In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and The Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors

Overview

July 30, 1945. After completing a top secret mission to the island of Tinian to deliver parts of the atom bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima, the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis was torpedoed in the South Pacific by a Japanese submarine. An estimated 300 men were killed on impact; close to 900 were cast into the sea. After five days, when the Navy accidentally realized the ship was missing, only 321 men were still alive, having battled hypothermia, sharks, and hallucinatory dementia. Four more would die in ...

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Overview

July 30, 1945. After completing a top secret mission to the island of Tinian to deliver parts of the atom bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima, the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis was torpedoed in the South Pacific by a Japanese submarine. An estimated 300 men were killed on impact; close to 900 were cast into the sea. After five days, when the Navy accidentally realized the ship was missing, only 321 men were still alive, having battled hypothermia, sharks, and hallucinatory dementia. Four more would die in military hospitals shortly thereafter.

The highly unusual court-martial of the Indianapolis's captain, Charles Butler McVay, opened up the tragedy to scrutiny: How did the Navy fail to realize the ship was missing? Why was it traveling unescorted in enemy waters? And, perhaps most amazingly of all, how did these 317 men manage to survive?

In Harm's Way casts the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis not as a history of war, but as a portrait of men battling the sea. Interweaving the stories of three survivors—Captain McVay; the ship's doctor; and a young marine private—this astonishing human drama is brought to life in a narrative that is at once immediate and timeless.

Drawing on new material and extensive interviews with survivors, In Harm's Way relates the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis not as a history of war, but as a portrait of men battling the sea. Interweaving the stories of three survivors - Charles Butler McVay, the captain; Lewis Haynes, the ship's doctor; and Private Giles McCoy, a young marine - journalist Doug Stanton has brought this astonishing human drama to life in a narrative that is at once immediate and timeless.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
How does a U.S. battle cruiser, torpedoed by a Japanese sub in the Pacific, go completely undetected by the Navy for five days? How did the 900 survivors of the blast -- thrown into the water and left to fight off hypothermia, sharks, and mounting despair -- get through the ordeal? In the compelling pages of In Harm's Way, Doug Stanton draws on previously unknown information and has conducted extensive interviews with the survivors of the USS Indianapolis in order to bring this amazing WWII tale of courage and sacrifice to the reader.

Stanton begins by presenting a look at Indianapolis captain Charles McVay, the only captain of a sunken ship to be court-martialed for "negligence." Stanton presents McVay as a precise and thoughtful commander who cared deeply for his crew -- and who wound up emotionally devastated by the sinking and its aftermath.

Ship's doctor Lewis Haynes is also profiled. When the ship is hit, Haynes's life is saved by an officer who warns him of imminent danger -- before being incinerated before Haynes's eyes by the force of an explosive flash fire. When the crew then abandons ship and winds up in the Pacific, Haynes does all he can to attend to the wounded while (literally) trying to talk them out of suicide.

Meanwhile Giles McCoy, a young marine private eager for some military action, finds his military toughness tested when he finds himself trying to herd the crewmembers -- scattered and drifting randomly through the oil-slicked waters -- together into a cohesive group.

Stanton alternates between relating the experiences of these three key men and detailing the frustratingly complex behind-the-scenes bureaucracy of the Navy. The Navy, amazingly, allowed the cruiser, which had just delivered the integral components of the "Little Boy" atomic bomb to Tinian Island in the South Pacific, to cross the Pacific unescorted -- a decision practically unheard of in wartime. The position of the Indianapolis was unknown to the Navy because of a series of snafus that defy belief -- each naval division, basically, thought another knew where the ship was!

The centerpiece of the book -- one that will chill every reader to the bone -- is the nearly five-day ordeal experienced by the 300 men adrift in the ocean: no food, no water, some burned so badly that their flesh hung off their bodies, some blinded, all at the mercy of hundreds of hungry sharks! It's an ordeal that is simply unthinkable and unbelievable -- but it happened.

After the rescue of the survivors -- only 317 out of the original crew complement of 1,196 survived -- came the court-martial of McVay, a man already consumed with grief and loss. What was the primary charge? "Failure to abandon ship in a timely manner." Since the ship had been torpedoed and sunk in a matter of moments, this was a bitter pill indeed. But McVay -- who would eventually take his own life -- felt responsible for the ship and his men, so he didn't contest his punishment. Based on Stanton's spellbinding account, however, it seems that it was the Navy itself which should have been on trial. (Nicholas Sinisi)

Nicholas Sinisi is the Barnes & Noble.com History Editor.

