In Harm's Way

by Doug Stanton

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Harm's Way is a gripping historical narrative that chronicles the events of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945 and the survival of a fraction of its men.

In his compelling novel, Stanton allows readers to understand more about Captain Charles McVay and the crewmen he sailed with:

McVay understood how large the war loomed in the minds of these boys, "green hands" and veterans alike, who during these last few days had made love one last time, gotten drunk one last time, wrote last letters to mothers and fathers, and prepared to settle on board the Indy, into the rhythm of getting ready for sea.

The Indy was operating in a battle-ready state known as Condition Able, which meant that the boys were on watch for four hours and then off for four, an exhausting, relentless schedule that left little time for sleep and induced in the boys a dreamlike state of jittery wakefulness.

One survivor Stanton interviewed, Marine Private McCoy, worked with injured veterans of previous battles in the war. As part of a Marine guard contingent on the ship, McCoy faced his own awful situation.

McCoy marveled at how these boys had accepted the awful things that had happened to them in war; he wondered how he would react in a similar situation. He hoped he wouldn't have to find out.

Through countless interviews with survivors, Stanton provides extraordinary detail about the perilous days after the ship sank. Crewmen awaited rescue in the water for days as they faced dehydration, devastating injuries, hypothermia, and shark attacks. Some sailors committed suicide instead of enduring the dangerous waters.

Those still lucid enough looked on in disbelief as their former shipmates calmly untied their life vests, took a single stroke forward, and sank without a word. Others suddenly turned from the group and started swimming, waiting for a shark to hit, and then looked up in terrified satisfaction when it did. Others simply fell face-forward and refused to rise.

Stanton captures the desperation many felt as they floated in the Pacific after the ship sank:

Where does a man go when there are no more corners to turn, when he's running out of hope, out of luck, out of time?

From his research, Stanton addresses the government's attempt to downplay the realities of the doomed ship and the days before survivors were rescued:

Accurate data on shark attacks on World War II servicemen may never be known since medical records did not note them. In fact, the navy was sufficiently concerned about loss of morale that it discouraged public mention of the menace.

From his many discussions with survivors, Stanton gained great respect for these veterans of war, and he defended them, as well.

For the survivors, the disaster of the Indy [Indianapolis] is their My Lai massacre or Watergate, a touchstone moment of historic disappointment: the navy put them in harm's way, hundreds of men died violently, and then the government refused to acknowledge its culpability.

Stanton was impressed that many survivors could overcome the tragedy they faced and go on to live full lives.

What's amazing, however, is that these men, unlike contemporary generations who've been disappointed by bad government, are not bitter. Somehow, a majority brushed aside their feelings of rancor and went on to help build the booming postwar American economy of the fifties.

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