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

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

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

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

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A harrowing, adrenaline-charged account of America's worst naval disaster — and of the heroism of the men who, against all odds, survived.

On July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed in the South Pacific by a Japanese submarine. An estimated 300 men were killed upon impact; close to 900 sailors were cast into the Pacific Ocean, where they remained undetected by the navy for nearly four days and nights. Battered by a savage sea, they struggled to stay alive, fighting off sharks, hypothermia, and dementia. By the time rescue arrived, all but 317 men had died. The captain's subsequent court-martial left many questions unanswered: How did the navy fail to realize the Indianapolis was missing? Why was the cruiser traveling unescorted in enemy waters? And perhaps most amazing of all, how did these 317 men manage to survive?

Interweaving the stories of three survivors — the captain, the ship's doctor, and a young marine — journalist Doug Stanton has brought this astonishing human drama to life in a narrative that is at once immediate and timeless. The definitive account of a little-known chapter in World War II history, In Harm's Way is destined to become a classic tale of war, survival, and extraordinary courage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805073669
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/01/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 494,372
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)
Lexile: 1110L (what's this?)

About the Author

About The Author
A former contributing editor at Esquire, Outside, and Men's Journal, Doug Stanton received an M.F.A. from the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. He lives in Traverse City, Michigan. He is the author of In Harm's Way.

Read an Excerpt

In Harm's Way

The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors
By Doug Stanton

Owl Books (NY)

Copyright © 2003 Doug Stanton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0805073663

Chapter One

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 downhearted: "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 Mare 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, 423 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 duties 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 quarterdeck, 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, shuttle, clunk-step--as they approached.

    "For crissakes," he told them, "why don't you wrap those firings 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 run 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 stern 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 deJaneiro, 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 as beautiful, but they were bigger, faster, and better armored.

Around 2 P.M., the PA crackled to life, calling all hands to their stations.

    Dr. Haynes, standing on the forecastle deck, located on the bow, could see planes circling overhead in tight patterns, keeping careful watch. The dock was lined with some ten marines carrying automatic weapons. Whatever was coming on board, Haynes figured it was hot property. The tall, broad-faced physician waited, pensively smoking his cigar.

    Shortly, two army trucks thundered to a stop on the wharf, and a detachment of armed marines silently stepped down. Haynes watched as the canvas flaps on the rear of the trucks were parted. Two large items emerged: the first was an enormous wooden crate, measuring some five feet high, five feet wide, and fifteen feet long. Then came a metal canister, painted black, about knee-high and eighteen inches wide. Two marines struggled to lift it down from the truck.

    A line from a crane aboard the Indy snaked down above the crate, which was secured with straps. Haynes's eyes followed the crate as it was lifted skyward and set securely in the port hangar, a fifty-square-foot-wide area normally used for observation planes. There the crate was lashed down.

    Following a marine guard, the bearers of the ominous-looking receptacle struggled up the gangway. The heavy canister hung between them on a metal pole. They marched with it to the flag lieutenant's cabin located in a part of the ship near the bow called officer's country, a place strictly off-limits to enlisted men. (The flag lieutenant, a member of Admiral Spruance's staff, was absent from the ship.) Accompanying them were two army officers, Major Robert Furman and Captain James Nolan, who announced themselves as artillery officers. Haynes didn't recognize them. He thought they were nervous-looking men--Nolan, in particular.

    A few minutes later, Captain Nolan reported to Captain McVay on the bridge. He explained that with the aid of the ship's welder, they had fastened the canister to the deck of the flag lieutenant's cabin, and that it had been padlocked. Nolan would hold the key throughout the ship's journey.

    McVay thought for a moment and said, "I didn't think we were going to use biological warfare in this war." He was clearly fishing for further information.

    Captain Nolan left the bridge without explanation.

Looking down from the bridge, about forty-five feet above the main deck, Captain McVay surveyed the ship's state of disarray. A noontime farewell luncheon held on board with his officers and their wives had gone off hurriedly but without a hitch; now, with the cargo safely loaded, he could at last turn his attention to more pressing concerns, such as his ship's seaworthiness.

    What the captain didn't know was that another cruiser, the USS Pensacola, which had been moored next to the Indianapolis at Mare Island's Pier 22S, had originally been chosen to set sail in their stead. But a week earlier, after an overhaul and refitting, she had failed her sea trials when her engines had quit in especially rough seas. Immediately, a search had begun for a replacement ship. And the spotlight had fallen on the Indy.

    Before the surprise orders were given, it had been assumed that she would spend at least another six weeks of repair in the yard, followed by two weeks of sea trials to complete necessary shakedowns. Much still remained to be tested, such as the calibration of her radar range finders, firing drills for her main battery of 8-inch guns, automatic weapons tracking drills, intraship flag drills, voice radio drills, coding board drills, and anti-aircraft tracking drills. Belowdecks, yard welders were still at work mending the ship's steel frames.

