- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2001

The Navy has reversed a 56-year course and will award Navy Unit Commendation Medals to the crew of the torpedoed cruiser USS Indianapolis that delivered key components of atomic bombs dropped on Japan to end World War II.
The Navy also plans to "modify" the personnel record of the ill-fated Indianapolis commanding officer who was court-martialed and convicted for negligence, according to a Navy letter sent April 18 to selected lawmakers.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained yesterday by The Washington Times, did not specifically say the record of Rear Adm. Charles B. McVay III would be expunged of his conviction, as demanded by Congress last year in a "sense of Congress" resolution.
"Rear Admiral McVays record is currently being retrieved from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo., and will be reviewed to determine the best approach to modify his record," said the letter from Bonnie Morehouse, the senior civilian in the Navys office of the assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs.
In one of the most famous and gruesome sinkings in naval history, the Indianapolis was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1945 after delivering bombs to Tinian Island in the Pacific.
Only 317 of a 1,196-sailor crew survived the blast after four days and five nights in the ocean, fending off thirst, hunger and voracious sharks.
The Navy court-martialed the commanding officer, then-Capt. McVay, for not ordering a zigzag escape. Adm. McVay eventually retired, tainted by the conviction for negligence. Harassed by hate mail, he committed suicide in 1968.
For years, the ships survivors, and their supporters, pressed the Navy to overturn Adm. McVays conviction and cite the ships final crew for heroism.
Congress held a series of hearings, culminating in passage last year of a non-binding "sense of Congress" resolution to exonerate the Indianapolis captain and honor the crew.
Even then, the Pentagon repeated its position that Adm. McVay had received a fair trial and that the awarding of medals was not appropriate. In fact, a letter from the Pentagons top lawyer after the legislation was passed last fall said, "Since the conviction has been finally approved, no authority exists for the secretary of the Navy to change the findings of the court-martial."
Concerning medals, the general counsel wrote to a senator in 1999 that "the criteria for the unit award simply are not met. It is appropriate that the sacrifices these men made be acknowledged and honored, but this unit award is not the appropriate means to do so."
But to the surprise of McVay backers on the Hill, the Navy suddenly reversed course in the April 18 letter.
Said the Navy letter, "The Navy Awards Branch has reviewed this case in its entirety and I am pleased to inform you that the Navy is in the early stages of planning an appropriate ceremony to award a Navy Unit Commendation to the USS Indianapolis and its final crew."
Sen. Robert C. Smith, New Hampshire Republican and one of a handful of senators to work for the medals and an exoneration, told The Washington Times yesterday, "I am pleased that the Navy has heeded the will of Congress by awarding these citations and modifying the record of McVay.
"I hope, however, that 'modifying means that the record will reflect that McVay is exonerated," the senator said. "I will accept no less nor will the survivors who fought so hard for this legislation and for exoneration. The American people have spoken, and I hope the Navy has heard, and will do the right thing."
The "sense of Congress" resolution stated in part "the American people should now recognize Capt. McVays lack of culpability for the tragic loss of the USS Indianapolis and the lives of the men who died" and that his "military record should now reflect that he is exonerated for the loss of the ship and its crew."
Adm. McVays supporters are many and diverse, from Florida teen-ager Hunter Scott, who explored the officers plight in a class project, to the ships rapidly aging survivors. They claim the court-martial itself was an injustice. Adm. McVay was the only captain put on trial for having his ship blown up during the war by the enemy.
They note that he had the discretion from commanders not to zigzag and that his request had been turned down for anti-submarine destroyer escorts. Even worse, his supporters say, is the fact his superiors failed to warn him of the submarine threat in the area.
"You cant court-martial somebody for an error in judgment and not court-martial everybody else who made such errors that cost the lives of men," Mr. Smith last year told Insight magazine, a sister publication of The Washington Times.
Historians point out that there was much public outcry at the deaths of 900 sailors so close to wars end and that Adm. Chester Nimitzs decision against a court-martial was overruled in Washington by Adm. Ernest King.

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