The fascinating thing about history is how we absorb it, how the same event can have far different effects on each individual. When it comes to reading about history, our enjoyment of a particular subject is often contingent on our overall experience with it. Usually, something has led us to that moment where we pick out a specific non-fiction book and stick our noses in it. Something inside wants us to be closer to that subject, to experience it as if we were there. Sometimes, though, you didn’t know you were interested in something until it called out to you from the bookshelf.
That’s what happened with Indianapolis.
Most of what I know about WWII is through History Channel documentaries and big-budget movies (if Inglorious Basterds says Hitler died in a movie theatre, it must be true, right?). Somehow I’d never read, or even heard, anything about the USS Indianapolis. The book bills it as the “worst sea disaster in U.S. Naval history…” Seems like something I would have heard about. In fact, there have been several highly regarded books written on the subject going back decades – and one poorly reviewed Nicolas Cage movie. But what sealed the buy for me was the description, “…the fifty-year fight to exonerate an innocent man.”
The “innocent man” in this case is the captain of the ship, Captain Charles McVay III.
Indianapolis covers a lot of ground – over 50 years. The structure is mostly chronological, with a handful of interludes that take the reader up to the late 1990s, when the long struggle of the survivors to exonerate McVay finally comes to a head. It’s a setup that works well.
The book introduces the ship several months before the fateful sinking, when the Indianapolis is hit by a kamikaze pilot and forced to trudge back to San Francisco for repairs. The end of the war neared; many sailors thought they were out of the action entirely at this point. Then McVay is informed his boat will take top-secret cargo to Guam, cargo that will end the war entirely. No one on board knew it, but they were hauling components for the atomic bomb.
The Indianapolis made it to Guam and offloaded their cargo. What happened after is the thrust of this story. It’s a case of “everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” McVay takes his ship towards the Philippines in order to engage in much-needed training for his mostly new crew. Meanwhile, a Japanese sub commander, on his final mission, prowls the waters of the Pacific, hunting for prey. Everything will line up right for the sub commander, and everything will line up wrong for the Indianapolis. In the late hours of the night, in the middle of virtually nowhere, the Indianapolis will go down. Around 900 men will make it into the water, but only 316 will survive.
There’s a lot of war to consider if you are going to declare the Indianapolis the worst Naval sea disaster for the U.S., but to read about the ordeal of the men cast away into the Pacific Ocean is to conclude that the authors may well be right. From lingering wounds to madness to sharks, the events of that sinking and survival at sea are shocking to read.
Afterwards, the Navy needs someone to blame. Of course, they lay it at the feet of the captain. You can tell what side the authors are on. While I agree with them, there are gray areas. The question is, do those gray areas belong to McVay?
It takes over 50 years to find out, along with the tenacity of a fourteen-year-old boy who somehow makes the noise that is finally heard at the seats of our nation’s leaders. There were survivors still living and able to see it unfold and lend that long perspective on the entire thing.
That’s what compelled me while reading Indianapolis. It’s not just the story of the sinking, but the lifelong story of the men who lived it, and the mission they never gave up on.