Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Manby Published 10 Jul 2018
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * “GRIPPING…THIS YARN HAS IT ALL.” —USA Today * “A WONDERFUL BOOK.” —Christian Science Monitor * “ENTHRALLING.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review) * “A MUST-READ.” —Booklist (starred review)
A human drama unlike any other—the riveting and definitive full story of the worst sea disaster in United States naval history.
Just after midnight on July 30, 1945, days after delivering the components of the atomic bomb from California to the Pacific Islands in the most highly classified naval mission of the war, USS Indianapolis is sailing alone in the center of the Philippine Sea when she is struck by two Japanese torpedoes. The ship is instantly transformed into a fiery cauldron and sinks within minutes. Some 300 men go down with the ship. Nearly 900 make it into the water alive. For the next five nights and four days, almost three hundred miles from the nearest land, the men battle injuries, sharks, dehydration, insanity, and eventually each other. Only 316 will survive.
For the better part of a century, the story of USS Indianapolis has been understood as a sinking tale. The reality, however, is far more complicated—and compelling. Now, for the first time, thanks to a decade of original research and interviews with 107 survivors and eyewitnesses, Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic tell the complete story of the ship, her crew, and their final mission to save one of their own.
It begins in 1932, when Indianapolis is christened and launched as the ship of state for President Franklin Roosevelt. After Pearl Harbor, Indianapolis leads the charge to the Pacific Islands, notching an unbroken string of victories in an uncharted theater of war. Then, under orders from President Harry Truman, the ship takes aboard a superspy and embarks on her final world-changing mission: delivering the core of the atomic bomb to the Pacific for the strike on Hiroshima. Vincent and Vladic provide a visceral, moment-by-moment account of the disaster that unfolds days later after the Japanese torpedo attack, from the chaos on board the sinking ship to the first moments of shock as the crew plunge into the remote waters of the Philippine Sea, to the long days and nights during which terror and hunger morph into delusion and desperation, and the men must band together to survive.
Then, for the first time, the authors go beyond the men’s rescue to chronicle Indianapolis’s extraordinary final mission: the survivors’ fifty-year fight for justice on behalf of their skipper, Captain Charles McVay III, who is wrongly court-martialed for the sinking. What follows is a captivating courtroom drama that weaves through generations of American presidents, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, and forever entwines the lives of three captains—McVay, whose life and career are never the same after the scandal; Mochitsura Hashimoto, the Japanese sub commander who sinks Indianapolis but later joins the battle to exonerate McVay; and William Toti, the captain of the modern-day submarine Indianapolis, who helps the survivors fight to vindicate their captain.
A sweeping saga of survival, sacrifice, justice, and love, Indianapolis stands as both groundbreaking naval history and spellbinding narrative—and brings the ship and her heroic crew back to full, vivid, unforgettable life. It is the definitive account of one of the most remarkable episodes in American history.
"Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man" Reviews
In 1945, the USS Indianapolis was on a covert mission to carry nuclear materials to the Pacific where they would be used against the Japanese. On July 30, the Japanese torpedoed and sank the ship. Hundreds escaped the fiery death trap, only to be stranded for days in the shark infested ocean. Only 316 members of the crew survived. It is the worst maritime disaster in US history. However, the story doesn’t end there….
For over fifty years, the surviving crew members worked to exonerate their captain who was court marshalled for the disaster. Many questions were raised about the mission of the trip – which took years to have de-classified – and why the captain did not take evasive action to avoid the attack.
Despite having a US History degree and spending years studying the end of WWII, it was not until I moved to Indianapolis that I heard about this nightmare, again, the worst maritime disaster in US History. No high school or college text even alluded to the attack and subsequent sinking of the Indianapolis. It is at that point that anyone should start asking themselves “why?”
Lynn Vincent, an award winning author, and Sara Vladic, a historian for National Geographic, set out to discover the answers to that very question. What they found were lies, cover-ups, the destruction of the captain’s reputation and, ultimately, the crew – as well as the Japanese captain who sank the ship – who worked tirelessly to exonerate the US Captain of any wrong-doing.