Mark Bowden
. . . powerfully-written account of a nightmare at sea, one of the most poignant tragedies and injustices of World War II . . .
James Bradley
. . . has done . . . a service by bringing the incredible yet almost-forgotten story of the USS Indianapolis to heart-pounding life . . .  
Rick Atkinson
A haunting story of valor, iniquity, and young men in peril on the sea . . . infuriating, mesmerizing, and heartbreaking . . .
Stephen E. Ambrose
. . . writes carefully and judiciously, with . . . timing and an eye for the right detail . . . the most frightening book I've ever read.
Mark Bowden
. . . thoroughly researched, powerfully-written account of a nightmare at sea, one of the most poignant tragedies . . . of World War II . . .
James Bradley
Doug Stanton has done this country a service by bringing the incredible yet almost-forgotten story of the USS Indianapolis. . .
Rick Atkinson
A haunting story of valor, iniquity, and young men in peril on the sea . . .
Tom Brokaw
...a stunning book.
Stephen E. Ambrose
. . . For Captain Charles McVay and his crew, their five days in the ocean were gruesome and terrible almost beyond description . . .
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Given the stringent precision of the U.S. Navy and military during wartime, how could a WWII battleship carrying over 1,000 men be torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sink, leaving the survivors to bob in the Pacific Ocean at the mercy of elements and predators, without anyone realizing the loss for more than four days? Stanton not only offers a well-researched chronicle of what is widely regarded as the worst naval disaster in U.S. history, but also vividly renders the combatants' hellish ordeal during the sinking, and the ensuing days at sea as well as attempts to cope with the traumatic aftermath. Stanton documents the facts of the case, embellishing his story with lurid details gleaned from interviews with survivors. Though the ship's captain would become the first and only in U.S. naval history to be court-martialed for the loss of his ship, Stanton offers a solid body of evidence to justify the survivors' partially successful efforts to exonerate him. Stanton's omniscient narrative shifts among the individual perspectives of several principal characters, a successful technique that contributes to the book's absorbing, novelistic feel. Readers, of course, must trust Stanton and his research in order to be truly consumed, but the authority of his voice should win over all but the most obsessive skeptics. Illuminating and emotional without being maudlin, Stanton's book helps explain what many have long considered an inexplicable catastrophe. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
On the cloudy night of July 30,1945, the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis slipped out of the darkness into a patch of bright moonlight—and squarely in front of one of Japan's few remaining submarines. Traveling at high speed, the big warship was ripped by torpedoes and sank beneath the waves before an alarm could be raised. Incredibly, it took days for the naval command to realize that one of its major fleet units had vanished. When rescuers finally reached the scene, five interminable days later, they found a scant 300 dazed survivors scattered over the sea. The Navy's response to the debacle was to court-martial the Indianapolis' captain. Of some 400 American skippers who lost their vessels to enemy action during the war, Captain Charles B. McVay was the only one to be punished. The tragedy of the Indianapolis can be approached in several ways: as an ironic footnote to a vast sea war that was already won; as a story of the cruel role that chance plays in warfare; or as an indictment of the U.S. Navy's bungling of the rescue and its shameful scapegoating of Captain McVay. Stanton has chosen instead to focus on the victims. The heart of the book is virtually a man-by-man and minute-by-minute account of the five-day ordeal of the survivors amid the sharks and the pitiless sun. The story makes for grim reading. A reader can enjoy the vicarious horrors of a Jaws-type thriller, always comfortably aware that the story is pure fiction. Not so in this case. Author Stanton immersed himself in interviewing the dwindling number of Indianapolis survivors to the point where the project nearly took over his life. Each fact, each nuance in the book came directly from someone's hard-won experience. Thereare no winners in a life drama such as this: a taut, beautiful ship destroyed; hundreds of men dead who might have been rescued; a captain dishonored to the point of suicide—and a Japanese submarine skipper well aware that his victory meant absolutely nothing to the course of the war. Category: History & Geography. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, St. Martin's, 330p. illus. map. bibliog. index., ; Historian, Edwards Air Force Base, CA
Library Journal
Who can forget the crusty, narrow-eyed shark hunter Quint, played by Robert Shaw, in the blockbuster movie Jaws? He growls out the story of the USS Indianapolis he had been a member of its crew, he says a battle cruiser that was sunk in the South Pacific in 12 minutes by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine. The ship had just finished a secret run to Tinian with parts of the Hiroshima atom bomb. The Navy refused to provide a destroyer escort, even though there was solid intelligence about the presence of the sub. Three hundred men were killed outright; 900 were thrown into the sea. Five days later, when the Navy accidentally figured out that the ship was missing, only 321 men were left; sharks, hypothermia, starvation and thirst, and hallucinatory dementia had taken the rest. The story of Captain Charles Butler McVay is particularly heart-wrenching: he became the only ship's captain to be court-martialed during the war. Many years later he committed suicide, with the Navy still insisting upon his guilt in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A fascinating, horrible tale, and Stanton brings it off well, supported skillfully by American-voiced Boyd Gaines. For collections of military and World War II history. Don Wismer, Cary Memorial Lib., Wayne, ME Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-On July 16, 1945, the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis left San Francisco for Tinian Island in the South Pacific. The secret mission, the identity of which was unknown to even Captain Charles Butler McVay, was to deliver parts for the atomic bomb "Little Boy" that was to be dropped on Hiroshima. After the delivery, the ship headed to Guam where it was to rejoin the fleet for the proposed invasion of Japan. It never made it. On July 29, 1945, the cruiser was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Stanton begins this harrowing true story with Captain McVay's suicide in 1968, and continues in a style that reads like an adventure novel. More than 1200 men were aboard the Indianapolis when it left San Francisco; approximately 300 were killed by the torpedoes. The rest were tossed into the South Pacific and remained there for nearly five days facing dehydration, starvation, exposure, and recurring shark attacks. Due to a series of tragic errors, no rescue operation was mounted. The 321 men who ultimately survived (four of whom subsequently died) were found purely by accident. Captain McVay, scapegoated by the Navy, was court-martialed and convicted of negligence, despite the ongoing protests of his remaining crew. At the time, their story was lost in the euphoria of Japan's surrender and the Navy's desire to ignore their errors. It is time their story is told and Stanton has done it magnificently, with meticulous research and great poignancy.-Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A crisp, well-executed reconstruction of naval warfare's darkest chapter: the sinking and abandonment of the USS Indianapolis. Men's Journal editor Stanton sets out to vindicate Captain Charles McVay and to force the navy to declassify information relating to one of the worst disasters in naval history. After fulfilling a secret mission (the delivery of atomic bomb parts from Guam to Tinian) in July 1945, the cruiser Indianapolis was sent for gunnery practice in Leyte—without destroyer escort, and without classified information regarding Japanese submarine activity. The ship was torpedoed and sank in approximately 12 minutes, spilling about 900 sailors into the Pacific. On shore, her hurried SOS message was intercepted, then disregarded, by the radioman's commanding officer. Furthermore, she was not noted missing by naval administrators for more than five days. Following a suspenseful account of the sinking, Stanton assembles a detailed chronology of the horrors endured by the floating survivors via a risky device: He narrates the sinking and its aftermath by assuming the voices of Captain McVay, the ship's doctor, and one of the few surviving Marine guards. The latter two (and other survivors) were interviewed by Stanton; McVay, the only Navy captain ever court-martialed for losing his ship in wartime, shot himself in 1968 after years of torment. The author's minute depiction of their privations—from shark attacks that killed an estimated 200 to homicidal dementia—is appropriately terrifying; he captures his characters' surreal horror at watching their comrades needlessly perish prior to a belated rescue (which is also dramatically rendered). The conclusionexplores the remaining survivors' efforts to officially clarify what really happened (and McVay's actual heroism), but the dark heart of the tale lies in its sustained, gruesome survival narrative. Stanton's prose has qualities of jittery brightness, but this dramatic recreation plays to his strengths and feels passionate and correct. His personal veneration of the survivors sustains a positive tone, despite uglier historical truths.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780694524358
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/10/2001
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Abridged, 4 Cassettes
  • Pages: 6
  • Product dimensions: 4.34 (w) x 7.09 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Doug Stanton

Doug Stanton is a former contributing editor at Esquire and Outside, and is currently a contributing editor at Men's journal. He lives in northern Michigan.

