01 August 2001

Book Review: In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors (2001), by Doug Stanton, *****

Synopsis

The USS Indianapolis was the last ship sunk during the Second World War. Savaged by a salvo of torpedoes from a Japanese submarine, the warship, one of the fastest in the US Navy, sank in a matter of minutes. One thousand two hundred men went into the water, and only 321 were to survive. This is their story. On 30 July 1945 the Indianapolis was returning from the small island of Tinian, having delivered the components of the atom bomb ‘little boy’, which was to decimate Hiroshima and bring on the end of the war. As the torpedoes ripped into the side of the ship hundreds of men were killed. Those lucky enough to survive were to face extremes of physical and mental hardship in the water. Many were left to float in the ocean with little or no food or drinking water in deteriorating life jackets and, most chillingly of all, open to attacks by sharks...

The testimonies of those who lived speak of the extremes of human emotion, incredible courage and unforgettable despair. The visceral experiences of those five days were to haunt them for the rest of their lives. The Indianapolis was captained by the dashing and charismatic Captain Butler McVay, and his story is a tragic one. For a captain to lose his ship in combat is perhaps the hardest blow, but McVay was doubly marked, as he was held responsible for the loss and court-martialled – the only naval captain ever to be court-martialled for the sinking of his ship. Twenty years after the Indianapolis went to the bottom, tormented by the experience and the resentment of many of the families of those who lost their lives in the disaster, he took his own life. Those who also survived maintain that there was nothing he could have done to prevent the disaster, and continue to campaign to clear the captain’s name. This book is also his story.


Review

This is a gripping story. The Indianapolis carried one of the nuclear weapons that would be dropped on Japan across the Pacific, and was sunk just days after it had delivered its cargo. Tragic irony the shippers of the most powerful weapon endured one of the most dramatic battle losses of America in WWII. The ship was sunk by a lone Japanese submarine in the very last few days of the war. But the nighttime sinking was only the beginning of a nightmare that would go on for days in the water of the Pacific and for decades after that. One of the last to die was the ship's captain, who committed suicide after being accused (in my view, unfairly) of being responsible for the sinking. Even the Japanese sub captain testified the Indy stood no chance when torpedoed at point blank distance. It is hard to put down this book...



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