The research found within this book is astounding. These authors overcame challenging circumstances to discover the truth about the USS Indianapolis, the captain and its crew. The result is an engaging, well-written account of the crew and their work in finally restoring the captain’s good name.
While the book is non-fiction, it truly doesn’t read that way. It is so fascinating that it comes across as a spy novel or thriller. Even if you are not fond of reading non-fiction, this is a book that is well worth your time. It finally answers the question of what happened on that fateful night and why this story took so long to see the light! It is long past time for this story to be told and for Americans to learn of the USS Indianapolis.
Thank you to Netgalley for giving me the opportunity to learn about these men and their story!
A few days ago, I was sitting on the beach with a few friends and we began discussing the 1970s film “Jaws.” Someone referred to Robert Shaw’s crusty performance and a monologue he gave about the disaster that befell the USS Indianapolis at the conclusion of the World War II. Since I was familiar with Doug Stanton’s work, IN HARMS WAY written in 2003 about the sinking of the ship it immediately peaked my interest. When I returned home I saw an advertisement for a new book on the worst naval disaster in American naval history, entitled of course, INDIANAPOLIS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORST SEA DISASTER IN U.S. NAVAL HISTORY AND THE FIFTY-YEAR FIGHT TO EXONERATE AN INNOCENT MAN by Lynn Vincent and Sarah Vladic. This phenomenal new book updates Stanton’s effort and presents a more in-depth account based on significant new documentation, interviews, and takes the story through the exoneration of the ship’s Captain, Commander Charles B. McVay III, who for decades was the navy’s scapegoat for the events that occurred at the end of July and early August, 1945.
In 1932 the USS Indianapolis was christened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the flagship of the US Pacific Fleet. In the summer of 1945 it was chosen to complete the most highly classified naval mission of the war by delivering two large cannisters of material that was needed to assemble the Atomic bomb that was to be dropped in Hiroshima to the Tinian Islands. Four days after completing its mission it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk resulting in over 1193 men either going down with the ship or being thrown overboard with only 316 surviving. The result was a national scandal as the government pursued its investigation and reached a conclusion that was both unfair and completely wrong.
Vincent and Vladic’s incremental approach in developing the story is very important as it allows the reader to understand the scope of the tragedy, the individuals involved, and the conclusions reached. The authors delve into the background history of the ship’s actions during the war, mini-biographies of the personnel aboard the ship, and the military bureaucracy that was responsible of the ship’s manifest and orders that consume the first third of the book.
After getting to know the important characters in the drama Vincent and Vladic transition to the actual delivery of the weapon components and follows the Indianapolis as she transverses through the Philippine Sea. Capt. McVay asked for a destroyer escort which was standard for this type of operation but was denied, in part because of availability, and in part because he was informed by Admiral Nimitz’s assistant chief of staff and operations officer James Carter that “things were very quiet…. [and] the Japs are on their last legs and there’s nothing to worry about.” What Carter did not mention was that ULTRA intelligence came across the deployment of four Japanese submarines on offensive missions to the Philippine Sea.” Later, Acting Commander of the Philippine Sea Front, Commodore Norman Gillette would characterize the same intelligence as a “recognized threat.” In addition to presenting the American side of events, the authors follow Japanese preparations for the defense of the home islands, and zeroes in on Mochitsura Hashimoto, the Commander of the Japanese submarine I-58 which would sink the Indianapolis.
