The sinking of the USS Indianapolis is one of the greatest modern maritime disasters, and the single greatest to befall the US Navy. It is a truism that such disasters are rarely simple. Such is the case with the Indianapolis. This meticulously researched book by author Lynn Vincent, and film maker and historian Sara Vladic, has much to go on. The United States and Japanese navies were slaves to record keeping. The story was widely covered contemporaneously by the United States, and world, media whose archives are available. Best of all, some survivors were still alive to give first person testimony and commentary. The credibility, authenticity, and bona fides of the material are about as good as it is possible to hope for. Although the work of two women, the book speaks with a single voice.
Running to approaching six hundred pages, the story falls into neat sections, which themselves are sub divided into easily digestible chapters and episodes. It opens with the campaign to take the Japanese held Pacific islands, and the Japanese defence, particularly their use of Kamikaze attacks. Remarkably, we are then introduced to its role in transporting part of the atomic bomb from America to the Pacific which was to be used to such devastating effect. The important, but uneventful, task of atomic bomb transportation gives way to the meat of the story, the sinking and the rescue. The denouement comprises the court martial, followed by the exoneration.
The first half of the book is by far the stronger. Individuals are introduced, from commanders to junior enlisted men, for the Islands campaign and Bomb transportation. By the time the Indianapolis embarks upon its final journey we know many of the men, we have seen them in action, we have shared in their triumphs, lows, loves, friendships and losses. The pace is brisk, the dialogue and jargon authentic, the events engaging and gripping.
Unsurprisingly, the sinking and desperate fight for survival of its crew is visceral, traumatic and compelling. Of its original complement of around 1500, 300 die with the ship as it is torpedoed, some 900 make it into the water, five days later only 316 survive. No detail of the horrors of open water survival are spared. The fire, the oil, hunger, the thirst, the hallucinations, the violent fights, and sexual predation, as civilisation is stripped away to leave the best and worst of the human condition. The sharks are the stuff of pure horror. Nudging the men’s dangling legs, so numerous it was if the survivors could walk on their predator’s backs, so cruel that men were intermittently snatched from salvation alive when the sharks had bored of dead corpses. This takes us to roughly the half way point in the pagination of the book. That proves to be a problem.
So well told is the story so far that nothing can match the climactic end of the sinking, survival and rescue. So carefully are the circumstances laid out, that the subsequent trial and guilty verdict for Captain Charles McVay are patently to be found wanting. Siphon off all drama.
The re-emergence of the Japanese submarine commander who sank the Indianapolis as, extraordinarily, a witness for the US Navy’s prosecution team, provides interest, but that does not last long, and the narrative sags horribly post trial. Bewilderingly the subsequent suicide of McVay merits barely a couple of paragraphs. Given the impressive background information and research gleaned on virtually everything else, the failure to deal with McVay’s tragic demise is a serious shortcoming in an otherwise densely written work.
A particular skill in histories is not in deploying all the information you have just because you have it, a flaw which the authors fall victim to. A more concise resume of the fight for justice, and a fuller exploration of McVay’s final days would have made a good book great.