Boyd Gains has won Tony Awards' for his roles in Contact, She Loves Me and The Heidi Chronicles. He has appeared on screen in I'm Not Rappaport and Heartbreak Ridge and on numerous television shows including Law & Order, L.A. Law and Frasier.

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Read an Excerpt

SUNDAY, JULY 15, 1945
San Francisco, California 

The ship was still tied up in the harbor at Mare Island, but already the captain felt it was drifting out of his control.

Marching up the gangway of the vessel under his command, the USS Indianapolis, Captain Charles McVay was a man perplexed. Reaching the top, he turned toward the stern, saluted the flag, and strode on through the bronze light of the chill California morning, stepping past the electricians, painters, and engineers working on deck. No one watching the forty-six-year-old McVay, dressed smartly in his khaki and crisp campaign hat — its black vinyl bill decorated with gold braid that the enlisted men called "scrambled eggs" — would have guessed the depth of his concern. He hid it well.

He had just come from an early morning meeting at U.S. naval headquarters in downtown San Francisco. The meeting, with Admiral William R. Purnell and Captain William S. Parsons, had been disappointingly quick and to the point: this morning he was to take his ship from the Mare Island navy yard, thirty miles north of San Francisco, to Hunters Point navy yard, located just outside the city in San Francisco Bay. Once at Hunters Point, McVay was told, the Indy would take on board what was described only as a "secret project" before departing for the Pacific.

The meeting was over in less than an hour, and it failed to provide much information on his ship's new assignment.

McVay had a lot on his mind, much of it worrisome. Since May, the Indy had been docked at Mare Island, where it had been undergoing extensive repairs that were expected to take at least four months. Then suddenly everything had been accelerated. Three days ago, on July 12, McVay had received mysterious orders from naval command to immediately ready his crew for a secret mission.

Hundreds of telegrams left the ship, calling the crew of 1,196 boys to sea; they had — at the most — just ninety-six hours to execute the command. Some of the veteran crewmen were dispersed across the country, on leave or at temporary training schools. The majority of the crew had stayed at the marine and naval barracks at Mare Island, killing time by drinking beer, chasing girls, and playing cards. Still others were being called to the ship — and to war — for the first time.

They came streaming to Mare Island and to the ship, stepping over tangled nests of air and water hoses, tools, and debris spread on her deck. McVay had watched as the newest crew members came on board, the older veterans cheering them on: "Hey, boys! Look at him," they cried out. "Ain't he pretty? Why, he doesn't even look like he's shaving yet!"

McVay understood how large the war loomed in the minds of these boys, "green hands" and veterans alike, who during these last few days had made love one last time, gotten drunk one last time, wrote last letters to mothers and fathers, and prepared to settle on board the Indy, into the rhythm of getting ready for sea. Rumors had started flying that the ship was headed back to the Philippines, then on to the massive invasion of Japan and its home islands, code names Operation Coronet and Olympic. But this morning, not even Captain McVay had any idea of their final destination.

He'd been told that the earliest the ship would leave San Francisco would be July 16, which was tomorrow. McVay had been given four days to do what seemed impossible. During the past twenty-four hours, he'd been crashing through night fog and heavy seas around the Farallon Islands, thirty miles west of the San Francisco coast, running the Indy through abbreviated but punishing sea trials. The crew had practiced radar alerts, radar jamming, and emergency turns. The Indy performed well, all things considered.

But how well was good enough? The ship was still fresh from the disaster that had necessitated all the repair work: on March 31, the Indy had suffered a nearly fatal kamikaze attack off the island of Okinawa. The incident had left nine men dead, twenty-nine wounded. One of McVay's boys, bugler second-class E. P. Procai, had been laid to rest at sea, accompanied by a twenty-one-gun salute. The remaining eight sailors were interred on one of the tiny islands west of Okinawa, a repair facility for damaged destroyers and a burial ground for the dead.

After the attack at Okinawa, the Indy had limped the 6,000 miles back across the Pacific. Two of her propeller shafts, a fuel tank, and her water distillation plant had been badly damaged. Back on land, some of the crew had begun asking for transfers off the ship. "When we get hit again," they were saying, "you'll be able to drive a bus through the hole." The Indy, they grumbled, had "turned poor."

 

They now wondered if she was an unlucky ship.

Not long after the captain's return, at about 10 A.M., Dr. Lewis Haynes heard the hiss of the Indy's PA system, a sound like air rushing through a hose, which was followed by the shrill piping of the boatswain's pipe. "Now hear this, now hear this!" came the announcement. The doctor listened as McVay's soft voice echoed through the morning air: "Men," he told his crew, "we are headed tomorrow morning to the forward area." This meant they were going back into the war zone.

The boys halted in midstride and in midchore — brooms and water hoses cradled in their arms as they cocked ears to the speakers tacked to the bulkheads, or outer walls, of the ship. They were to depart immediately, the captain announced, for Hunters Point, a supply depot and loading point of final stores for Pacific-bound ships. And then the captain delivered the news that a sailor dreads hearing: all shore liberties for the evening were canceled. McVay signed off, "That is all." The PA line went dead.