The authors follow the movements of the Indianapolis and Hashimoto’s submarine the days and hours leading up to the attack. Five minutes before midnight on July 30, six torpedoes were fired at the Indianapolis and three hit the ship. Parts of the book read as an adventure story as the authors review calculations dealing with location and speed as the possible target begins to become clearer and clearer. After taking the reader through the attack and resulting sinking of the ship, the reader is presented with at times a quite graphic description of the plight of the sailors who died during the attack, those who jumped off the ship, and the others who abandoned ship under Capt. McVay’s orders. This section of the monograph can be heart wrenching as the men fight for their survival. The carnage and psychological impact of the attack is very disconcerting. After enduring shark attacks, living with no water and little food they resorted to cannibalism, theft, murder, and suicide. The conditions were appalling but others formed groups employing whatever could be salvaged from the ship to create islands of men linked together by netting, rafts, life jackets, or anything else that would float. Apart from men who became delirious and suffered from hallucinations, others found their main enemies to be hunger, dehydration, and sharks who seemed to circle everywhere, and sadly, when it seemed that an individual might be saved a shark attack would take another life.
The most chilling part of the narrative is the description of rescue operations that began on August 2nd. At 11:18 am Lt. Wilbur Gwinn flying a routine patrol in a PBM Mariner noticed a huge oil slick below, and after careful observation noticed a 25-mile oil slick. The spotting of the men below sends chills down the spine of readers as the authors details of the rescue as word spread that there were hundreds of men over an 80-mile area. Sadly, many men would die even as rescue operations commenced as they had little reserve after four days in the water. The question must be asked, when the Indianapolis went missing from July 30 onward no one was tracking the ship carefully to report that she had not arrived at her destination? The navy would investigate and reach a conclusion that the authors would totally discredit.
The last third of the book is devoted to the legal battle that surrounded who was responsible for the sinking of the Indianapolis and once the decision was reached the authors spend their time describing how a wrongful conviction was finally overturned. The authors follow the investigation and different hearings and the final court martial and analyze the testimony, conclusions, and final reports that were issued. They point out the inconsistencies and outright lies offered by certain naval officers as they tried to rest all the blame on Capt. McVay to cover their own “asses.” In describing the conclusions reached by the navy Vincent and Vladic point out “what was not discussed was the string of intelligence and communication failures that led to something being amiss in the first place—failures of Carter, Gillette, and Naquin, as well as Vice Admiral Murray, a member of the court, were well aware.” (317)
The authors dissect the report that called for McVay to be court martialed, especially the information that was left out. For the navy brass that had two ships sunk in the waning moments of the war resulting in over 1000 casualties, someone had to be found responsible. The materials presented reflect where the real blame should have fallen. At Guam, failure to provide an escort for the Indianapolis. Further, Guam took no action when Fleet Radio Unit Pacific intelligence indicated a Japanese submarine had sunk a vessel in the area that the Indianapolis was known to be present. At Leyte, the Philippine Sea Frontier Organization failed to keep track of the Indianapolis and take action when the vessel failed to appear at its scheduled time when a Japanese submarine was located near its line of course.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the weak defense put up by Navy Captain John Parmelee Cady who by this time had little interest in being a lawyer and was given little time to prepare a defense. Cady’s approach is highlighted by the testimony submarine combat expert Captain Glynn Robert Donaho whose statement should have helped exonerate McVay, but did not. The entire transcript of witness testimony is interesting particularly that of the man whose ship sank the Indianapolis, Mochitsura Hashimoto. Other fascinating components of the book are some of the heroes involved in publicizing and working behind the scenes to bring about justice for the McVay family and those of the survivors and men lost at sea. Chief among them was Commander William Toti who stood at the helm of the namesake submarine the Indianapolis. Another is Hunter Scott, an eleven year old boy who worked assiduously on the history of the disaster and in the end testified before a Senate Committee. Without their efforts and numerous others, one wonders if the degree of closure that was finally achieved would have come about.
As one reads the narrative, you grow angrier and angrier at the US Navy for its malfeasance and outright culpability in ruining a man’s life and providing false information for the families of the victims of the disaster. As the authors press on with their account the redemption that is finally earned it does not reduce the uncalled for actions of so many in the Navy and the US government. The authors do a nice job ferreting out those responsible, but that does not detract from the fact that the lies were seen as truth for decades.
