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 Sara Vladic
Simon and Schuster, $28, 578 pages
History doesn’t care. Learning recently that a warship named for my ancestor was lost in solo combat off Guadalcanal — sunk in minutes by Japanese planes that left sailors swimming with sharks for three days and claimed 233 American lives — I could find only one comparison: The famous sinking of USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945.
This heavy cruiser was the justly storied man-of-war, as Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic attest in their exhaustive and extravagant tribute. President Franklin Roosevelt tapped it as his ceremonial ship of state. Fighting admirals named it their flagship. Its last mission was supremely secret: To deliver the first atomic bomb 16,000 miles to Tinian in the Mariana Islands, whence Enola Gay would fly over Hiroshima on August 6 and drop it, hastening Japan’s unconditional surrender and bringing World War II to an end.
After offloading the bomb, Indianapolis left Tinian for the Philippines without an escort on a presumed milk run. Instead, by dint of bad routing and worse luck, it crossed the course of a Japanese submarine, which ambushed it at midnight and fired six torpedoes. Two hit home, tore off Indy’s bow, ignited its magazines, blew out its radios and crippled its power plant. It sank in 10 minutes. Tragically, fatally, mistakenly, it was not reported missing.
Its loss went undetected through a galaxy of errors — in orders issued or cancelled, in communications snarled, in naval-command boundaries drawn, in acts of misfeasance and malfeasance at sea and ashore. Five days later and by pure chance, a seaplane on patrol spotted some swimmers at sea and summoned help. Of Indy’s 1,200-man crew, some 900 had escaped the sinking ship. Had an escort been near or the attack been known sooner, many more of them would have lived than the mere 316 who saw land again.
Among the survivors, the able commanding officer, Capt. Charles B. McVay III, performed well in the aftermath. Then all too soon he was hauled before an accelerated court martial. Never accused of heinous charges, he was found guilty of a spurious one: Failing to steer a zigzag course. Scapegoated, his career was beached and perhaps his spirit; he would die a suicide.
Fifty-five years later, Sen. John Warner, a former Navy secretary, was persuaded to reopen the case and review Capt. McVay’s role. Congress exonerated him in a joint resolution and the Navy cleared his name. Seventeen years after that — just one year ago — a research ship found and photographed Indy’s remains on the ocean floor, three miles deep, 25 miles from where it was presumed lost.
The complex story has been told before piece by piece but, I doubt, never with such a range of detail from bureaucratic minutiae to deeds of bald heroism and screaming acts of terror in shark-infested waters. Mightily researched, “Indianapolis” wraps it all up in 450 narrative pages illustrated with photographs and cogent maps, appended with 130 pages of notes and back matter, altogether a dreadnought book.
Does it mark the breaking of another glass ceiling, or glass hull? This definitive account of military men embroiled in war was produced by two women. The authors’ gender makes no difference, save in a few passages of heightened sensitivity. More jarring are the occasional jolts of two writing styles, and the several evangelical bursts of Christian revelation.
Stories combining heartbreak, cruelty, valor and the randomness of fate never tire in retelling. Think “Moby Dick” and Jonah’s doom and the stoving of the whaleship Essex and the breaching of Titanic and the loss of Lusitania. Think “Beowulf” and “Red Badge of Courage” and “A Rumor of War” and “The Yellow Birds.” So be it with “Indianapolis,” this new account of a tragedy that occurred 73 years ago and the cover-up that was courageously undone at the turn of this century.
These myriad stories within one great ship’s epic saga are old enough to collect social security and veterans benefits, and they all bear repeating — even the unspeakable acts by some crazed survivors which are told with fierce clarity, let alone the awful choices men made in the water and the heroic deeds so nobly recalled. The story of the Indianapolis deserves to be remembered, to echo down through the generations like a Viking saga and King Henry’s triumphal elegy on St. Crispin’s Day.
So what about the destroyer USS Meredith, lost in 1942 supplying beleaguered Marines on Guadalcanal, namesake of a Marine who saved his captain’s life in hand-to-hand combat on a Barbary pirate’s deck in 1804 and died on “the shores of Tripoli”? What about its successor USS Meredith, holed by a German missile and sunk off Omaha Beach two mornings after D-Day? Who sings those ships? Who mourns them and those men who sailed? History doesn’t know.
• Philip Kopper, author of books on American history, culture and science, is researching the four U.S. Navy destroyers named for his great-great-great-great uncle.
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