In Harm's Way

Author: Douglas Stanton
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Year: 2001
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter


     The circumstances surrounding the sinking and its aftermath are all too shocking even today.

The story of the USS Indianapolis, the last major American warship sunk in World War II, is one of the few naval disasters remembered to this day. Most probably remember the loss of the Indianapolis as the subject of a (mostly historically accurate) monologue by Robert Shawís character Quint in the movie Jaws.

Just to recap: On July 19, 1945 the USS Indianapolis, a Heavy Cruiser of the Portland-class, departed San Francisco on a secret mission to Tinian Island. Under the command of Captain Charles McVay III, she arrived at that distant island outpost on July 26th. Unbeknownst to the entire crew, the Indianapolis had delivered the components for the Little Boy atomic bomb to the 509th Composite Group based there.

The Indianapolis arrived at Guam on the 28th and set sail for Leyte in the Philippines, scheduled to arrive on July 31st. Halfway to Leyte, on the morning of the 30th, the unescorted Indianapolis was struck by two torpedoes fired from the Japanese submarine I-58. The first blew off the shipís bow; the second exploded under the bridge, cutting off electrical power. The crippled ship capsized and sank in 13 minutes, plowing onwards at 14 knots as water rushed into the bow. Amazingly, 900 of the 1,196 crewmembers survived the initial sinking.

In the rush to abandon ship, most of the lifesaving equipment, along with most of the food and fresh water, went down with the Indianapolis. When the survivors were rescued five days later, only 317 remained. The others had succumbed to starvation, dehydration, hypothermia, dementia, burns, and in at least 200 cases, shark attacks.

The circumstances surrounding the sinking and its aftermath are all too shocking even today. The Indianapolis was the first ship without anti-submarine equipment to sail the Guam-Leyte route unescorted. On July 24th 1945, the destroyer Underhill was sunk after ramming a Japanese suicide torpedo in the same area. A communications breakdown between the different Pacific naval commands occurred; the Indianapolis was considered "re-directed" until the morning of August 2nd, when a passing patrol plane spotted the remaining survivors.

Having just suffered the worst naval disaster in U.S. history, and justifiably embarrassed by the apathetic rescue effort, the Navy needed a scapegoat, and found one in Captain McVay. He was charged with "failing to issue timely orders to abandon ship" and "failure to zigzag in good visibility." Both were baseless charges; even the commander of I-58, called in to testify, thought so. Nonetheless, McVay was court maritaled, and took the sole blame for a needless tragedy that was the fault of many. Unable to bear his false "guilt" any longer, he committed suicide in 1968.

Which brings me to In Harmís Way. The 2001 Henry Holt edition of this book is a 333 page hardcover book, divided into 12 chapters, plus a bibliography and a list of citations. There are also sixteen pages of black & white photographs.

Drawing on recently released material and interviews with survivors and their families, journalist Doug Stanton tells the story from three perspectives: Captain McVay, Shipís Doctor Lewis Haynes, and Marine Private Giles McCoy.

In Harmís Way reminds me in many ways of Richard Rhodeís Dark Sun; a potential masterpiece dragged down by a multitude of nagging flaws. At the heart of the story is a gripping story of men against the sea (unlike most naval literature, which focus on men against men). Itís a story of heroism and gross negligence, one that should inspire both pride and anger in the reader. Itís the sort of story thatís too good for Hollywood - I doubt theyíd touch something this bleak and gruesome with a ten-foot pole.

When itís good, it grabs the reader and doesnít let them go. From the moment the Indianapolis is struck up to the rescue of the survivors, In Harmís Way is a gripping and frequently disturbing read. Stanton holds little back regarding the struggles of the men in the water, dispassionately detailing the effects of anemia, hypothermia (yes, it can happen in 85-degree water), photophobia, and starvation. After a while, I began to wonder if any rescue was possible - despite knowing how the story ended.

What went wrong? None of the problems plaguing this book are major, and wonít bother the average reader. But there are a number of things I take issue with. First on the table is Stantonís continued insistence on referring to the shipís enlisted crew as "boys." Okay, some of them were boys - seventeen, maybe eighteen years old. The Indianapolis had accumulated ten Battle Stars by July 1945, and many of these "boys" were grown men, and had seen more action than their superiors (or should I call them "men?"). These men had their duties and responsibilities, were treated as men, and often died as men. This sort of moniker just reeks of modern day political correctness, and drove me a little crazy after a while. The crew of the Indianapolis did not consist entirely of doe-eyed kids.

My second issue relates to the condescending, or perhaps ignorant, tone that Stanton takes for much of the book. I canít decide if this guy either a.) knows so much about naval affairs he feels the need to talk down to the reader, or  b.) underestimates the readerís knowledge of naval affairs and dumbs everything down to a low level. On numerous occasions, Stanton pauses to explain the difference between port and starboard, how fast a "knot" is, and so on. He describes depth charges as "55-gallon drums filled with Torpex" that "surrounded subs in clouds of sonic concussions, which shook the submarine until it sank." Say what?

Most egregiously, he describes I-58ís deck-mounted machine gun as designed to "sweep the water clear of the torpedoed enemyís survivors." Iím not going to go revisionist and say the Japanese never fired on survivors on the water. They could have used it to open bottles of Sake for all it matters. Guns themselves donít kill people, and that machine gun was designed for defense against attacking aircraft. Iíve read reviews from former naval officers pointing out Stantonís ignorance on matters of shipboard terminology and customs. As a civilian, Iím not going to comment on this, but Iíll take their word for it.

Finally, the book seems to rush along at times, especially after the survivors' rescue. McVayís court martial is zipped by in six pages, while a fight that resulted in the death of 50 survivors in glossed over in a single page.

It seems that everyone is singing the praises of In Harmís Way, while I walked away feeling rather disappointed. The Indianapolis story deserves better than this. It deserves an unbiased, steadily paced volume, written by a consummate naval professional. Perhaps Iím just asking for to much, but this book was somewhat of a bitter pill for me to swallow.

So letís bow our heads to the men (not boys!) of the Indianapolis and pray that such a fate never again befalls an American warship. They died, unnecessarily, for the better world we live in today. After Iím done with my silent reverie, Iíll start wishing for a book that does the Indianapolis story justice.



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