Genre: Historical Non-FictionIndy
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Canada
Pub. Date: July 10, 2018
If you did not see the movie “Jaws” (1975) you missed the actor Robert Shaw’s iconic scene describing the experiences the boys/men endured during WWII when their ship the USS Indianapolis was sunk by enemy fire. They spent four horrific days in shark-infested waters watching each other being eaten alive. The late actor will put more goose bumps on you than my words ever could: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_co....
In this book, you will find that there is so much more than just sharks to this historical non-fiction that reads like a fictional page-turner. If you are unfamiliar with the worst sea disaster in U.S. naval history, you may not be aware that the ship was on a secret mission to deliver some of the components for the atomic weapons that were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Albert Einstein makes an early appearance since he signed a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging that the bomb be built. However, he also repeatedly warned the world about the dangers of nuclear weapons and its impact on the human race. In 1954 he wrote another letter “I made one great mistake in my life…recommending that the atom bombs be made; but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them first.” Einstein’s conflicted feelings pave the way for the rest of the roller coaster ride the reader will be on before the book’s ending.
The beginning chapters alternate between the Japanese Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, who torpedoed and sunk the ship, and the “Indy’s” Captain Charles B. McVay III. This writing style gives the reader a ringside seat into their surprising similar thoughts and emotions, making one feel as if they knew them both personally. The same is true (on the American side) of the ship’s crew. One of this reviewer’s favorites is Adolfo “Harpo” Celaya. A Mexican American who lied about his age and enlisted in the navy at 17. It is heartbreaking to read just how many teenagers and young men in their early twenties served on the USS Indianapolis. And that out of the 1,196 men aboard only 317 survived. In 2016 the U.S. post office in Florence, Arizona, Harpo’s hometown, was renamed in his honor. How could I not mention this fact when in 2018 there is much anti-Mexican rhetoric coming from the White House?
When McVay and his men were finally rescued from the waters, McVay’s nightmare was just beginning. He went on trial with the charge of failing to zigzag, which caused the ship to sink when it was hit. Many ships were lost in combat during World War II but McVay was the only captain to be court-martialed for the loss of his ship. The pressure for his trial came from the deceased’s families. To add salt to the families’ wounds, the men died immediately before the end of the war. Many received the dreaded telegram while watching other Americans celebrate in the streets. The families, as well as the press, were out for the captain’s blood as if they were great white sharks themselves. If not a naval person, the trial scenes could get dull from the technical and naval jargon. However, the authors manage to have most of the dialogue reading like a suspenseful courtroom drama, complete with a jaw-dropping witness who happened to be the Japanese commander Hashimoto.
The surviving members of the crew claimed that their captain did nothing wrong and was innocent. In the 1990s they still hadn’t stopped trying to clear his name. In 1998, they received help from a very usual source—a sixth-grade male student who researched the sinking of the Indy for his history fair project. Once the men learned of this kid they jumped onboard to help him. This led to a United States Congressional investigation that ended with the captain’s exoneration. Interestingly enough, one of the co-authors of this book, Sara Vladic, was just a 13-year-old schoolgirl when she learned of the USS Indianapolis and was captivated by all of the ship’s history. She wanted to see the story made into a movie. She figured some grown-up eventually would. In 2015, Vladic made the documentary, “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy.”
In this meticulously researched book, 25% of its pages are in the endnotes. It is extensively based on interviews with the survivors. Here I felt was a potential trial problem. The men themselves say that after days in the shark-infested waters there were widespread hallucinations. One could argue that their memories of the actual sinking were no longer intact. Furthermore, many of them had such severe post traumatic stress that they, like their Captain, committed suicide. But, after reading this book, how can anyone ever again wonder about McVay’s innocence? You will cheer that the “50-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man” is finally over. Still, it is a bittersweet vindication. This is a gut-wrenchingly hard story to read. Expect to feel a strong personal connection to the men from the re-telling of the tragedy. Once finished, it might be hard to process your own roller coaster emotions. Still, this is a book that should be read. An epic tale in American history.
