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The Solving of an Enduring World War II Mystery

USS Indianapolis

USS INDIANAPOLIS AT PEARL HARBOR, HAWAII, CIRCA 1937 (PHOTO COURTESY OF U.S. NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND)

WRITTEN BY JAKE STUMP

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.

Richard Hulver

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 story. 

“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 U.S. Navy.

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.

USS Indy Map   

“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 together.”

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 in 2018. 

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