70 years later, Navy admits error in number of men killed in USS Indianapolis tragedy

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A sailor from Michigan narrowly avoided being on the ill-fated USS Indianapolis due to a last-minute change in plans. However, his name was never removed from the ship’s roster – a clerical error that would cause confusion and wouldn’t be fixed by the Navy for more than 70 years.

The USS Indianapolis led a storied career before it sunk to the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It earned 10 battle stars in the war and delivered the atomic bomb parts that ended the fighting, but ultimately it became the worst maritime tragedy in United States military history.

U.S. Navy photo

In the early morning hours of July 30, 1945, it came across Japanese submarine I-58. Two torpedoes hit the ship, and minutes later it was sinking to the bottom of the Philippine Sea.

At the time the ship sank, there were 1,196 Sailors and Marines on board… or were there?

According to a formal review conducted by the Navy and released on March 20, there were actually 1,195 men onboard. That means that the total number that lost their lives was actually 879, not 880.

The review was conducted by Naval History and Heritage Command historian Richard Hulver, Ph.D in the wake of the discovery of the ship in August 2017.

RT2c Clarence W. Donnor, courtesy of Navy

It was believed by some that the number of survivors was 317 not 316. This stems from the fact that one young sailor, RT2c Clarence W. Donnor, is included on some versions of the ship’s roster because he was indeed supposed to be on the ship. However, he actually wasn’t due to a last-minute change of plans.

Donnor’s name was included on the list of men who died, and his mother, Ruth Donnor, received a telegram, notifying her that her son was MIA.

But Ruth had spoken with him since that date and knew he was alive and en route to a Naval school in New York.

She wrote a letter to the Chief of Naval Personnel advising him of the mistake.

The letter reads in part: “We think the mistake was made because of the change made in his plans at Shoemaker, California. He was taken to Treasure Island and from there ferried to the Cruiser Indianapolis to be a passenger to some island base in the Pacific. He had been on the ship but a half hour when the call came through for him to take his gear and go back to Shoemaker. There he was finally told of the further training he was to receive and to report to a naval school in New York on Sept. 7.”

The Navy sent a letter back to the Donnor family, apologizing. But the clerical error persisted in some accounts, causing confusion. Ultimately, the total number of survivors remains at 316, but the total number onboard the ship drops to 1,195.