In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis: Book Review

Doug Stanton is not the first to tackle the blood-chilling story of the USS Indianapolis that was brought to the public in the Jaws movie. Yet even against the vividness of the movie Doug Stanton’s account still has veracity and authenticity that makes it stand out from the rest of the depictions of the terrible event. The book owed much of its effect to the stories told by survivors of the sinking and Captain Charles Butler McVay’s report of the disaster.

The story of the ship is one of the most memorable happenings in the Second World War.  The USS Indianapolis, an American battle cruiser, was hit with a torpedo from a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945. The cruiser was getting back after carrying out the mission of delivering parts of the atom bomb that was later to be dropped on the Japanese cities. The mission had been completed without a hitch; the USS Indianapolis was now ready to join a group of ships assembled to attack Japan. Thus the ship was moving in the direction of the Philippines to join the armada, although the unwillingness of the commandment to share information with the captain left him with the impression that the ship “was drifting out of control” (Stanton 2001:15). The cruiser was acting on the intelligence that assured Captain Charles McVay of the safety of the route from Guam to Leyte. This did not prove to be true, since there turned out to be enemy submarines in the area. I-58 was able to spot the American cruiser by clinking of dishes on the Indianapolis that was captured by the submarine’s sonar.

The torpedo killed 300 people on the spot, leaving the other 900 out in the ocean, exposed to hypothermia and easy prey for sharks. Overall, there had been about 1196 people on board the ship. The sailors of the USS Indianapolis were left in the ocean face to face with its dangers and somehow almost one-third of those who ended in the ocean, 317 people, managed to survive. The horrifying description of the tribulations of the men who hung out in the open sea for five days is supported by evidence from ship’s doctor Lewis Haynes and Private Giles McCoy.

The tale is all the more tragic because the fate of the USS Indianapolis crew could probably have been averted if the army commandment had not made several fatal mistakes that impacted their situation. First, the cruiser was travelling in enemy water without an escort, a fact that alone made it easy prey for the Japanese, which they managed to take advantage of. Second, the Navy spent quite a while before they saved what remained of the ship crew – the salvation would have been more certain if the Navy thought earlier of the ship.

Even so, the sailors of the USS Indianapolis fought it to the end, demonstrating all the core Navy values, honor, courage and commitment. The strength of Doug Stanton’s book is that the author, in his own words “decided to cast the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis not as a history of war but as a portrait of men battling the sea.” (Stanton 2001: 314). Captain Charles McVay stands out from the rest of these people, deserving to remain in history as a sample of a man able to keep calm in the toughest circumstances.

The discovery of the ship was purely by chance. Lieutenant Commander George Atteberry flying in a Ventura bomber spotted the survivors of the crash. All he could do for the poor souls was to drop some supplies. The real help came from Lieutenant Adrian Marks piloting a PBY-5A Catalina who bravely set the plane down in the ocean. By doing so, he demonstrated his allegiance to the values of courage and commitment. Courage consists in defying circumstances by exhibiting a level of behaviour that goes way above traditional norms. Lieutenant Marks could have merely flown by – he was not required to land his plane in the raging ocean for the salvation of the people he had never met. Yet he took on the daunting task and succeeded in picking up a few survivors. He was followed a string of heroic pilots who continued the rescue operations in anticipation of the arrival of rescue ships.

The story of the USS Indianapolis was not over after the 317 survivors were rescued (the actual number of those picked up from the water was 321, but 4 later died in hospital). The Navy tried to justify the mistakes of the commandment by blaming the tragedy on Captain McVay. The caption of the USS Indianapolis was court-martialled to become “the first captain in the history of the U.S. Navy to be court-martialed subsequent to losing his ship in an act of war” (Stanton 2001: 314).  The Navy officers preparing the trial went as far as invite Commander Hashimoto, the captain of the Japanese ship that torpedoed the USS Indianapolis, for testimony. The testimony of the Japanese commander in fact disproved the allegations of the prosecution to the effect that the sinking was caused by the captain’s failure to zig-zag. Hashimoto told the court that “he would have sunk the Indianapolis no matter what course she was on.” Even though the expert testimony also corroborated the fact that the ship’s sinking was caused by other reasons and could not be blamed on McVay, the captain was convicted. Thus, the captain who was the victim of a srting of mistakes in the intelligence and organization committed by the higher-ups was left to be the scapegoat for the Indianapolis’s sinking.

The survivors of the sinking in later years did their best to reverse the conviction that smeared their leader’s name. In doing so they demonstrated an unfailing commitment to their captain’s memory. In fact, the crew was trying to remove the blemish from the memory of the man who committed suicide in 1968. The suicide was undoubtedly triggered by a sense of injustice of the court sentence; at the same time the feeling of grief was exacerbated by the hate mail that started coming to McVay’s house weeks after the trial and which “he would continue to receive for the rest of his life” (Stanton 2001:274).

The involvement of the Floridian school boy in the project helped to propel the forlorn case and resulted in the passage of an exonerating amendment by Congress on October 12, 2000. A sad end for the heroic tale the survival of the USS Indianapolis was; but even in this difficult time the crew demonstrated that they were committed to their ideals and ready to deal honestly with their leader even if this effort did not promise them any material advantage. By this they fulfilled the requirement to treat all individuals with human dignity and manifest the highest moral character embodied in the commitment core navy value.

The story of the USS Indianapolis shows how attention to small details is important in the Navy. Insignificant in the peaceful times, some measures when followed to the point, can save lives in war times. Thus, the port officers received an order to keep from reporting the arrival of every time. At their own discretion, they decided to keep from reporting cases when a ship failed to arrive on time. As a result, the non-arrival of the USS Indianapolis went unreported. The crew was deprived of the opportunity to report the catastrophe themselves because of the damage to their radio rooms. The ship was quickly submerging, and the possibility for radio calls for help was forfeited. Had the port authorities shown more commitment to what they were doing, by demonstrating a higher level of technical excellence and thoroughness, the crew of the USS Indianapolis could have been saved from the prolonged stay in the water that took about 600 lives.

There are many lessons that can be learned from the gripping story of men fighting their and others’ mistakes, enemy, and the dangers of the element. Thanks to their enormous courage and self-possession the survivors withstood the trial, not giving in to dementia or panic among the raging waves of the ocean. Their heroism can be looked up to by the modern-day warriors and sailors who set out for perilous warfare in distant areas of the earth. The crew of the Indianapolis showed themselves worthy of remembrance, and Doug Stanton’s book serves this purpose by offering objective facts captured in first-hand narratives of the participants of the event.

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