right on the bell." He knew nautical terminology and liked to be treated as a flag officer. Throughout the cruise, he had charts—with courses plotted—parallel rulers, and dividers in his admiral's cabin, and he was always furnished with the 8 a.m., noon, and 8 p.m. positions, which he plotted and checked.

LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin over Rio de Janeiro
Undated photograph

Indianapolis ran on a tight schedule and maintained an average speed of 25 knots in order to ensure that Roosevelt reached the conference on time. They had two notable encounters along the way – one with the German airship Graf Zeppelin on its way home from Brazil, and another with a German cruiser whose crew manned the rails and fired a twenty-one gun salute. Both events, though peaceful, underscored Germany’s growing interest in South America.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking before King Neptune’s court
during the crossing the line ceremony on USS Indianapolis
Photograph courtesy of FDR Library

On 24 November, Indianapolis observed the traditional “crossing the line” ceremonies as the ship passed over the equator. King Neptune’s court arrived in full regalia and proceeded to put the ships’ pollywogs – those who were crossing the equator for the first time - through the usual initiation rituals. President Roosevelt, himself a pollywog, was spared from the harsh treatment that accompanied these ceremonies, but he insisted on appearing before King Neptune in keeping with the spirit of the day. His only punishment was to explain to the crew over the ship’s public address system why he had lost the states of Vermont and Maine in the recent presidential election.

Indianapolis reached the harbor of Rio de Janeiro the day after Thanksgiving. Somewhat to Hewitt’s embarrassment, rough seas had washed away patches of the ship’s paint causing Indianapolis to enter the harbor with bare spots on her hull. If Roosevelt was displeased, he did not mention it. They continued on to Buenos Aires and arrived two days early for the conference, a testament to the ship and its crew. Hewitt was promoted to rear admiral in 1939 and commanded naval forces that supported Allied landings in the Mediterranean Theater during World War II. He served as an advisor at the Naval War College during his tenure as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, after the war. The College honored him in 1976 by naming Hewitt Hall in his honor.

Rob Doane,
Curator, Naval War College Museum

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