A groan went up among some of the boys. They had plans — and these included getting into San Francisco tonight. The city, still a Wild West town, was the last stop for Pacific-bound sailors, who congregated at all-girlie shows at the "Street of Paris" on Mason. In the three and a half years since Pearl Harbor, several million soldiers had passed through; in the last four months alone, the army and navy had shipped more than 320,000 troops from the port city.

McVay next gave the order to sail, and minutes later, the Indy backed from the pier at Mare Island and cruised past Alcatraz Island into the wide, placid water of San Francisco Bay. Soon the sun having risen high and the morning's fog burned off, she was snug to the wharf at Hunters Point, standing motionless against her mammoth eight-inch hawsers sprung from bow and stern.

Dr. Haynes had thought the abrupt change in the ship's plans was odd. The inquisitive, red-haired physician had been under the impression that preparations were being made to get the ship ready to join Task Force 95.6 for the invasion of Japan. At the moment, the task force was in the Philippines, and the invasion was scheduled for the end of the year, which was still about four and a half months away.

The war in Europe was over, and the Pacific theater was paused before this final assault on the Japanese homeland. Two months earlier, Germany had surrendered; the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, had left the U.S. First Army with 6,603 casualties, 1,465 of them fatal. But this paled in comparison to the estimated toll for the invasion of Japan: at least 500,000 American casualties. The boys of the Indy talked openly and often with one another about whether they'd survive the battle. On the island of Tinian, which the Indy had bombarded and helped secure in 1944, there were reports that Japanese troops were still hiding in the jungle hills, resorting to cannibalism to survive, and that they could hold out another five years against an invading force. The end of the war seemed near to some, Haynes knew, yet to many it still felt like a dream.

This morning, he wondered how a ship like the USS Indianapolis was going to shorten the war. And he thought of home.

During the Indy's furlough, Haynes had been lucky enough to return to Connecticut for several weeks, where he played in the surf with his wife and two young sons and felt the pure joy of not being at war wash over him. At thirty-three, he was one of the oldest, most well-seasoned sailors aboard the ship. In 1941, on the destroyer Reuben James, he'd ridden out a North Atlantic hurricane that no one aboard thought they'd survive. He also held an informal record for continuous duty at sea. Before being assigned to the Indy, he'd logged thirty-nine months without a leave while aboard destroyers and the battleship USS New Mexico. He never complained to his superior officers about his unusually long stint — except once, which was the same day he was awarded leave. His thinking was: he had an important job to do. And that was saving boys' lives.

He almost hadn't made it home to Connecticut last month. Scraping by on his meager lieutenant commander's pay, Haynes had decided he couldn't afford the train fare. He hadn't seen his wife or sons in six months, but he was broke. Then one afternoon as he was sitting at the tiny desk in his berth reading a Zane Grey novel borrowed from the ship's library, Father Conway, a former Dominican monk from Buffalo, New York, scratched at the black curtain that served as Haynes's door.

Haynes and the ship's dignified priest were friends, and sometimes they went on liberty together. Conway asked Haynes when he was going home. "Well, Tom," Haynes replied, "I have this problem. I can't afford it." Conway left, and Haynes returned to his novel. The next day, the priest tossed a handful of bills on the doctor's desk. "There now," he said, smiling, "you are going home!" Haynes could have wept over the kindness.

He had been back on the ship two weeks now, working temporary duty in the naval yard's medical dispensary. Besides the usual cases of tonsillectomies and circumcisions — many of the boys, apparently, hadn't been able to afford, or had never considered, getting a circumcision before joining the navy, and Haynes performed so many for the Indy's crew that they'd renamed her the "clipper ship" — there were more disturbing, war-induced maladies. One crew member was admitted to the hospital with a case of tuberculosis. Another walked in with a harder-to-treat diagnosis of "nightmares." Haynes, like Conway, understood how hard it was for some of these boys to come back to the ship. He had heard them refer to the Indy's hurried departure from San Francisco as a major piece of "grab ass." How were they supposed to say good-bye so quickly to a place that had become their home away from home?

After the Indianapolis had sailed into San Francisco for repairs in May, many of the crew had telegrammed girlfriends, wives, and family members, who flocked to the city and rented apartments, found jobs, and set up housekeeping. New lives had quickly taken root on land. Some boys got married. Women got pregnant. Brothers were reunited.

The boys of the Indy fell in love with San Francisco, where in diners and soda shops Benny Goodman was on the radio; beer cost fifteen cents a bottle; Luckies were a dime a pack. In July, the Fillmore was showing Bob Hope's flick Give Me a Sailor, and the Paramount was playing The Call of the Wild, starring Clark Gable. If the boys were feeling flush, they'd drink at the Top of the Mark hotel overlooking San Francisco Bay; if they were broke, they would stumble into Slapsy Maxie's and drink on a tab the patriotic bartender was in no hurry to collect on. Their average age was nineteen, and for many this was their first time on their own.

During the summer, there had been no end to the ways the boys could get into trouble. (The Bluejackets' Manual, a sailor's handbook of proper conduct, had warned of all sorts of dangers: "Bad women can ruin your bodily health" admonished one chapter. "Bad women especially are the cause of much grief. Sexual intercourse is positively not necessary for healthy and proper manly development." And this bit of advice to the down-hearted: "You will be homesick for a while. We all were. You are starting a new life. Grin and bear it as we all did. No man ever succeeded by hanging on to his mother's apron strings all his life.") One sailor was arrested for "attempting to urinate in public view," and another was cited for "possession of a knife while on liberty." The knife-wielding sailor lost the privilege of five future liberties, and the urinator was fined and sentenced to twenty days' confinement in the ship's brig, an airless cell deep in the ,Indy's stern. He was fed bread and water.

Captain McVay was billeted, along with his newlywed wife of one year, Louise, in a comfortable but spare officers' community of apartments named Coral Sea Village located within the confines of the Marc Island navy yard. With time on his hands while the Indy was undergoing repairs, McVay, like his young crew, also found ways to enjoy himself. Shortly before receiving his surprise orders, he'd taken a brief, impromptu fishing trip to a steelhead trout river north of San Francisco.

