Matt's Reviews > In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors

In Harm's Way by Doug Stanton
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's review
Jul 28, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: world-war-ii, maritime-history, world-war-ii-pacific

Japanese torpedo slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. Just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for half an hour...Sometimes that shark looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And you know the thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya he doesn't seem to be living...until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and they... rip you to pieces... So, eleven hundred men went in the water; 316 men come out and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.

-- Robert Shaw as "Quint" in Jaws

The famous monologue in Jaws, one of the great scenes in all movie history, helped save the USS Indianapolis from the dustbin of history. It was one of the Navy's all-time great tragedies. A US battle cruiser is torpedoed in the South Pacific by a Japanese submarine. 300 men are killed instantly. 900 men abandon ship. They remain at sea for five days, where they are beset by sharks and hypothermia. The Navy doesn't know they're missing and rescue is accidental. Only 321 are saved. This was in the waning days of World War II, and with the news of the atomic bombs falling and the war ending, the sad tale almost escaped notice.

Since Quint's monologue, the story of the Indianapolis has been told several times, often ably. There was Richard Newcomb's Abandon Ship and Raymond Lech's All the Drowned Sailors (which traumatized me as a kid). There was also a slapdish TV movie starring Stacy Keach and Richard "John Boy" Thomas called Mission of the Shark (I believe it was spliced together with National Geographic footage of sharks and shots of Stacy Keach floating in his backyard swimming pool).

Doug Stanton doesn't offer anything new, per se, but he gives a nice, updated retelling of this horrible event.

The book starts with Captain Charles Butler McVeigh's suicide. McVeigh was the commander of the Indianapolis. Following the disaster, in an unusual and unprecedented (and spiteful) move, the Navy court-martialed him. The only captain ever court-martialed for losing a ship in war time. To add salt to the wound, the Navy called Hashimoto, the Japanese sub commander, to testify!

After McVeigh's death, we flash back to San Francisco in 1945. The Indianapolis sets sail with the components for the atomic bomb. After dropping off its lethal cargo, it sails through enemy waters without an escort. McVeigh is not zig-zagging, which is standard anti-submarine doctrine for the day. The I-58 sees her and fires a fan of six torpedoes.

It took less than a minute for two of the torpedoes to intercept the Indianapolis. At 12:05 A.M. all hell broke loose. The first torpedo hit the forward starboard, or right, side and blew an estimated sixty-five feet of the bow skyward. It was simply obliterated. Men were thrown fifteen feet in the air. Those who weren't blown in two landed on their feet, stunned, their ears ringing. The second explosion occurred closer to midship and was even more massive. The sea itself seemed to be burning. The first torpedo had smashed one gas tank containing 3,500 gallons of high-octane aviation fuel, igniting a burning river that reduced the bulkheads and doors to red-hot slabs of steel. The fuel incinerated everything in its path. The number one smokestack, acting as a chimney for the inferno raging below, belched a volcanic streamer of fire that shot several hundred feet into the air, littering the ships with sparks and cinders."

As this excerpt shows, Stanton is a muscular writer. He uses simple, powerful sentences and often slips into standard action-movie cliches ("all hell broke loose"). Still, it makes for a propulsive read. And it gets better as it moves forward. Once in the water, Stanton follows a variety of sailors: Captain McVeigh, who found a life raft; Dr. Haynes, who bravely treated the men in the water as best he could (oil as sunscreen!); as well as a number of ordinary seamen who gave vivid accounts of the ordeal. Not only does he maintain a good narrative, but Stanton also includes fascinating bits of science, so that you really get a grasp of what happened to these men, left out in the Pacific.

As soon as the sun set, as it did with guillotine-like speed this close to the equator, the boys started shivering uncontrollably. This was the body's way of generating heat, but it quadrupled the rate of oxygen consumed. Hypothermia depresses the central nervous system as the body slows to conserve energy, and at a core temperature of 93 degrees (nearly 5 degrees below normal), speech becomes difficult, apathy develops, and amnesia typically sets in. At around 91 degrees, the kidneys stop filtering the body's waste - urination stops - and hypoxia, or poisoning, commences. Breathing becomes labored, the heart beats raggedly, and consciousness dims. The afflicted fall into an inattentive stupor.

