In Harm's Way
Four days where life and death held hands
Reviewed By Steven Martinovich
The sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the harrowing four and a half days spent in shark-infested waters by her survivors has now, thanks to numerous books, articles and documentaries, assumed a mythic stature in American military history. As familiar as the story is, the sinking continues to be a minor industry with new books, articles and documentaries continuing to be produced.
For those unfamiliar with the story: The USS Indianapolis completed a top-secret mission to deliver components for the Little Boy atomic bomb that would in a few weeks time be dropped on Hiroshima. On July 30, 1945, while on her way to Leyte, a Japanese submarine sank the Indianapolis and thanks to a tragic series of errors few in the U.S. Navy were aware that the Indianapolis was missing. For the next 112 hours, the survivors - 900 out of a crew of 1 114 are estimated to have survived the ship's sinking - were ravaged by exposure to salt water, sun, a lack of food or water, injuries, and hundreds - if not thousands - of sharks. By the time they were accidentally discovered, only 321 men were alive to be pulled from the water.
As Robert Stinnet's Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor had to follow Walter Lord's Day of Infamy, so to does In Harm's Way compete with a classic, in this case it's the recently reissued Abandon Ship!: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster by Richard F. Newcomb. The strength of Newcomb's book lies in the fact that in 1958, when it was written, getting firsthand accounts from the survivors was relatively simple. With the effect of time, Doug Stanton's job was made more difficult. Without more firsthand accounts, Stanton's effort will only be compelling if he manages to put the reader into the water, surrounded by the dead and dying crew of the Indianapolis.
To do that, Stanton tells the story from three perspectives: Dr. Lewis Haynes, Captain Charles McVay and Marine Pfc. Giles McCoy. Stanton also makes use of documents unavailable to Newcomb and instead of the academic tone of Abandon Ship!, instead takes a relaxed approach, freely mixing the anecdotes of survivors with documented occurrences. The result is a powerfully intimate story of men victimized by the sea and forgotten by their navy.
No book could never accurately capture a four-day long horror of seeing friends pulled apart by sharks or men so wounded physically and psychologically they decide to commit suicide and simply undo the straps of their lifejackets, sinking immediately and forever. Men pushed so far past their mental limits that they begin killing each other because they hallucinated the Japanese had surrounded them. Men who only survived because a passing Ventura bomber just happened to see the oil slick the Indianapolis bled during its death throes. Despite that, Stanton is able to slowly ratchet the tension as he chronicles the four days until the burst of relief when the men of the Indianapolis are finally saved.
As Stanton tells it, the lives of most of the survivors ultimately returned to normal, "some of the survivors returned to military service, while others drifted back into civilian life and disappeared inside whiskey bottles." Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation survived their horror and simply rejoined society and the same responsibilities, successes and failures as everyone else. Life for McVay, however, wasn't pleasant. He was court-martialed, the only captain in American history to be charged for having his ship sunk due to wartime action, and his career was destroyed. Dogged by grief, depression and the blame of the families ("Merry Christmas! Our family's holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn't killed my son." - read one piece of hate mail), McVay committed suicide in November 1968.
As complete as In Harm's Way seems, Stanton does drop the ball occasionally, most notably with an unsatisfying treatment of recent efforts to clear McVay's name, a goal finally achieved in October 2000 when Congress passed an amendment exonerating him, though it notably did not clear the conviction from his record. Stanton's effort, however, is ultimately successful and paints a remarkable picture of unspeakable horror, endurance, heroism, and the strength of the human spirit. It may be familiar ground that Stanton has covered, but he's given us a valuable new perspective.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
Buy In Harm's Way The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors at Amazon.com for $20 (20% off). A portion of the author's proceeds from hardcover sales will be donated to the USS Indianapolis Survivor's Fund.
For more information, photographs and multimedia regarding the USS Indianapolis, her crew and its sinking, visit the official web site for the book at http://www.ussindianapolisinharmsway.com/
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