    Even under McVay's previous sailing orders, which had him leaving San Francisco in another two months, the repairs had been running behind schedule. And the end results of some of these repairs were uncertain.

    One of the ship's major problems, leading to the removal of one of the plane-launching catapults, had been solved, although never explained. After the catapult's removal, however, the ship had developed a curious, albeit slight, three-degree list, or tilt, toward its lighter side. (If she was going to list, it should have been in the direction of the now heavier side.) The condition had been corrected by shifting freight and by the added weight of the oncoming fuel. McVay was also worried about the ship's water condensers, supposedly repaired since they were damaged in the kamikaze attack; they were malfunctioning again. The condensers were used to make steam to run the Indy's four turbine engines. Because they weren't working to capacity, Captain McVay had posted an alert on board that all potable water had to be reserved for the engines. The crew was not allowed one drink from the scuttlebutts, or drinking fountains, dotted around the ship. But still, in the midst of all the activity on board, it was possible no one was paying attention to the alert.

    Of his crew, more than 250 of the 1,196 men were new to the ship, some fresh from boot camp and training school. How would these green hands perform in the open sea? Or battle? Of McVay's eighty officers, thirty-five were also new--at least one had graduated just weeks earlier from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. The navy had a nickname for these freshly commissioned officers: they were called "ninety-day wonders:' The captain estimated that 25 percent of his crew was inexperienced, and he knew it would be a challenge to sharpen them into naval fighters before joining the invasion's task force.

    As the afternoon wore on, McVay could see nothing but problems. Until yesterday, the ship hadn't even been loaded with her complement of required life vests; then a double order arrived--nearly 2,500 vests. With available storage space tight, where was he supposed to stow all the extras? And to make matters worse, earlier, before announcing this special mission. naval command had ordered the Indy to taxi nearly 100 extra navy personnel to Pearl Harbor for further assignment; now these men were showing up with seabags in hand, looking for berths. McVay, frustrated by the increasingly crowded conditions aboard ship, worried about his ability to run his new crew through their regular battle drills once at sea. It was a madhouse.

    It was going to be a long night.

For the crew, the night ahead was filled with possibility. The sudden order to sail affected the boys in odd ways. Sailor Bob Gause, from Tarpon Springs, Florida, hatched a scheme to sneak off the ship to see his wife one last time. As a quartermaster, he had been so busy on the bridge during the last few days' preparation that he hadn't even had time to tell her the ship was sailing.

    Others were bolder in their plans. Sailor Ed Brown had been plotting his escape since morning, when the captain first announced that all liberties were canceled. Brown, from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, felt he had always been lucky--he never failed to find a way to get around things. He joined the navy in 1944 and left for boot camp an hour after playing his last high school basketball game. He and his father had had to hurry to make it to the train station to catch the troop train passing through; there wouldn't be another for a week.

    As the train pulled away, his father ran alongside shouting, "Now, son, I gotta tell you about the birds and bees! I forgot to tell you about the birds and bees!"

    "What, Dad!"

    And his dad cupped his hands and said, "You're gonna meet some women, and the only thing they want is your money!"

    Brown shrugged, confused. "Okay, Dad. Bye. Tell Mom I love her."

    He sat down, wondering, "What the hell's he talking about? I don't even have any money."

    Four months later, he was aboard the Indianapolis, and he thought he understood what his father had meant about the birds and bees. While the Indy was in overhaul these past two months, he had met a girl and they had made plans to go dancing tonight at the Club Lido.

    Down in his compartment, four decks below the bridge where McVay stood fretting about the problems of the ship, Brown now stripped and dressed in his navy blues--blue woolen pants and a jumper, the standard uniform for a sailor on liberty--and then over these he pulled on his dungarees and denim work shirt.

    Racing up the ladder topside, Brown grabbed a garbage can from the hangar deck and walked down the gangway, trying to appear at ease under his uncomfortable bundle of clothing. His ruse worked; to anyone watching, he looked like a sailor on work detail dumping the ship's trash.

    Once he was on the wharf, he cut behind a warehouse building and tore off his dungarees and shirt and stuffed them in the trash can, covering them with newspaper. And then he sprinted through the yard's main gate and stuck out his thumb for a ride into San Francisco. He was free!

    But things did not come off quite as he expected.

Monday, July 16, 1945

* * *

At around 5 A.M. Monday morning, the shrill blast of the boatswain's pipe came over the ship's PA. Rolling over and scratching, naked or dressed in skivvies, the boys whose turn it was to go on duty grumpily set to getting the ship ready to sail.

    Lines were sprung from the bow and stern, and navy tugs prepared to back out of the harbor with the Indy in tow. On the wharf, a lone figure came running, his hand waving wildly; it was Ed Brown.

    "What the hell are you doing off the ship!" yelled an officer standing at the top of the gangway. The tugs had now started the lean against the hawsers--the Indy was pulling away.

