Dec. 6, 1998: 20/20: The mysterious case of the USS Indianapolis

The USS Indianapolis went down under enemy fire during World War II in one of the worst disasters in U.S. Naval history. The Navy came under criticism for court-martialing the ship's captain, who was later exonerated.
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Transcript for Dec. 6, 1998: 20/20: The mysterious case of the USS Indianapolis
And now an amazing detective story with the most surprising sleuth. In 1945 the captain was court martialed blamed because his ship went down during the war most of his men perished in hideous deaths at C attacked by sharks. Dying of thirst. It was a terrible tragedy and almost forgotten. Until not long ago a young boy set out to pursue the truth and restore the honor of the captain and his brave crew. Why did he do it how does he do it Lynn Sherr brings us his remarkable story proving you'll never know when your champion Mike come along. He is bringing back level members. For the first time in more than fifty years from Michigan awards gives permission to Gumbel boards there. These former shipmates are boarding by United States navy cruiser his courage you. They served together during World War II they were barely out of their teens I don't move like I used to. I use take these two history at a time. Then they were eager enlisted men and bursting with pride to be aboard the USS Indianapolis. Shipped nearly identical to this one. If you've ever heard of the Indianapolis that's the point. It went down under enemy fire in one of the worst disasters in naval history. But then they be any day kept secret then blamed the captain unfairly. It was a shift of heroes on a heroic mission by nearly 900 men were left to die. 453. Years these farmers they tested fighting easy thing to exonerate their captain and her race the stick of the ordeal. When I think about our country cannot. Separate Merck will never forget. It burned through DP in our minds. Its and they'll. That 15100 line. Is so right there today thanks to twelve year old hunter Scott who has been US and least likely hero of the Indianapolis. These veterans may finally receive the honor he thinks they deserve these were actual postcards and letters sent off of the ship. Hunter is conducted a relentless investigation. Using personal accounts documentation and memorabilia from survivors. This is one of the last pictures taken of the USS Indianapolis his tenacity and careful reexamination of the evidence presented as a school project. Has drawn national attention to a case that had been long forgotten. And to the man who was court martialed after the loss of the Indianapolis. Captain Charles McVay the third. This is kept and they don't actually is at the Naval Academy as the debuts born and the day he went in the Naval Academy. It's pretty precious thank god hasn't yes men and there's this thumbprint on the back. Hunter believes that captain McVeigh was tried on justly and that the navy covered up its own responsibility for the loss of the ship. And the death of three quarters of its crew. For more than two years now he's made it his personal mission to correct those injustices. I hope to erase all mention of the court martial in conviction from captain and base naval records. In get a presidential unit citation for the Indianapolis and career why is it important to get captain McVay exonerated. It'll justice needs to be sent right where there was fifty years ago yesterday or a hundred years ago. It's still a wrong that needs to your and lofty goals for a twelve year old especially one who so loves the navy. He hopes to attend the Naval Academy one day daddy. Crab eggs in many ways hunter is still a kid but one whose parents Alan and Leslie have instilled a deep sense of responsibility. So you led. Him to believe he could do this absolutely. We've encouraged him every step of the lying one person can make a big difference. As Linda and twelve minutes hunter was a Leavitt when he first got interested in the story of these men. In suits for Russia for better. He was watching the movie jaws which he'd seen several times before. But this time during captain Quinn soliloquy about surviving the sinking of the Indianapolis. Hunter focused on every word. 200 men. I don't know how many shots maybe is doesn't moment and then they have issues and our fifth. And that's when he turned around and said is that troops to worry impose like he couldn't believe that that it actually happens. The search began. When hunter couldn't find enough information at a library. He placed an ad in the local navy paper. Asking any Indianapolis survivors to get in touch. Closer will three. The first to respond with Maurice bell. He he. He readily agreed to answer your questions. Fell also provided him with a list of more than 150 other remaining survivors. Fifth. Hunter contacted them all and one by one they returned his completed questionnaires. Daily he get a