No one would have predicted that after 72 years the mystery of what happened to a
sunken World War II ship would have been solved through a West Virginia University
alumnus, a Google search and a fudge shop in Michigan.
The USS Indianapolis vanished after midnight July 30, 1945, after it was torpedoed
by a Japanese submarine in the Pacific Ocean. The United States Navy vessel was
en route to the Philippines and had just completed a secret mission delivering
parts of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
Only 316 of the ship’s 1,196-man crew survived. Many who withstood the initial attack
would ultimately die of dehydration, hypothermia and shark attacks. The Navy did
not know about the ship’s sinking until nearly four days later when a Navy plane
accidentally spotted its survivors adrift.
Ever since, historians and Navy officials have tried pinpointing the exact location
of the ship’s wreckage.
After decades of tireless investigations that turned up little or nothing, Richard
Hulver began to unravel the mystery.
Hulver, MA ’11, History, PhD ’15, History, was tasked with revisiting the ship’s
case in his role as a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command, located
at the Washington Navy Yard.
A native of Baker, W.Va., Hulver knew almost nothing about the USS Indianapolis other
than the well-known fictional reference in the 1975 film “Jaws.” In it, actor Robert
Shaw, who plays Quint, recites a monologue about the USS Indianapolis sinking and
the resulting deaths that occurred by shark attacks.
That scene, Hulver learned, was somewhat sensationalized and didn’t tell the whole
“My main assignment was to get an accurate history,” he said. “People have tried
to find the wreckage, but were unsuccessful. This happened in some of the deepest
waters in the world.”
Hulver began to dig, so he started by researching Charles McVay, the captain who
survived the attack. He died in 1968 but the Navy had his interview depicting the
events following the sinking. In it, McVay recalled that the USS Indianapolis passed
a tank landing ship 11 hours before the attack.
“But he never specified what it was,” Hulver said. “That’s been in the public record
for 70 years. It jumped out to me that we didn’t know where Indianapolis went down,
but there’s an account of it passing another ship.”
He knew that Navy ships record their coordinates three times a day — in the morning,
at noon and in the evening. McVay recalled the Indianapolis passing the other ship
at around noon.
“If I could figure out what ship that was, that could give us another definitive
point of where the Indianapolis was 11 hours before it sunk,” Hulver said.
In this day and age, he did what most of us would do when puzzled by a question.
He Googled it. He typed in every iteration of USS Indianapolis and tank landing
ship, or LST, and about 10 pages deep into one search, he found the blog of a fudge
shop in Michigan. On that site, John Murdick, owner of Murdick’s Fudge, posted
an online tribute to his late father, Francis, a World War II veteran with the
In the post, Murdick wrote about his father passing the USS Indianapolis in a tank
landing ship 11 hours before it sunk. The name of the smaller ship was not
identified, so Hulver tracked down the records of the sailor, Murdick, and discovered
that it would have been LST-779. That piece of information led him to the National
Archives, where he researched the records of that ship. He was getting somewhere.
Hulver started working with underwater archaeologists and they began plotting locations
where the two ships would have passed one another.
Researchers, including a team of civilians led by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen,
developed a new position and went to find the wreckage. In August 2017, a year
after Hulver pieced together the missing parts of the story, Allen’s group located
the cruiser’s wreckage 18,000 feet below the Pacific Ocean surface.
“I’m very honored to be part of its discovery,” Hulver said. “The most rewarding
part to me was hearing the survivors talk about it. There are only 19 survivors
left. It was an overwhelming sense of closure for them.”
And it shows the value of an Internet search and a historian who won’t give up.
“It’s amazing to think that no one pulled the string on that before,” Hulver said.
“After hitting dead end after dead end, a desperate Google search put the pieces
He attributes the persistence of his research to his time at WVU.
“Throughout my time in the history department, the importance of research, particularly
archival research, was stressed heavily,” he said. “You’re taught to always look
for question marks in the stories — and how research can give you the answers to
erasing those question marks.”
Hulver has a book, “A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis Tragedy,” coming out