IN HARM'S WAY
The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the extraordinary story of its survivors
By Doug Stanton.
333 pages. Hardback. $25 USA. $37.95 Canada. Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY.
A harrowing, adrenaline-charged account of America's worst naval disaster at sea — and of the heroism of the men who, against all odds, survived.
Reviewed for Keeping APAce by Byron D. Varner.WWII mission to deliver parts of the atom bomb “Little Boy,” which would be dropped on Hiroshima, the unescorted battle cruiser USS Indianapolis was torpedoed in the South Pacific by a Japanese submarine. An estimated 300 men were killed upon impact; close to 900 sailors were cast into the Pacific Ocean, where they remained undetected by the navy for nearly five days. Battered by a savage sea, they struggled to survive the never-ending attack of sharks that picked them off one by one, hypothermia, physical and mental exhaustion, and, finally, hallucinatory dementia. By the time a purely accidental rescue occurred, all but 321 men had lost their lives; four more would die in military hospitals shortly thereafter, and their captain would soon become the only officer in naval history to unjustifiably face court-martial for loss of a ship in wartime.
Ironically, news of this incredible tragedy and eventual rescue was first delayed by the navy, then completely overshadowed by the world news accounts of the bombing of Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, followed shortly thereafter by the announcement of Japan's surrender. As a consequence, knowledge of the incident was greatly limited by events and a population eager to forget war and get on with their lives. Other books have been written about it since that time, but more as an historical narrative than as the critical drama of human events. This approach and the author's writing style sets In Harm's Way apart from all the rest
Everything about it is superb — the research, presentation order, clever use of photos and captions for each chapter, but mostly the writing. I particularly liked the prologue, which, for those unfamiliar with the story, had a surprising end. It certainly set the scene and created a desire to read further. Doug Stanton is masterful in telling a story, describing the characters, using realistic dialogue, leading the reader to frequent climaxes time after time and knowing where to stop. He has a unique talent that is lacking in most writers: He can simplify technical information for the layman, but not offend those who are familiar with it. Also, and this is a rarity in this day and time, the language is relatively clean. (At last, an author who doesn't need excess profanity to appeal to the reader's intelligence level.)
Why did he write it? Stanton described it in these words:
“I first became interested in this story in the summer of 1999, when a small local newspaper item caught my eye. It described a reunion being held for a group of survivors from a ship called the USS Indianapolis. I had heard of the Indy before; immortalized by Captain Quint in Jaws, the ship occupied a mythical status in American popular history, a kind of larger-than-life existence. But, I realized I knew little about the real-life incident.
“Something clicked. A few weeks later, I was on a plane to Indianapolis, on my way to the survivors' reunion. My plan was to write a short, 5,000-word article. When it was over, I'd be on to the next assignment. But then I met the survivors, about eighty-five of them. And I was amazed by their generosity, their courage, their dignity. The reunion marked the beginning of a series of correspondences, interviews, and visits that continue today. It also marked the beginning of my absolute commitment to these men and to telling their story.”
And what a splendid job he did! It is one of the best books about the sea I have read and one I could hardly wait to get back to when I had to temporarily lay it aside. The survivors should be greatly pleased by this outstanding work and you will be highly rewarded by reading it. A movie is bound to come, but it can't possibly be as good as the book.
For a publisher's presentation of In Harm's Way, click here.