The more serious business of preparing the ship for departure was a round-the-clock-affair, however. Thousands of rounds of ammo were loaded and dropped by elevator into the ship's magazine near the bow. Over 60,000 gallons of fuel oil were pumped into her tanks, and she took on 3,500 gallons of aviation fuel for the ship's reconnaissance plane. Food for the crew came aboard and was measured by the ton. One of the urns in the ship's galley could brew 40 gallons of the precious, eye-opening coffee in a single batch. A typical list of stores consumed each week included 300 pounds of bread, 295 pounds of squash, 26 pounds of avocados, 672 pounds of apples, 1,155 pounds of oranges, 670 pounds of grapefruit, 305 pounds of celery, 476 pounds of tomatoes 845 pounds of cabbage, 300 pounds of turnips, 70 pounds of fresh fish, 493 pounds of carrots, 341 pounds of cauliflower, and 665 pounds of corn.

And ice cream. The boys could eat about twenty-five gallons of ice cream in a week, which the galley's cooks kept stored in walk-in freezers. Their favorite flavors were peppermint and tropical passion. Ice cream was so loved by sailors that mess-hall cooks ran an ice cream parlor aboard the Indy, called a "gedunk" stand. In the military, everything had a nickname. A beer parlor was called a "slop chute." Candy bars were named "pogey bait." A Dear John letter was also known as a "green banana," and the advance of a sailor's pay was called a "dead horse." But the men of the USS Indianapolis had no easy slang to describe the way most of them felt about leaving San Francisco.

 

Under the feet of marine private Giles McCoy, the ship's gray, steel quarterdeck, located in the middle of the ship, hummed. The low-wave frequency came up through his bones, shook him, told him: something's in the wind today, boy.

At Mare Island, after Captain McVay's announcement that they would sail this morning to Hunters Point, marine captain Edward Parke had gathered his detachment of thirty-nine marines and explained that at Hunters Point they were about to assume special guard dudes of the utmost importance.

An imposing man in his early thirties, with sandy hair, a barrel chest, and blue eyes that some of his men said pierced like daggers (more than one thought he bore a striking resemblance to Burt Lancaster), Parke had said nothing more; that was all they would need to know.

A marine detachment aboard a navy ship sleeps in its own separate compartment — away from the ship's crew — and operates the onboard brig, or jail; fires the guns during battle; and provides all-around security for the ship. As part of this group, Private McCoy was eager for the opportunity to be part of something big. He looked up to Captain Parke, a hero who had fought at Guadalcanal and earned the Purple Heart. Parke sometimes let him tag along on liberty; before setting out for a night on the town, he would unpin his insignia identifying him as an officer but then warn McCoy: "Don't think this means I'll cut you any slack back on the ship. Because I won't." McCoy felt he always knew where he stood with Parke.

 

Before being assigned to the Indy, in November 1944, McCoy had spent two months as part of a marine assault force on the island of Peleliu, a hellish, confusing place where he contracted malaria. The fighting had been vicious, and often it was hand to hand. The dead bodies piled up around McCoy and would hiss and explode in the hot sun as he hunkered in the mud and coral, praying the mortars would miss him. Even the battle itself had a strange but seemingly apt name: Operation Stalemate. At unexpected moments, the Japanese soldiers would mount banzai charges, bayonets fixed, running in crazed sprints straight for McCoy and his First Marine Division buddies. The marines would shoot and shoot, but still some of the Japanese would make it all the way to the marines' defense line. It was an experience McCoy didn't like to talk about.

Now, after docking at Hunters Point, McCoy stood below-decks in his tiny compartment before a stainless steel mirror — on warships, broken glass is a hazard — staring at the face that had become his own during his thirteen-month tour of duty. At eighteen, he had the sharp eyes of a boy but the quick grimace of an old man. He fastidiously dry-shaved, ran a comb through his black wavy hair, did a quick re-buff of his duty shoes, and bounded up the ladder, or stairs, topside for duty.

Usually, Hunters Point harbored some fifteen warships, all in various stages of repair and resupply. But this morning the shipyard was empty; only a few seagulls screeched into the pale blue sky. Accompanying them were the musical lap and ping of black water against the Indy's gray, steel hull. Along the rail of the ship, the crew milled and stared at the wharf, as if trying to read signals from the silent tableau of warehouses, camouflaged trucks, and empty piers.

Approaching Captain Parke, McCoy requested an inspection of his appearance before assuming duty. Parke checked the razor creases in McCoy's pants, the angle of his cover, or hat, atop his head.

"You may proceed, McCoy."

"Yes, sir!"

A dock crew had wheeled a gangway up to the Indy's quarter-deck which served as its main entry and exit. McCoy stepped down and assumed his position of duty: chest out, hands at his sides, a loaded Browning .45 hanging from his canvas duty belt, one round in the chamber.

Until given further orders, he was to let no man onto the ship who was not authorized. He was scheduled to get off duty at noon; because of the mid-morning relocation to Hunters Point, his watch was slightly abbreviated. He hoped the cargo came on before he was relieved, however.

The Indy was operating in a battle-ready state known as Condition Able, which meant that the boys were on watch for four hours and then off for four, an exhausting, relentless schedule that left little time for sleep and induced in the boys a dreamlike state of jittery wakefulness. And yet, McCoy felt lucky to be aboard the Indy. On a ship, marines liked to say, no one was ever shooting at you, at least at close range. The competitiveness between the two military branches was good-hearted but persistent. Sailors called marines "gyrenes" and marines called sailors "swabbies" New officers were mocked as "shave-tails." (There was no end to the nicknames: Engineers were called "snipes"; the bridge crew was known as "skivvy wavers," because they waved flags while executing semaphore, a silent means of communication between ships at sea; and members of gunnery crews were called "gunneys.")

But as sailors liked to tell those who thought navy life was comfortable, "When the battle — shit hits the fan on a ship, you can't dig a hole and hide. You have to stand and take it."