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I am ashamed to admit that I knew nothing of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II until I saw a documentary on it during Shark Week on Discovery Channel in 2007. Years of history classes...many on the two world wars....for a college degree....and I knew nothing about the most disastrous sinking in US Naval history. Most stories about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis focus on the sharks that attacked both dead bodies and live sailors in the water after the sinking, but this book focuses on the entire story, not just the dramatic survival parts. Information on the ship, its officers and crew, the war, its mission just before the ship was torpedoed, the men who died and the survivors who floated in the ocean for four days before being rescued. The intent of the authors is to present the information necessary to prove that Captain Charles McVay III was not at fault. Captain McVay was court martialed after the sinking, but later pardoned. His naval record was wiped clean decades later after his death.
The authors definitely did a lot of research. The facts are presented in an interesting and detailed fashion, while still being respectful of the Sailors who lost their lives in the sinking. This book dispels a lot of rumors and misinformation caused by movies and television shows. For example, the sharks did not appear for a couple days after the sinking not instantly as portrayed in a recent movie. The animals were lured in by the scent of corpses and injured sailors in the water. A majority of the deaths after the sinking were not due to shark attack. About 300 men went down with the ship. 900 went into the water. After dehydration, injuries, salt poisoning, lack of food, exhaustion....and sharks....took their toll on the survivors, only 316 sailors survived. The book also explains why Captain McVay was not zigzagging the boat at the time it was torpedoed, and why it took four days for suvivors to be rescued. The Indianapolis had just completed delivery of top secret war materials (uranium and materials for the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan) so it's position and orders were secret. Nobody knew where the ship was and when it was supposed to return to port except for a very, very few people. It took days for them to realize the ship was even missing.
Very interesting book! I enjoyed hearing the entire story. I never knew the ship was severely damaged by a suicide bomber just months before a torpedo sank the ship. I never knew why the captain was not zigzagging, as ships were usually directed to do to make it harder to target them. Because I learned about the sinking initially on a Shark Week documentary, I thought most of the men in the water were attacked by sharks. Not true. Some were, but most died of exposure, exhaustion and untreated injuries.
All in all, a great, very informative book. I will definitely read more by these authors!
**I voluntarily read an advanced readers copy of this book from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley. All opinions expressed are entirely my own.**
“Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. We’d just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes.
Didn’t see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know, was that our bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’ by, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. It was sorta like you see in the calendars, you know the infantry squares in the old calendars like the Battle of Waterloo and the idea was the shark come to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and sometimes that shark he go away… but sometimes he wouldn’t go away.
Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’… ’til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then… ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red, and despite all your poundin’ and your hollerin’ those sharks come in and… they rip you to pieces.
You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour. Thursday mornin’, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist.
At noon on the fifth day, a Lockheed Ventura swung in low and he spotted us, a young pilot, lot younger than Mr. Hooper here, anyway he spotted us and a few hours later a big ol’ fat PBY come down and started to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.
Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”
- Robert Shaw (Jaws 1975)
I'm not going to lie this is the reason I read this book. This speech from the movie Jaws inspired such fear and terror and added to the movie so well that the real story had to be even scarier.
And so it was in 1945 that after the USS Indianapolis carried the Hiroshima bomb it sank into the Philippine Sea leaving its crew to either sink, die of hypothermia or starvation, commit suicide, or simply wait for their turn.
A gripping and heated journey through the life and death of this ship and its crew. Amazingly written in a format that uses many naval terms but not so many that the layman cannot follow. Instead of just listing off the facts the authors decided to turn the book into a play-by-play story. Which makes it a lot easier for the reader to read. But there is no mistaking that the authors definitely did their homework on this one. This might possibly be the perfect maritime novel.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who's interested in the military, Naval History, US History, the history of World War II or even just history in general.