letter or a telephone call that would add another details. And additional piece of the puzzle to help him learning the truth about the Indianapolis and its crew. When he hears screams it's only pulled away by a shark it is a scream like nothing you've never heard. Hunter was most deeply affected by the painful story send to him by survivors. He pulled me down about ten to twelve feet I knew I was going to be no lines. Especially their graphic descriptions up shark attacks as they waited for rescue. Screams filled the air this greens were those of dying me. Sharing these memories with hunter was for many the first time in more than fifty years that they could write or speak about what they at endured. Their trust in him made hunter feel even closer to the men. He imagine what their lives were like aboard ship. He pictured where they slept where they gather to relax. And the more he heard their history the more furious he was about their fate. Kutcher learned that nearly 12100 men served aboard the USS Indianapolis. The flagship of the fifth fleet. But it's not clear whether any are on board understood the magnitude of their final mission. On July 16 1945. Under command of captain Charles McVay the third a widely respected and admired leader. This ship was ordered to proceed to the island of tinian in the South Pacific with a top secret cargo. Components for the atomic bomb that was to be dropped on Hiroshima. It was a moment that most of the Indianapolis crew would not live to see. They delivered the highly sensitive freight and received orders to sell to lay Tate in the Philippines. Because they were traveling an enemy waters and because the Indianapolis was not equipped to detect or defend itself from submarine attack. Captain McVay asked fern escort his request was denied. What did the navy know about the route that captain McVay was about to take the Indianapolis on. The navy knew. There were two siblings in the area I 58 367 they noon finding because we had broken the Japanese cannon intercepted messages. Hunters research led him to this report containing a document declassified in 1991. Confirming that Japanese submarines identified as a high 58 an I 367. We're known to be patrolling the area where the un escorted Indianapolis was directed. Did anybody relay that information to cap to make that. You know live. It was considered top secret and they did not think he had the security. Clearance to know that information so captain McVay was going into enemy waters where there were enemy submarines and without an escort. July 29 1945. It was an overcast and cloudy night. With visibility poor captain McVeigh gave orders to cease this standard invasive maneuver called zigzagging. Around midnight. Much she Soro Hashimoto commander of the Japanese submarine I 58. Spotted the USS Indianapolis in his periscope and fired six torpedoes. Aboard the target nineteen year old Seaman first class Lowell Cox arrived at the bridge to begin his watch. Moments later the first of two Japanese torpedoes hit its mark. We had this terrible explosion. Blew we have been there in. Down only that oh win at home so can. Down from start to get that looked the movement of water and debris sparked. Blamed. Hope above the bridge. And we were 81 feet of those who wore. That's all part of the ship but it just you know there's the whole file out of there it was just take. For these Indianapolis survivors walking the decks of the USS Salem where we brought them. Provoked agonizing memories of the night they were hit and the tour events that followed. I remember these very well when not if this had. We would be hidden for these exact same like this that you used similar variation. Gifford on policy Paul McGuinness put on his life as that night after the second torpedo hit the powder magazine setting off a series of explosions. This 610 foot ship wing 101000 tons was listing badly as water poured into the gaping holes. Orders were given to shut the hatches in a desperate effort to keep the ship from sinking. One of the last to make it through before the hatches were sealed with man in tune to was dials McCoy a private with the marine detachment aboard. I can still hear me and hollered down there for help. And when I got up from the closed the hatch. And so I knew that those poor people were were trapped there and that's where they're gonna die. In the radio room repeated SOS messages were urgently sent as the man abandoned ship. 453 years survivors believed that those attempts to signal for help had failed. I'm tell hunter's detective work uncovered a dramatic new lead. When we got their first national asset we tried to confirm. We could not reach the end as hapless. Yesterday this revealing telephone call came in while we weren't with hunter it was firm Russell hats who was serving a belated gulf on the night of the sinking. Pet store hunter that he and his crew did receive the SOS sent by the Indianapolis. And then