Private McCoy had been pulling temporary guard duty at the amputee hospital on Mare Island when he received the call to return. It was a job he liked; he enjoyed the way the amputees, many of them his age and veterans of the invasion of Iwo Jima that had taken place almost five months earlier, hooted and hollered as they raced their wheelchairs down the steep hill leading from the hospital to the guard shack.

He was easy on them when they tried smuggling booze into the marine barracks. They hid the bottles in the hollow of their fake legs, and McCoy could hear them clunking around inside — step, shuffle, clunk-step — as they approached.

"For crissakes," he told them, "why don't you wrap those things in towels? Your sergeant catches you, you'll be court-martialed!" They smiled, and he let them pass.

McCoy marveled at how these boys had accepted the awful things that had happened to them in war; he wondered how he would react in a similar situation. He hoped he wouldn't have to find out.

But McCoy had faith in his ship. The Indy was a vessel on which he was proud to serve — the honored flagship of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which was under the command of Admiral Raymond Spruance. (When Spruance was aboard, Captain McVay's authority was automatically subordinate to the admiral's.) The Indy was a heavy cruiser, a fast thoroughbred of the sea, whose job it was to ran and gun enemy emplacements on land and blow enemy planes from the sky. She was a floating city, with her own water plant, laundry, tailor, butcher, bakery, dentist's office, photo lab, and enough weaponry to lay siege to downtown San Francisco.

The first time Private McCoy rounded the corner at the Mare Island navy yard and saw the Indy, he was awestruck. God, he thought, now that's a ship!

She towered 133 feet from her waterline to the tip of her radar antennae, called "bedsprings" because of their appearance, and she cast an alluring silhouette. McCoy couldn't help thinking that if she were a woman — and sailors have traditionally thought of their ships as women — she'd be wearing a gray dress cut low in the back and looking coyly over a cocked shoulder. But there was a saying about ships like the Indy: "She wears paint, but she carries powder" — meaning gunpowder. Translation: she was not a lady to be trifled with.

Commissioned in 1932, she had been chosen by Roosevelt as his ship of state. He liked to stand at the stem on her wide fantail, above the massive, churning propellers, while smoking a cigar and watching the New York skyline drift by during a ceremonial review of America's naval fleet. From her deck, he also toured South America, docking in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, on a prewar "good neighbor" tour (During the trip, Roosevelt dined on fresh venison and watched Laurel and Hardy's Our Relations on a movie screen painted on one of the ships bulkheads especially for the occasion.) The Indy trained at war exercises off the coast of Chile and became the flagship of the navy's scouting fleet. With her hull painted bone-white, her afterdecks spanned by sparkling awnings, an aura of luck and privilege had enveloped the ship.

McCoy loved to boast that at 610 feet long, she was the size of nearly two football fields, but she was smaller and nimbler than battleships, like the USS South Dakota, whose job it was to bomb enemy inshore installations with their gargantuan 14-inch guns. The Indy was bigger and better armed than destroyers, which hunted submarines with underwater sonar gear and provided at-sea security for ships like the Indianapolis. In battle formation, a cruiser flanked the more ponderous aircraft carriers and battleships and directed anti-aircraft fire at enemy planes, while the flotilla itself was prowled by vigilant destroyer escorts. Ever since the seventeenth century, navies had relied on ships that could strike quickly, raid enemy lines, draw fire, and then muster the speed to sail away before being sunk, leaving the heavy work of shore destruction to battleships. At her top speed of 32.75 knots, few ships, enemy or friendly, could keep up with the USS Indianapolis.

Yet, as McCoy understood, what a cruiser gives up for its astonishing speed is armor: the Indy was protected midships with only three to four inches of steel (battleships carried an average of thirteen inches), while her decks were laid with two inches. In her day, she had been the queen of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's naval fleet. But on this morning in July, she was considered old, past her prime. Newer cruisers were not a beautiful, but they were bigger, faster, and better armored

Copyright © 2001 by Reed City Productions, LLC.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Sailor on a Chain 1
Part 1 Sailing To War
1 All Aboard 13
2 Good-bye, Golden Gate 39
3 The First Domino 63
Part 2 Sunk
4 The Burning Sea 91
5 Abandon Ship 119
6 Hope Afloat 139
7 Shark Attack 163
8 Genocide 183
Part 3 Rescue
9 Dead Drift 209
10 Final Hours 237
11 Aftermath 251
12 Back in the World 269
Epilogue 277
Notes 283
Bibliography 301
Author's Note 313
Index 323
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Interviews & Essays

Survivor Story: Getting In Harm's Way
From the May-June 2001 issue of Book magazine.

Just after midnight on July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis, having dropped off Little Boy -- the atomic bomb that would devastate Hiroshima -- was sunk by a Japanese submarine about 550 miles east of Guam in the middle of the shark-infested waters of the South Pacific.

Of the men who abandoned ship, fewer than 200 found life rafts. Some clung to floater nets, while the rest bobbed in huddled groups along a jagged line that would sprawl some twenty miles during the next five days. Captain Quint, the fictional Indianapolis survivor from Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster Jaws, had the numbers wrong but the horror right: "1,100 men went into the water and 316 came out," Robert Shaw's character said. "The sharks took the rest of 'em."

Did a distress call ever reach naval command in Leyte, the small island in the Philippines that served as the Indy's destination on that voyage? Why didn't the Navy rescue the sailors sooner? Should their captain -- who was court-martialed for his role in the tragedy -- have gotten the blame? These are among the questions writers and historians have focused on. What they hadn't looked at -- until now -- is the human story. That's what Doug Stanton decided to do with In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors.

"I'm young enough that many of my acquaintances, when I ask them, don't exactly know when Victory over Europe [V-E Day] was, or in what year the Battle of Iwo Jima was fought," says Stanton, thirty-nine, a successful magazine journalist who has contributed to Esquire, Outside, Sports Afield, and Men's Journal. "Two million soldiers died in World War II, and that we've forgotten how and when is remarkable to me. Certainly, they don't know when the Indianapolis was sunk. And if they have even heard of the Indy, invariably it's a snippet of abstract history or they remember it as 'that boat' talked about in Jaws."