    The officer was so flustered by the sight of Brown pulling his sailor suit from a trash can that he could barely speak. He watched in astonishment as Brown stuffed his clothes under his arm and sprinted up the gangway, judged the six feet between him and the departing ship, and jumped. In another five seconds, he would have missed it altogether.

As the security detail of planes appeared in the pale blue sky, the Indy moved out into the harbor. Around them, navy patrol boats prowled in crossing patterns, keeping a respectful distance. But then, at 6:30 A.M., the Indy did something unexpected. She halted, as if waiting--but for what, it wasn't exactly clear.

    One thousand miles to the east, on an expanse of scrubby desert in New Mexico, a tremendous flash filled the morning sky. It was an explosion of improbable magnitude, vaporizing the 100-foot tower from which it emanated. The searing blast turned the desert sand beneath it into glass. In high school textbooks, this moment would come to be known as the Trinity test; it was the first explosion of a nuclear device in the history of the world.

    The men aboard the Indianapolis knew nothing of this explosion. But shortly after the ship paused, a marine delivered a message by motor launch. It was presented to Dr. Haynes, who, as a senior medical officer of Admiral Spruance's flagship staff, was authorized to open it.

    Haynes quickly perused the message, then took it to the captain on the bridge. It read: INDIANAPOLIS UNDER ORDERS OF COMMANDER IN CHIEF AND MUST NOT BE DIVERTED FROM ITS MISSION FOR ANY REASON.

    Essentially, President Harry S. Truman was ordering the ship ahead at any cost.

    Captain McVay appeared neither pleased nor anxious. He gathered his officers and informed them, "Gentlemen, our mission is secret. I cannot tell you the mission, but every hour we save will shorten the war by that much." He also told them that in the event of a sinking, the black canister, which had been loaded on board with such care the previous afternoon, was to be placed in its own raft and set adrift. Only after doing this were the men on board to tend to their own safety.

    McVay rang the engine room. Soon the propellers caught the water--the whole ship began to quake. It was like the movement of a freight train, imperceptible at first, but communicating power, the promise of speed.

Lashed to the port hangar deck, the large, wooden box rode easily as the Indy's nose swung for the Golden Gate Bridge. The box was made of plywood and one-by-fours and resembled a heavily constructed packing crate; the screws were all countersunk and sealed carefully with red wax to prevent tampering. An area of thirty feet by thirty feet was cordoned off around it with red tape.

    In the middle of the space, Private McCoy stood guard. He had orders to consider the watch "live ammunition duty," which meant that he was to keep one round in the chamber of his .45 at all times. He was to use the weapon if necessary. It seemed silly--who was he going to shoot? He knew all these guys. He watched as the crew pressed to the tape, peering in, guessing out loud about the crate's contents. They imagined it was everything from Rita Hayworth's underwear to gold bullion.

    Behind McCoy, inside the wooden crate, sat the integral components of the atom bomb known as "Little Boy." In the canister welded to the flag lieutenant's cabin was the carefully packed uranium-235, totaling half the fissible amount available in the United States at the time, its value estimated at $300 million. In twenty-one days, the bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima.

    The contents of the crate were known to only a handful of people: President Truman and Winston Churchill; Robert Oppenheimer and his closest colleagues at the Manhattan Project; and Captain James Nolan and Major Robert Furman, who were now aboard the Indy. In reality, Nolan was a radiologist and Furman an engineer engaged in top-secret weapons intelligence.

    For Nolan and Furman, the past three days had been an intense ordeal as they moved the bomb--what Oppenheimer and others bemusedly called "the gadget'--by a secret, plain-clothes convoy from Alamagordo, New Mexico, to Kirtland Army Air Force base in Albuquerque, where the black canister was given its own parachute and set aboard a transport plane on a seat between Nolan and Furman. After landing at San Francisco's Hamilton Field, each stoplight and intersection along the route to Hunters Point had been timed and mapped in advance to ensure a safe, predictable arrival. Nolan and Furman had slept near the gadget with loaded .458 in a safe house at Hunters Point, their fake artillery' uniforms laid out and ready for the dawn departure.

    Now, as the Indy began steaming for the open ocean, Truman was with Churchill in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. He was about to deliver the Potsdam Declaration to Japan: surrender, or be annihilated. Earlier, the USS Indianapolis had paused after leaving the wharf to await the test results of this instrument of annihilation; if it had failed, she would have been ordered back to the pier.

    But the Trinity test had succeeded, and, by 8:30 A.M. on July 16, 1945, Captain Charles Butler McVay had cleared the San Francisco harbor and was sailing to war.


Excerpted from In Harm's Way by Doug Stanton Copyright © 2003 by Doug Stanton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Sailor on a Chain1
Part 1Sailing To War
1All Aboard13
2Good-bye, Golden Gate39
3The First Domino63
Part 2Sunk
4The Burning Sea91
5Abandon Ship119
6Hope Afloat139
7Shark Attack163
Part 3Rescue
9Dead Drift209
10Final Hours237
12Back in the World269
Author's Note313


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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