Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343
Doug Stanton’s nonfiction account of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the horrific deaths of over six hundred members of its crew, and the subsequent court-martial of the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Charles Butler McVay, In Harm’s Way, details not only these events but the case the author makes for Captain McVay’s posthumous exoneration.
The USS Indianapolis was an American battleship dispatched on an extremely sensitive mission toward the end of World War II. The United States was preparing to drop the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and the fissionable material required for the bomb’s operation had to be transported in secret to Tinian Island, from where the bomber delivering it to Japan would take off. Had the Indianapolis been detected and sunk by Japanese submarines then, the schedule for dropping the bomb would not have been met with the consequent delay in the end of the war in the Pacific. The ship successfully delivered the fissionable material and departed Tinian to meet up with other naval ships. A Japanese submarine commander spotted the Indianapolis, however, and sank it. Around three hundred members of the crew were killed in the initial and secondary explosions with the rest, some nine hundred sailors, forced into the ocean miles from land. Of those nine hundred, over five hundred died in the water, many eaten by sharks. News of the ship’s fate was unknown for crucial hours because of the level of secrecy surrounding its mission.
In the aftermath of the Indianapolis’s sinking and the ordeal suffered by the ship’s crew, Captain McVay was court-martialed by the Navy for his alleged failure to operate his ship in a manner that could have evaded detection and sinking. Stanton’s book covers all of this in detail while arguing that McVay was made a scapegoat for a disaster that arguably could not have been avoided. In so doing, the author suggests that Captain McVay was unfairly court-martialed and that his service record should be cleared of wrongdoing.