eight and a half minutes later. We're receive this second SO. But when no confirmation came from the sinking ship. Pitt says his superiors concluded that since a ship that size couldn't sink that fast the messages were fake. The reassurance we got back was that it could be a prank call or it could be attract call. That's hurting me could you put that in writing and send it to me sure will thank you very much that would help me a lot so I could add that to my documentation. In fact the shifted secretly different incidents Helen don't think it's twelve minutes Eastman you've dancer research honest it's where I what does it mean a lot indeed. You say the men were scattered in a fifty mile radius how did they get so widely separated well as the ship was going in it was going underwater. Men or jumping off the ship in different places. And you sea's sailors jump in all still. Lead in the fifth and and the groomed for of the fellows were still turn. Slowly turn. I swam away in the ship struck me down second down under water yeah and then when I got the surface. Packers still feel the ship exploding under the water I could feel it in my grown in all. Look back and there was nothing but a great big mountain reform white forward Shipley had been. What did you say that tax well then we saw lost the sharks there was just sharks everywhere. And they were just in great big schools. We kicked our feet. Like her. Most times sharks would go around leave this in just keeps circling. And then all of a sudden somebody Holler shark attacked and you'd look up to the fins would be disappearing. Maybe heading for you and they would come up underneath your feet you can see them there walk. Day after day the sharks assaulted. In panic the men cried out for help and struggled to stay afloat they never knew who would be next as the water turned to blood red. Just like polite and did come up regrettable in my and then. In this ability and that's three feet from me grabbed eighteen ailment and the water in the failed them over and covered me and take him down and and in seem anymore. I remember. Some of my friends who dined and and one protect every cook track and off much in saint. Content that's. How long would it be before they were saved and recognized. The answer would horrified that men and their new young champion. It would be more than four days before the navy even realized that the Indianapolis was missing. Why did it take so long for anyone to notice that a huge ship with more than a thousand men and boys had vanished. Venture will be back with the dramatic conclusion to I was story. We continue now with the mystery at sea. The navy has its vision of what happened 53 years ago when the USS Indianapolis was sunk by the Japanese torpedo. And the shock infested waters of the South Pacific. But an extraordinary boy named hunter Scott. Doesn't believe the navy's story of how was at fault. And now he and the survivors of that terrible disaster are trying to rewrite the history books. Here again England cheer. Many of the nearly 900 who had survived the sinking. We're so severely burned or injured that they died their first few hours in the water. Countless others lost their lives to the unrelenting shark attacks. Exhausted hungry and thirsty many of the survivors were hallucinating. Those who shed their life this to dive for a drink of the ocean salt water would quickly parish. As the second and the third date past the expected rescue planes never arrived. Michael ruler was nineteen years old he still remembers telling those who were left not to give up hope. Everybody is asking in our group Warner and Dick Felton what else could be said it was it tomorrow and in the course tomorrow came and there was no rescue. MacArthur thought it was in king's Ayers hunter Scott is convinced that the rescue ships never came because of a series of navy blunders. He says that when the Indianapolis pastor scheduled arrival in late today she was taken off the plotting board. No one heck Indianapolis. And no one would. And seeing the navy. And just forgot about fair Indianapolis I guess you could say they weren't paying attention. How can just forget about a cruiser with more than 11100 report I'm not sure how they can do that but. Obviously it happened. After we got into that force today. We all gave up hope we knew we are gonna die that nobody was looking forest and so we knew that it was all over with and so we try to make her peace with god. I said I can't last another day and historic time scoring nineteen. And get one in my time. Hand. He just he just know you can't make it another day. Finally on the evening of the fourth day of bomber piloted by lieutenant Wilbur Gwynn was looking for Japanese submarines. Purely by accident he spotted the survivors and radioed for help the remaining man of the Indianapolis had been found. We all he wept horribly and and knew that we had a chance now that help was here that and we tried