In the summer of 1999, a newspaper item describing a planned reunion for the remaining survivors -- some 130 men -- caught Stanton's eye. At about the same time, Sid Evans, an editor at Men's Journal, saw a newscast on the efforts of the crewmates to exonerate their captain; it included a piece on the planned reunion. They agreed: The story of men enduring five days at sea might have the edge needed for a short feature article.

"A few weeks later, I was on a plane to Indianapolis," Stanton says, where he met about eighty-five of the reunited shipmates during the three-day event. He discovered that their part of the story had never been told. How did these men triumph over the Pacific Ocean that for five days tried to kill them? It was a storyteller's gold mine, and the writer was captivated.

"I always wanted to write something worthwhile and eternal," says Stanton, whose office, months after he turned in his final manuscript, is still filled with photographs of the Indianapolis and the crew that made it out alive. "I remember how strange and overwhelming it was talking to those men after looking at the long list of sailors who died -- realizing that, back then, all of them were boys, nearly all in their late teens and early twenties. Seeing them now as older men, listening to them pour their hearts out to me, I felt an obligation to tell their story."

When he began the project, Stanton was nearly twenty years older than the average seaman who served on the Indianapolis. He graduated in 1989 with an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Iowa and, after a short stint as a teacher, turned to journalism, making a career of writing adventure and travel articles, along with celebrity profiles, for men's magazines. He took yoga lessons from Sting, went on tour with John Mellencamp, hung out in Hawaii with Woody Harrelson, rode co-pilot in Harrison Ford's de Havilland Beaver, and shot hoops with George Clooney. Adventure assignments sent him three times to Argentina and Mexico in the wake of the Zapatista movement. Stanton was harassed and robbed at gunpoint. Once, on assignment, he nearly drowned in a lake while rounding Cape Horn. This all served as fodder for tales in magazines that, as Stanton puts it, often tend to "celebrate the exile of the aged." But when he stumbled onto the Indy story -- gleaned from the memories of old veterans -- he recognized it as "probably the greatest I'll ever get to tell, a story of ordinary men suffering something extraordinary."

What was to be a 5,000-word story of the at-sea disaster and the remaining crew's attempt to clear Captain Charles Butler McVay's name soon turned into a 35,000-word manuscript that Stanton submitted to Men's Journal hoping it could be run in serial installments.

"I knew right away he had a book," says Evans. "It was a very human story, a vivid account of survival. We published 12,000 words, the longest story ever published in my three years with the magazine."

Stanton quickly had a handful of publishers vying for the book rights. A bidding war broke out. The New York Post estimated Holt's bid at $400,000, while the film rights were sold to Warner Bros. And as if to provide a happy ending, McVay was finally absolved some months after the March 2000 piece ran -- largely due to declassified documents revealing that the captain had received bogus intelligence reports regarding sub activity in the waters where the Indianapolis was sunk, and to testimonials from Navy operators.

The Shipwreck: The Indianapolis was a heavy cruiser, the length of two football fields, but it sank to the bottom of the Philippine Sea in twelve minutes. Of the 1,196 men onboard, only 321 -- including McVay -- endured the horror of the ensuing days.

Most of the sailors were asleep when the torpedoes hit. Just past midnight, two explosions pounded the ship, hurling the men from their bunks and from their dreams into a nightmare that would envelop them for the next five days.

The first blast obliterated sixty-five feet of the bow, killing more than a hundred men and showering those on deck with shrapnel and burning fuel. The second opened a gaping hole midship where the fuel tanks were located. Sailors not burned, injured, or killed emerged topside to find the ship listing hard to starboard and the deck illuminated by fire. Most of the electric and communications systems were dead.

McVay was convicted and court-martialed for "hazarding the ship by failing to zigzag" -- a maneuver to avoid detection by Japanese subs. Stanton found that books previously written on the event -- among them, Richard Newcomb's recently reissued 1958 Abandon Ship! and Raymond Lech's 1982 All the Drowned Sailors -- dealt primarily with this aspect of the tragedy and spent little time on what happened to the men in the water.

"The Navy's involvement in the scapegoating of McVay is obviously a tremendous part of the tale," Stanton says, "but the heart of the story, as I saw it, was in the drama of the sailors enduring the most hideous conditions imaginable. I tried to imagine myself floating out there in the water with no hope of survival. Why not give up? Why not just say 'Screw it all' and drown? Here also were the lessons of history -- and a generation. The story of these men, at its core, is about very old values of duty, honor and sacrifice, courage and faith."

Those in the water had to go five days without food and water. They were covered in oil from swimming in the slick spreading from the ruptured fuel tanks. The oil caused blindness and, if swallowed, violent vomiting attacks. Some, delirious from hunger and thirst, went insane and killed one another. Most were killed by sharks that found the sailors the first night and hunted them every hour after, pulling men off floater nets in mid-conversation or driving into huddled groups of screaming swimmers and ripping them away one by one.

Days and nights passed, and in the throes of delirium, some mistook crewmates for Japanese and began stabbing and trying to drown those they believed had come to kill them. Others saw dancing girls and tropical islands in the distance. Some imagined the ghost ship of the Indy on the horizon or hovering below them in the water. Any sailor lured away by the visions got ripped apart by sharks or drowned.

Whether by shark, suicide, murder caused by their frenzied delusions, or by simply succumbing to the tortures of being adrift, the sailors died, Stanton found, at a rate of one every ten minutes. By the fourth day, most had given up on being rescued. And as the survivors would later discover, the Navy didn't even know they were gone.

When the men were eventually discovered, it was not by a search plane sent to find them. Little more than a decade ago, declassified documents revealed that naval intelligence knew Japanese submarines were operating between Guam and Leyte. Low-flying Ventura PV-1 bombers -- submarine hunters -- were regularly dispatched to patrol the area, and it was on one such mission that a pilot spotted the oil slick left by the Indianapolis and, eventually, what remained of the crew.