Like Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm, Stanton admirably intertwines the personal stories of these men with the physiological effects of the ordeal (aside from his description of hypothermia, there is a great passage on dehydration and the disastrous consequences of drinking salt water).

The things these young men - some very young - endured defies description, though Stanton does his best. He tells of men who start hallucinating and fighting their buddies, mistaking them for the Japanese. He describes men suffering from hypothermia, hypernatremia, photophobia and dehydration. And of course he describes the sharks - the emblem of this tragedy - always circling the floating men. (Stanton estimates that of the 900 water deaths, 200 were from shark attacks, an average of 50 a day)

Stanton is an unabashed admirer of the survivors, for good reason, and does not hide his outrage over McVeigh's later treatment. One suspects that the Navy was trying to hide its own incompetence by railroading McVeigh. Indeed, it was the Navy that failed to provide an escort and the Navy that failed to realize the Indianapolis wasn't in port. It was only a fortuitous pass-over by a scout plane that saved the Indianapolis's remaining sailors.

As a side note, despite McVeigh's conviction, he stayed in the Navy and, shortly before his retirement, was promoted to rear admiral. Decades later, a school boy from Florida named Hunter Scott, as part of a school project, set out to clear McVeigh's name. Because the US Congress can't say no to a school boy (I'm looking at you Mark Foley), it passed a (nonbinding) resolution exonerating McVeigh. This was supposed to have been made into a movie, but alas, I am stuck with my VHS copy of Mission of the Shark.
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Reading Progress

04/07/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Rhys (new)

Rhys Phelps I thought “In Harm’s Way” was a very good book. I like this book because it is an interesting story about WWII. Throughout the book, the main point of view changed for character to character. By doing this I felt like I understood the story better. The book was very descriptive with detail which helped me get a mental image. I could almost feel the pain and hardship that the characters were feeling. I never lost interest in the book while reading it. I would highly recommend this book.

Howard An excellent review of an excellent book!

Wayne Barrett Great review. After watching Jaws I thought the sharks were the worst of the story. That was until I read this book and realized their conditions were so horrible that some of them willingly swam out to the sharks because they couldn't take it anymore.

message 4: by Evan (new) - added it

Evan I started reading your review but stopped not too far in because I have this and one of those other USS Indianapolis books on my WWII shelf and didn't want to know too much going in. I actually started this one and had to "abandon" it at the time due to the usual distractions.

Matt Evan wrote: "I started reading your review but stopped not too far in because I have this and one of those other USS Indianapolis books on my WWII shelf and didn't want to know too much going in. I actually sta..."

Lets reconvene, because I have just begun to read about the Indianapolis!

message 6: by Evan (last edited May 29, 2016 09:43PM) (new) - added it

Evan I just did an inventory and the two I have are this one, and the Abandon Ship one that you mentioned as well. I started to read one of them a few years back; can't remember which. But I could see that you were going into detail and so, yes, there will have to be a pow-wow at a later date. Not sure when; I'm well beyond the point of being up to my ass in reads now.

Matt wrote: "Evan wrote: "I started reading your review but stopped not too far in because I have this and one of those other USS Indianapolis books on my WWII shelf and didn't want to know too much going in. I..."

Howard There is museum devoted to the tragedy of the Indianapolis in, where else, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Matt Howard wrote: "There is museum devoted to the tragedy of the Indianapolis in, where else, Indianapolis, Indiana."

Have you been? I'd be interested is seeing that.

Howard Yes, I have. I wouldn't recommend travelling any great distance to see it, but it would be a worthwhile stopover if you are in the area.

If you Google the USS Indianapolis you can get an idea of what is there.

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