Four U.S. Navy vessels have been named for the city of Indianapolis. The first USS Indianapolis (3865), built by the U.S. Shipping Board, launched in 1918. The armed cargo ship was used by the Navy during World War I to carry supplies to Europe. The ship was decommissioned just seven months after it first launched.

The second ship christened USS Indianapolis, 1932 Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

The second and most famous ship to be named for the capital city was the ill-fated Portland-class heavy cruiser, USS Indianapolis (CA35). The ship was sponsored by Lucy Taggart, daughter of former Indianapolis Mayor Thomas Taggart, in ceremonies on November 7, 1931. The ship was commissioned a year later in November 1932.

During peacetime, the USS Indianapolis (CA35) was used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a goodwill cruise to South America in 1936. It was the ship’s service during World War II, however, that gained its notoriety.

During World War II, the ship was commanded by Captain Charles B. McVay III and served as the flagship for Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, Fifth Fleet commander. The USS Indianapolis (CA35) and its crew of 1,196 men fought in campaigns at New Guinea, the Aleutian Islands, the Marianas Islands, and Okinawa, where it was heavily damaged during a kamikaze attack.

On July 17, 1945, the ship left San Francisco for the Pacific island of Tinian carrying vital components for the atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” that was dropped on Hiroshima. After safely delivering its vital cargo on July 26, the USS Indianapolis (CA35) stopped at Guam before continuing unescorted to Leyte in the Philippines where it was to undergo training in preparation for the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. Shortly after midnight on July 30, the ship was hit by torpedoes fired from the Japanese submarine I-58. Without power, the ship was unable to radio for help and sank in just 12 minutes.

Due to confusion at Leyte, the USS Indianapolis (CA35) was not missed for several days. During that time, the 850 men who managed to escape from the sinking ship had to go without water and were attacked repeatedly by sharks. On August 2, a Navy PBY plane (a monoplane patrol aircraft) finally spotted what were now only 316 survivors. The ship’s sinking, one of the worst disasters in U.S. Navy history, produced years of controversy. Captain McVay was convicted at a December 1945 court-martial for failing to sail a zigzag course to elude enemy submarines. The sinking of the USS Indianapolis remains “one of the worst—and most controversial—tragedies in U.S. Navy history.”

The USS Indianapolis (CA35) tragedy has been the subject of numerous books, a 1981 play Failure to Zigzag that was produced by the Indiana Repertory Theatre, and a 1991 TV movie. A granite and limestone memorial to the USS Indianapolis (CA35) is situated on the east bank of the Central Canal (See Uss Indianapolis Memorial).

To commemorate the cruiser’s sinking, the Navy launched a Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine named for the city on July 30, 1977. The USS Indianapolis (SSN 697) was christened by Mrs. William G. Bray of Indianapolis, wife of the Indiana congressman who had asked the Navy Department to name a ship for the city. Also on hand for the launching were 60 survivors of the World War II cruiser’s sinking. The submarine was commissioned on January 5, 1980, and served through the end of the Cold War before being decommissioned in 1998.

The fourth USS Indianapolis (LCS17) was commissioned on October 26, 2019, at Burns Harbor, Indiana. It was sponsored by Jill Donnelly, the wife of former U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly. Built by aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin with many Indiana-provided materials, the ship was designed to be fast, agile, and handle threats like mines and submarines. It, therefore, has been designated for U.S. Naval near-shore operations, anti-submarine warfare, and surface warfare missions. The Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida, serves as its home port.

As of December 2022, ninety-five-year-old Harold Bray Jr., Seaman 2C remains the last surviving member of the ill-fated USS Indianapolis (CA35).

Revised March 2021

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