For many younger Americans, the story of the USS Indianapolis is a gruesome sidebar in the filmJaws (1975), related by a grizzled sea captain to his fellow shark hunters to describe for them the horrors of a shark attack. For older Americans, those whose memories include the waning days of World War II, the sinking of the Indianapolis and the loss of over nine hundred men serves as a cautionary tale and an indictment of the Navy’s standard operating procedures in the Pacific. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS “Indianapolis” and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors, by experienced journalist Doug Stanton, recounts the story in graphic, readable fashion for a new generation.
Stanton spent long hours with the surviving members of the ill-fated crew, carefully using the information gleaned through interviews to reconstruct the sinking of the ship and the days that followed. Most notably, Stanton uses the stories of Captain Charles Butler McVay III, ship’s doctor Lewis Haynes, and Marine private Giles McCoy to structure his book. As he notes in the preface, Stanton “decided to cast the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis not as a history of war but as a portrait of men battling the sea.” While Stanton was able to access firsthand information from Haynes and McCoy, he had to piece together McVay’s story from documents and interviews with people who knew the captain. McVay himself committed suicide in 1968, some twenty-three painful years after the sinking and his own court-martial.
The saga of the Indianapolis began in July, 1945. At that time, the heavy cruiser was undergoing repairs in San Francisco. Under the command of Captain McVay, the ship had sustained damage from a Japanese suicide bomber near Okinawa before limping home. Unexpectedly, McVay received orders in July to assemble his crew and prepare to sail. On board the Indianapolis was a highly classified cargo: the parts for the atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan later that summer. Neither McVay nor his crew knew the significance of the cargo they carried; they only knew that their mission was top secret, the freight had its own guards, and that there were some unlikely seaman on board, two Army officers who were in reality specialists in top-secret weapons.
On July 26, the ship delivered its mysterious cargo to Tinian, a small island in the Pacific. Within six hours, the Indianapolis was on its way to Guam, and then off to the Philippines. The ship was to travel unescorted, something McVay accepted without question after being told that the Navy considered his route safe. However, only a few days earlier, a Navy vessel had been sunk in nearby waters by a suicide torpedo ship launched by a submarine. Furthermore, Navy intelligence indicated that there was a group of submarines operating in an area the ship would cross. Neither of these important bits of information was given to McVay.
The Indianapolis was only at sea for a few days when two torpedoes slammed into its sides, fired by a Japanese submarine around midnight on July 29. Within twelve minutes, the cruiser had sunk, tossing some nine hundred young crewmen into the open ocean. The remaining three hundred members of the crew were killed by the torpedo or trapped and unable to escape the sinking ship. Stanton describes the sinking from the perspective of the survivors: “The boys watched with horrified fascination as the ship finally stood straight on end and paused, trembling—the stern pointed directly at the sky—then began to sink, slowly at first, then picking up speed, drawn suddenly into the deep by the nose.”
For the boys, as Stanton refers to them, who made it to the water the ordeal had scarcely begun. Many of the boys had been sleeping at the time of the attack and were either naked or clothed only in underwear. In addition, the speed with which the ship sank made it impossible to gather provisions or to properly launch life boats and rafts. Indeed, many boys found themselves in the water without even a life vest.
Nevertheless, they had been able to get off a quick SOS before sinking and all believed, including McVay, that the ship would be quickly missed when it failed to arrive in Leyte. They firmly believed that a rescue mission would be launched swiftly. They were wrong. A series of bungles, as well as Navy...
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