Review: Indianapolis

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Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent ManLynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A narrative of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine at the end of World War Two, the five day struggle for survival that took the lives of nearly two-thirds of those who made it into the water, and the fifty-year effort to exonerate her court-martialed captain.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis was a storied ship. For a time, it was the ship of state for Franklin Roosevelt. Subsequently, it was the flagship of the naval fleet in the Pacific theater, winning ten battle stars. After refitting due to a kamikaze strike, it is sent on a super-secret mission to deliver the components of one of the atomic bombs that ended the war. Then, just after midnight on July 30, 1945, a Japanese submarine surfaced within striking distance as Indianapolis, under command of decorated Captain Charles McVay III, was steaming unescorted to the Philippine Island for crew training. Two torpedos sink the ship in twelve minutes. Nine hundred of the twelve hundred men, including McVay make it off the ship due to his abandon ship orders. SOS messages had been sent, although whether the radio equipment was working at that point was in doubt.

Days and nights elapse in the oil-slicked waters where survivors board rafts, nets, or simply hold onto each other, staying afloat with their slowly water-logging life jackets. Somehow, no one realizes the ship is missing and no search is mounted. Men succumb to injuries, or the consequences of drinking salt water when desperately thirsty, or to sharks. After five nights and four days, only a little over 300 are still alive. Only then are they spotted by a patrol plane and a rescue operation mounted, some dying even as they attempt to swim to rescue. Only 316 survive.

While the men’s physical ordeal has come to an end, that of Captain McVay is only beginning. Before leaving for the Philippines, he was assured there was no enemy activity along his route, despite intelligence to the contrary never communicated him. Because of overcast conditions, he had secured the ship from zig-zagging, a defensive measure, which was normal practice given what he knew. Nevertheless, he faced a rushed court martial for negligence that resulted in the ship’s sinking, on which he was found guilty, even while exculpatory evidence was either being covered up or developed. The failures of others were covered up, only he was held to account.

The last part of the story is about the efforts of a group of the survivors, the captain of the modern namesake submarine, William J. Toti, and a precocious eighth grade boy. Hunter Scott’s history project turns into a crusade that takes him to the halls of Congress and an appearance as witness in a Senate hearing, and is the most inspiring and heartening part of the book. Sadly, Captain McVay did not live to see this, only one of his sons.

This is a wonderfully told story that manages to fuse human and technical elements into a page-turning narrative. We experience the moments of fear, panic, and the shipboard disciplines of those last twelve minutes of Indianapolis. We sense the growing despair and struggles to sustain hope and sanity as hours stretch into days, and good friends succumb to injuries or sharks. We share the growing awareness of all who look into the court martial of McVay that a cover up has taken place, and an injustice done. All of this propels us to keep reading to see how this will resolve, and whether there will be survivors to celebrate. Whether you are a naval history buff, or simply enjoy a good story, this one has all the elements to be your next great read.

4 thoughts on “Review: Indianapolis

  1. I was just talking about this event to my daughter and wife, and sure enough your book review turns up. This book sounds like a fine, current examination of the subject and, because information continues to be discovered about the Indianapolis sinking, there continues to be a need for updated books. Not surprisingly, the Indianapolis sinking remains a little-known event in our country’s history. I am sure Youngstown had at least several men go down with the Indianapolis (the little Ohio village in which I live, Byesville, had one Indianapolis victim, sailor Fain Laughlin.)

    • I’m glad the review was timely. I did not mention it in the review, but Cdr. Toti, on the sub, USS Indianapolis, is a Youngstown native, and played a key part in the captain’s exoneration.

  2. The book was excellent. Unfortunately, the description of the court martial and the cover up are just two more reasons why people have trouble believing anything the government says.

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