This epic survival story from World War II spent weeks on the nonfiction bestseller list at the time it was published and deserves renewed attention in light of the recent discovery of the U.S. Navy cruiser Indianapolis wreckage almost 3 ½ miles below the ocean’s surface after its wartime sinking 72 years ago.
“In Harm’s Way” begins with a bang. It’s the self-inflicted gunshot of Captain Charles B. McVay, the wartime commander of the Indianapolis, who killed himself in the 1960s and remains the only naval commander to have been court-martialed as the result of losing a vessel sunk by the enemy as an act of war. The remainder of the book flashes back to McVay’s command of the “Indy” throughout its ill-fated final voyage and follows some of its officers and enlisted men who survived.
The Indianapolis sunk on the night of July 30, 1945 in just 12 minutes after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine while traveling unescorted on a convoy route in the Philippine Sea between Guam and Leyte. At the time of its sinking, it had just completed a top-secret mission to deliver bomb parts for the crafting of “Little Boy”, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
That night “Indy” had a crew of almost 1,200 on board and approximately 900 of them were able to make it into the oily water after the series of explosions caused by the enemy torpedoes. However, by the time the remnants of the crew were rescued 4 days later, a mere 317 sailors survived as a result of injuries, hypothermia, lack of food and water, exhaustion, and especially the ferocious shark attacks that came with regularity after the first several hours adrift.
“In Harm’s Way” follows several surviving crew members during the hurried evacuation and aftermath in which they watch fellow crew members suffer from the intense sun, have delirium from drinking salt water, or die from severe burns received during the sinking or from the predations of groups of hungry sharks at dusk and at dawn.
Woven into the narrative is the series of communications misadventures that caused the US Navy to be unaware for several days that the cruiser was even missing and the military trial in which Captain McVay became something of a scapegoat because of the ensuing bad publicity from the delayed rescue attempts.
Ironically, Lt Commander Hashimoto, the captain of the Japanese I-58 sub that sank the Indy gave testimony during the US military trial that would tend to exonerate the American commander’s behavior under attack. He indicated that the Japanese sub was alerted to the Indy’s position by the clinking of dishes in the mess hall and that Hashimoto did not believe that any evasive action would have proved helpful in evading the Japanese sub’s attack on the Indy. Even had Captain McVay followed a zig-zag course as proscribed by Navy protocol, Hashimoto considered it doubtful that any preventive measures would have been effective.
“In Harm’s Way” is a moving tale of danger and bravery in the face of adversity and would be a powerful story even without any investigation into blame for the large loss of life. Other materials at Alamance County Public Libraries about this well-known World War II disaster included the 2016 movie “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” starring Nicholas Cage and a children’s book by Peter Nelson called “Left for Dead: A Young Man’s Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis”.
Lisa Kobrin is the Reference Manager and Genealogy Librarian at the May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (336) 229-3588.