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Survivors back WWII captain

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"You know, right's right and wrong's wrong."

Because of that fact, adds Woody James, he is not satisfied with the Navy's recent action exonerating his late captain of responsibility for the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. James won't find closure until a court martial is reconvened and the guilty verdict against Capt. Charles Butler McVay III is formally overturned.

McVay was captain of the USS Indianapolis, a cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine at the end of World War II. James, a resident of Evergreen Avenue (3435 South), was a 22-year-old gun-turret chief aboard the Indianapolis.

The sinking was one of the most horrifying disasters in U.S. military history. Survivors died of injuries, exposure, thirst and shark attack in the days before the Navy realized the ship was missing.

The cruiser was manned by 1,196 sailors. Hundreds were killed in the attack, but an estimated 800 to 900 escaped the sinking and bobbed in heavy seas, many for more than five days. Most had no other floatation gear than life vests, but a few floated in pontoons.

By the time they were rescued from the Pacific Ocean, just 317 remained alive.

James has repeatedly said the tragedy will not be over until McVay's name is cleared.

The Indianapolis had a long battle history. Near the end of the war it delivered components of the atomic bombs to Tinian Island, then headed for Guam and the Philippines.

On the night of July 30, 1945, a Japanese submarine sank the ship. Because of a communications mix-up, the ship was not missed until the pilot of an American plane happened to see survivors in the water on Aug. 2. Rescue then took several days.

McVay was court-martialed in 1945 and found guilty of negligence for failing to order the ship to zigzag. His career was ruined. In 1968 he ironed and put on his Navy blues, then killed himself with his Navy pistol.

In recent years, survivors mounted a national drive to clear McVay. Insisting he was a scapegoat for the mistakes that prevented a prompt search and rescue, they pointed out that the ship lacked submarine detection gear, that it was not guarded by a destroyer despite reports of enemy subs in the area and that McVay's orders said he could zigzag at his discretion.

Also, survivors add, no information exists that zigzagging at night helps to avoid detection by an enemy submarine. In fact, in 1945, the captain of the Japanese sub testified he would have sunk the Indianapolis whether or not it had been zigzagging. McVay's son, Kimo, worked for years to clear his father's record. In June 2000, Congress passed a resolution asking for Capt. McVay's exoneration, and then-President Clinton signed it into law.

Navy brass did not act on the resolution until July 12, when they placed a document in McVay's file stating that he was exonerated. However, Kimo died two weeks ago.

The Navy's action is not good enough for James.

"Well, I'm glad they did it. I'm glad they did it," he said in a recent telephone interview.

Still, he said, the action does not amount to closure.

"It brings it closer," he said. However, "the court martial itself is still on the record. The original court martial for failure to zigzag is still on his record."

The members of the survivors' association with whom he's talked are glad about the new document and they accept it. "But we still want the record cleared," he said.

"The only thing left on his record is the court martial itself and I don't think the survivors will ever be happy until somehow that's gotten off his record."

He is not certain how that could be done. Perhaps even the president could not expunge the record of the court martial.

In fact, he said, he is not a lawyer, but it seems to him that if the record were expunged, that "opens up the whole ball of wax" for others seeking to change the record.

"There is a solution," James offered.

That is to "reconvene a court martial for retrial.

"There is so much evidence that is available now that wasn't available then." The new evidence should prompt officers, looking at the facts dispassionately more than half a century later, to find McVay not guilty, he believes.

"The day that we left Guam going to the Philippines, his orders read, 'You zigzag at your own discretion.' OK. Then how do they do that and then court-martial him for not zigzagging?"

If it was on his own discretion, that meant he could cause the ship to zigzag or not, as he saw fit.

"He ceased from zigzagging on a dark night and we got sunk," James said.

"So . . . they court-martial him for not zigzagging. They can't do that."

Contributing: The Associated Press.

E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com