The government released word of the sinking eleven days after the rescue -- August 14. Three days after the sailors were saved, the Enola Gay dropped its cargo on Hiroshima, killing 120,000 people and helping bring an end to the war. Shortly after President Truman announced the surrender of Japan, the Navy was recommending a court-martial for McVay.

Finding the Story: Stanton made sense of the crew's agony by uncovering the meaning of the survivors' stories (a vexing task, as each man took something different from the horror he endured). One of the more salient ideas he found was put forth by the ship's doctor, Lewis Haynes, who becomes one of the central figures in In Harm's Way. While "waiting for a death that seemed inevitable," Stanton says, Haynes "felt rise within him something 'purer' about his life, about the will to live courageously."

In Harm's Way became a narrative celebrating the indomitable human spirit in the face of human suffering and war. So vivid are the accounts that a reader can't help but ask the questions, "What would I do? Would I have what it takes to stay alive?"

Jennifer Barth, the book's editor at Holt, remembers that when the initial draft came across her desk, she thought it was a "typical guy story." She wasn't very interested in the project, but Stanton, she says, "managed to put a human face on this war." A fiction editor who worked with Dennis McFarland on his recent novel Singing Boy, as well as with Paul Auster and Elizabeth Graver, Barth says she connected with Stanton's approach. Three main figures emerge in the narrative -- the marine private Gil McCoy, Haynes, and McVay.

After his first meeting with the crew members in Indianapolis, Stanton traveled from his home in northern Michigan to Florida, where many of the survivors reside. "I flew down and rented a car, and for nearly a month I rode around conducting interviews." Speed, he realized, was of the essence, because time was catching up with the characters in the story. While visiting with McCoy, Stanton learned that three members of the Indy's crew had recently died, all in the same month. Old age was silencing the men that the sea couldn't a half century before.

Stanton's research for In Harm's Way encompassed everything from learning about the development of the first atomic bomb and the top-secret role the Indianapolis played in its delivery to studying the effects of hypothermia, dehydration, and starvation on the human body. And, of course, there were sharks to learn about: makos, tigers, white-tips, and blues. "There was so much suffering to know," Stanton says.

In August 1999, Stanton traveled to the house in Connecticut where McVay lived after the government ruined him. The only captain in U.S. naval history to be court-martialed for the sinking of a ship during wartime, McVay became the Navy's scapegoat for the Indianapolis disaster. He lived until he was seventy, blamed all those years for the tragedy by the families of those who had perished. They sent hate mail over the years, always on Christmas and around the anniversary of the sinking. Stanton went to the house McVay called Winivan Farm and stood on the same porch where McVay lay down on a windy morning in 1968 and killed himself with a Navy-issue .38 revolver.

But the story really came together one night during the year spent writing and researching In Harm's Way when Stanton said he was "in the grip of the story." He got in his car and drove twenty miles to the Lake Michigan shoreline -- and there he found the beach deserted.

"Lake Michigan is no ocean," he admits, "but when the sun set, I learned of the bone-chilling cold that descended upon the men. Within fifteen minutes, I felt the terror of being eaten alive. I left the lake, unsure of what I would do if I had been lost in an ocean filled with sharks. My mind, I sensed, would come totally unhinged."

Impetus: There's something that drives every writer who sets out to tell a monumental story. In the opening pages of In Harm's Way, Stanton relays a story his father tells of a young army private, a soldier from World War II, and an event that, though unrelated to the Indianapolis tragedy, he attributes to how he would finally "come to meet the men of the Indy."

"My father was a very young boy in 1943 when Leonard Dailey, an Army private on leave, came walking down the street with his girlfriend and asked my father if he wanted to go to the fair. This was a time in America when a stranger could knock on your door and you would agree to let him take your seven-year-old son for the day.

"My father remembers that day as one of the happiest in his childhood. Leonard, home for a couple of weeks and no doubt living it up before heading back to the war, bought him candy and took him on rides. But my father remembers most how Leonard just seemed to be enjoying himself.

"Afterward, the soldier dropped him at home and gave him the green campaign hat off his head. Leonard returned to the war. And my father's memory of that day would begin to fade, until about a year later. Leonard had been killed overseas and buried over there, and his body was finally being returned to the family plot.

"When he learned this, something akin to a storm of guilt and sadness hit my father. He looked around the house for the old campaign hat Leonard had given him. The memories of that day, long forgotten, now flooded back. What, my father wondered, did it mean that he'd forgotten all about Leonard? Who remembers us if we don't remember each other? " 'Don't you ever forget,' my father told me, 'what anybody does for you.' "

So if In Harm's Way is the next step in the path blazed by Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm, it's also Stanton's way of paying something back. And by uncovering the meaning behind the suffering the men of the Indianapolis endured, he also defines a generation.

About that happy ending: Twenty-two years after McVay killed himself, the information found in declassified documents and testimonials from Navy operators led to President Clinton's signing the National Defense Authorization Act of 2001 in October 2000, which contained a section declaring that McVay's military record should now reflect that he is exonerated for the loss of the ship and the lives of its men. This was the culmination of an effort of more than forty years by the survivors and their supporters to win public vindication of their captain and to finally put to rest what happened in the waters of the Philippine Sea those five days in the summer of 1945.

That's one of the final pieces of a story that Stanton, after ten years of work as a writer, was fortunate enough to be able to tell; it's the story that may turn him into this year's Sebastian Junger. But amid the talk of movies, television interviews, and future book deals, Stanton is still surrounded by those photographs -- of the men whose stories he's committed to the page -- filling his office in an old outbuilding behind his family's rustic northern Michigan farm. The book has been finished for months, but Stanton hasn't yet filed away the events of the Indianapolis sinking. Cluttered upon his desk are books on sharks, transcripts of interviews with members of the crew, and volumes dedicated to survival, shipwrecks, and the sea.

Stanton knows what he wants to accomplish with In Harm's Way, and he knows who he wants to accomplish it for: The Indianapolis crew: 1,196 sailors, living and dead. "I want the men to like it," he says. The story, its teller recognizes, is for them, and for their captain. (Bob Butz)

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