to revive the unconscious ones in. Tell immunity don't die owners now we got help come and you know hang in there don't don't give. These pictures of many of them never seen before were taken by a crewman on the USS register one of the rescue ships. Only 316. Men were left. Nearly 600 of their shipmates had lost their lives in the Pacific. As they spent five nights and four days waiting to be saved. Do you think about it often. Yes I do I think they do too. Happy go lucky we were. All. But two days after the rescue operations began the first atomic bomb partly transported by the Indianapolis. That was dropped on Hiroshima. But it was not until two weeks later that the fate of to ship was released by the navy the very same day that Japan surrendered. The war was over. So that the big hitting. War over would overshadow the sinking of the USS Indianapolis if you were doing a cover up that would be pretty clever way to do record and serious man I think the navy plane to. S news finally did filter out about the survivors and the sinking the press started asking questions. How could the navy have forgotten the Indianapolis. But a few weeks later the focus changed. When and naval court of inquiry recommended. That captain Charles McVay be held accountable for negligence and inefficiency. And ordered that he be court martialed. Hunter why do you believe that the navy put captured McVeigh on trial because they did not want to claim themselves. And they didn't wanna take the abuse and they and they criticism. For a losing 880 million out there in the ocean at the end of the war. And on such an important shift. And and and so they use captain McVay to stick him for. The trial was shocking and insulting to survivors. But they worry even more horrified when an eight he brought commander Hashimoto we had to testify against their captain. That's eight this same commander who'd fired deter Peters that something Indianapolis. Was brought to Washington DC by the United States navy to testify against captain McVay. They were her open. It Hashimoto would say something against captain they but actually says zigzagging would have made no difference how to suckers anymore. In December 1945. Captain McVay was found guilty of failure to follow a zigzag course. Dust hazard in the Indianapolis. This sentence the loss of 100 promotion points was later remitted but his conviction was not. 23 years later November 1968. Retired rear admiral Charles McVay the third put on his uniform and loaded his service revolver then walked out the door and ended his own life. His guilty verdict stands to this day. Why did they go and pick on captain McVay I can still remember at the court martial captain McVay. Would stand up and say all I wanna know is why did you take so long to find my men why do you think that took so they just screwed up. The navy just screwed up and they didn't want to admit to the fact that they screwed up and cost us 880 man. We wanted to speak with the navy about the events surrounding the Indianapolis. About the court martial of captain McVay but our request for an interview or denied. Instead. And T spokesman told us that in 1996. Up old reviewed the transcripts of the court martial and upheld it's decision. And that today the navy stands by those findings. Today the Indianapolis has a memorial in the city for which it is named. Still the survivors do not feel adequately honored. And to a man they say air captain was made a scapegoat by the United States navy. That's why they've embraced hunter Scott the boy whose adopted their cause. Because he has succeeded where they have not. Refocusing attention on the Indianapolis. To honor his heroes before they are all gone. I just can't wait to finally gay kept me Bay's name cleared and right or wrong that was inflicted 53 years. And another this April young mr. Scott went to Washington. Leading a group of the survivors to lobby congress to pass a new bill a thank you very list of airplanes killing your support. HR 3710. Was placed in the hopper by the twelve year old boy most responsible for it's creation. There have been telling us court. By the twelve year old boy to whom honor is everything that bill has a pretty good chance if it passes hunter we'll have rewritten history. And finally brought recognition and peace to the crew and the cap. Did the USS Indianapolis. I think people are willing to listen to talk Gerald Boyd whose series one. He's the fact that you can see kid can't make a difference in the world to. At least that kid can. Hunter Scott who turns thirteen this summer still piecing together information from around the country about the USS Indianapolis. The bill he helped inspire never came to a vote this session but will be reintroduced in the new year. And you probably not surprised to learn that a movie of his story is now in development.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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