by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.
One of the most riveting scenes in the film Jaws is when the salty Captain Quint, played by Robert Shaw, tells his fellow shark hunters about his first experience with the prehistoric, undersea killers. He recounts how his ship was sunk in World War II and how he and his shipmates spent four days in the water, being savaged by swarms of sharks. It was a great bit of screenwriting that helped give Steven Spielberg his first big hit. But it was also based on a true story.
Just days before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the USS Indianapolis was sunk in what remains the worst naval disaster in the nation's history. In August, 1945, the event was overshadowed by the victory over Japan and almost forgotten. Almost.
With In Harm's Way (Henry Holt), Doug Stanton, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, has brought the story back to the forefront of America's consciousness. And with the level of interest in what Tom Brokaw has labeled "The Greatest Generation," the book has been selling briskly. But it also shares a lot of common ground with other recent bestsellers, like Into Thin Air, The Perfect Storm and Into the Heart of the Sea. It's a drama in real life that takes the reader to a place he or she would never hope to be -- but a place that still holds great fascination.
Although the story has been told before, Stanton puts his own stamp on it by bringing in the first-hand recollections of two men for the first time: Dr. Lewis Haynes, the ship's doctor, and Private Giles McCoy, a Marine assigned to the Indy.
In the waning days of World War II, the USS Indianapolis was secretly sent from San Francisco to the island of Tinian (near Guam) with precious cargo -- components of the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima to end the war. But after making the special delivery -- in record time -- the Indy became a ship without a mission. Ordered to Leyte in the Philippines to be a part of the preparations for a possible land invasion of Japan, Captain Charles McVay couldn't get the Navy to send any anti-submarine escorts with the Indy for the trip. Halfway to Leyte, the ship was sunk by two torpedoes just after midnight on July 30. The ship went down in just 12 minutes. As the surviving crew abandoned ship, they expected help to be on the way soon -- after all, they had sent off a distress signal, and if that message wasn't received, the port of Leyte would certainly notice they were missing.
The message of the sinking was received and given to a ranking officer at the base, but it was ignored -- perhaps because the Japanese were known to send false distress signals at the time. Still, the message wasn't even checked out. And as the days passed, although the Indy's tardiness was recorded by the dockmasters, the superior officers didn't think anything of it because, due to some missed communications, they weren't even sure if the Indianapolis was coming to Leyte.
"As he sailed to Leyte," Stanton writes, "Captain McVay was, essentially, a man headed nowhere."
After the sinking, which happened in one of the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean, 900 men (many of whom were really just boys, as Stanton calls them) started to collect into little groups and then drift on the ocean's currents. Another 300 didn't survive the torpedoing and sinking. And this is where the story gets really gripping. Like Into Thin Air, it's the level of pain and privation that nature can dish out -- and how much frail humans can take -- that keeps the pages turning.
"In creating this book, I decided to cast the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis not as history of war but as a portrait of men battling the sea," writes Stanton in his "Author's Notes."
And it is quite a battle. Covered in oil, the men first struggled to get on rafts or find life preservers. Some were roused from sleep, so they ended up in the water completely naked. Eventually, the salt water broke down their skin, creating open sores. Then thirst set in, and some succumbed to deadly temptation and began to drink seawater, which was a recipe for quick death. Then, in the evenings came the biggest horror of all -- shark attacks.
"We thrashed, trying to keep 'em away from us," Stanton quotes Seaman Gus Kay as recalling, "but they came right into the group... Tore guys' limbs off. The water was bloody."
The accounts of Haynes and McCoy add the kind of detail that ensures you won't forget the story any time soon. Haynes recounts meticulously collecting the dog tags of the dead, only to let them all slip under the waves in a moment of hallucination. And McCoy's raft was filled with such visions, too, as he recalls one man swimming out to his death claiming he was going to get ice cream.
When the rescue operation finally got underway four-and-a-half days after the Indianapolis sank, ships and planes plucked sailors out of a swath of sea 124 miles long. Of the 1,196 on board, only 317 survived the ordeal, including Captain McVay. It was later estimated that about 200 died in the shark attacks.
After the rescue, rather than apologize for failing to notice the Indy was missing -- or for failing to act on the initial message of the sinking -- the Navy court martialed Captain McVay for failing to zigzag his ship at night, even though the technique was thought to be of negligible value in avoiding torpedoes. The final insult was that the Navy brought the captain of the Japanese sub to Washington, D.C., to testify as to what happened. Although even that witness seemed to suggest there was nothing McVay could have done differently that night, he suffered the military's harshest rebuke.
McVay took his own life in 1968 at his Connecticut home, where he kept hundreds of letters from the families of the dead sailors who took the Navy's cue to blame him for their loss.
But many of the survivors dedicated themselves to clearing their captain's name. And despite its evenhanded tone, it's hard not to read In Harm's Way as a plea for McVay. If there is a weakness in this book (other than its rather cliched title), it is in not exploring why the Navy has been so reluctant to reverse course on the McVay decision.
Stanton makes the case that in July, 1945, the Navy let the Indy slip between the cracks of its routing protocols through a series of easily avoidable errors. Hundreds more men could have been saved, but nobody ever knew the ship was missing. If not for a bomber pilot who happened to look down during a run to Tokyo, the surviving crew might never have been saved. The author serves up the story dispassionately, but readers are bound to come away outraged.
The tragedy of the USS Indianapolis, Stanton seems to be saying, has been compounded unnecessarily by the Navy's insistence over deflecting blame away from itself. Even though an act of Congress exonerated McVay in October, 2000, the U.S. Navy has never admitted its mistake, and he remains the only captain in U.S. Naval history to have been court martialed for losing a vessel due to an act of war.