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Like, I'm sure, most of you, I first heard of the USS Indianapolis and the horrific events surrounding its sinking in the movie Jaws.  You'll recall the Robert Shaw character telling about being adrift in the waters of the Pacific as sharks circled and attacked the helpless men.  This story has such a compelling fascination that it has spawned a series of books, documentaries and even a TV movie.  Doug Stanton's new account can take its place with the very best of them.  Drawing heavily on interviews with survivors and on Captain Charles Butler McVay's account of the sinking and the ensuing ordeal, Stanton presents the story with an immediacy and intimacy that makes it all the more terrible.

The men of the Indianapolis were the victims of an entire series of oversights and foul ups, few of their own making.  First, the ship had just delivered components of the Little Boy atomic bomb (which was dropped on Hiroshima), and so had been traveling in great secrecy.  Then when they set out from Guam to join up with Task Force 95 at Okinawa, they sailed alone and were not warned about known Japanese submarine activity, for security reasons.  Thus, when the submarine I-58, commanded by Mochitsura Hashimoto, torpedoed them, they didn't even realize what had happened at first.

From there, unfortunate coincidence turns to bitter irony and real tragedy.  Damage to the radio rooms was so great and the ship sank so fast, that they did not get a chance to radio for help.  Meanwhile, again for security reasons, port authorities had been ordered not to relay messages every time a ship arrived and had interpreted the order to mean that they shouldn't report non-arrivals either.  Of the 1196 men on board, 300 probably died immediately, but while the other 900 struggled in the water, no one yet knew of their dilemma.

Eventually sharks, salt water, hypothermia, injuries sustained in the sinking, fights among the men, and a host of other maladies, left just 321 men alive to be rescued, four of whom died almost immediately.   Stanton renders the crew's five day holocaust in heart breaking detail, with much of the narrative supplied by ship's doctor Lewis Haynes and Private Giles McCoy.  Finally, as even these stalwart souls were preparing to give up, they were discovered by Lieutenant Commander George Atteberry in a Ventura bomber, which could do little more than drop some supplies and radio for help.  He was followed by Lieutenant Adrian Marks in a PBY-5A Catalina, which Marks heroically set down in the water.  Marks and a few succeeding planes were able to start picking up the survivors while they waited for rescue ships to reach the scene.

One would think that the awful story had run its course at that point, but the Navy added insult to tragedy by court-martialing Captain McVay, the only captain to that point in US Naval history to be court-martialed for losing his ship.  The Navy, pretty clearly trying to avoid admitting its own mistakes, failed to share much information which would have been helpful to his defense and took the extraordinary step of summoning Commander Hashimoto to testify about the incident.  The prosecution's theory of the case was that McVay's failure to zig-zag had been responsible for the sinking, and, despite contrary testimony from both Hashimoto and the prosecution's own expert witness on this issue, he was convicted.

In the succeeding years crew members gathered for reunions (organized by McCoy) and worked to clear McVay's name.  These efforts went for naught until a High School student in Florida, working on a class project, got involved.  On October 12, 2000, Congress passed an amendment exonerating McVay and recommending citations for the crew.  It was too late for McVay though, he had killed himself in 1968.

This is a terrific book, filled with all the drama you could ever ask for, remarkable moments of human endurance and despair, stupidity and loyalty, heroism and despair.  I'm not big on all of the current Greatest Generation stuff, but there is something to the idea that the mutual experience of war (and Depression) that this generation shared somehow gives them a common identity and a sense of accomplishment that their successors have lacked.  The men of the USS Indianapolis and particularly their captain, Charles McVay, are deserving of our respect and their story should never be forgotten.  Doug Stanton's book makes it a painful pleasure to remember the sacrifices they made.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Sea Stories
Book-related and General Links:

    Cruiser Sunk, 1,196 Casualties; Took Atom Bomb Cargo to Guam (NY Times, July 30, 1945)     -ESSAY : South of the Border, Upside-Down Mexico Way : In remote Zapatista country, the good people of Chiapas are engaged in a once-a-year chance to upend the world. Men become women. Night becomes day. And a pilgrim in a rental car is barreling toward them.(Doug Stanton, Outside)
    -ESSAY : By George! It's George Clooney! (Doug Stanton, Men's Journal)
    -Diary : waxing poetic about Cuban cuisine (Doug Stanton, Slate)
    -ARCHIVES : "Doug Stanton" (Slate)
    -ARCHIVES : "Doug Stanton" (Men's Journal)
    -BOOK SITE : USS Indianapolis In Harm's Way (FSB Associates)
    -USS Indianapolis Organization
    -INTERVIEW : Recollections of Captain Charles B. McVay, III, USN, Commanding Officer of USS Indianapolis (CA-35) which was sunk by Japanese submarine I-58 on 30 July 1045 near the Philippines  (Source: Charles B. McVay, III, interview in box 21 of World War II Interviews, Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center)
    -USS Indianapolis (CA-35) : This site is dedicated to the 883 men of  USS Indianapolis who paid the ultimate price for freedom
    -Discovery Channel: The Search for the USS Indianapolis
    -EXCERPT : The Sinking of the Cruiser Indianapolis (An Excerpt from  "The Making of the Atomic Bomb"  by Richard Rhodes)
    -ESSAY : The Tragedy of the USS Indianapolis (Paul Brockman, Indiana Historical Society)
    -ESSAY : Remembering the  USS Indianapolis (Tenna Perry)
    -ESSAY : The Conspiracy of the USS Indianapolis (Trent Brandon, Zerotime)
    -ARTICLE : Crew Pressing Defense of Convicted Captain : Men of the USS Indianapolis Say Skipper Was Scapegoated  (Keith Coffman, APB News, Sept 13, 1999 )
    -ARTICLE : Japanese Commander Seeks Honor for Former Foe : Asks U.S. Senate to Clear Court-Martialed Captain's Name (Keith Coffman, APB News,  Feb. 4, 2000 )
    -ARTICLE : Pensacola boy out to clear skipper's name  (JEFF NEWELL, Northwest Florida Daily News)
    -REVIEW : of In Harm's Way by Doug Stanton (Patrick A. Smith, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of In Harm's Way (Rob Stout, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of In Harm's Way (Sam Weller, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW : of FATAL VOYAGE : The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis By Dan Kurzman (William H. Honan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of In Harm's Way (CHRIS PATSILELIS, Houston Chronicle)

    -Naval Institute Proceedings
    -World Wide Web Virtual Library : Naval and Maritime History