The worst disaster in the history of the United States Navy only began with the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.
Three hundred men died in the initial catastrophe on July 30, 1945, then the survivors cast into the sea suffered unimaginable horrors, abandoned for days without food or water in shark-infested waters.
The new book “Indianapolis” is a bestseller, a testament not just to its novelistic style, but the enduring fascination with the tragedy.
Another book published about 15 years ago, “In Harm’s Way,” also was a best-seller. A feature film was released about the doomed ship two years ago. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen spearheaded an expedition in August 2017 to discover the wreck at the bottom of the Pacific, and PBS aired a special of underwater footage of the majestic graveyard shortly thereafter.
As long as tales of the sea move human hearts — which is to say, approximately, forever — the story of the Indianapolis will shock and inspire.
The ship had been commissioned in 1932. She was a heavy cruiser, in between a larger battleship and smaller destroyer. Sleek, fast, and elegant, she bristled with firepower — her 8-inch guns could fire a 250-pound shell 18 miles. Franklin Roosevelt made her his ship of state, and she became the flagship of the Navy’s 5th Fleet.
During World War II, she saw significant action and suffered a debilitating kamikaze strike at Okinawa. Quickly repaired, she embarked on a secret mission to deliver components of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. She then proceeded unaccompanied to Leyte in the Philippines.
A Japanese submarine operating in her path stumbled upon her on a dark night. It fired six torpedoes, two of which struck the ship in quick succession right after midnight. The ship sank in 12 horrifying minutes.
Nine hundred men made it off, suddenly in the middle of the Philippine Sea at night with their home, their weapon, their mistress gone. Only about half had a life jacket or life vest. They were spread over miles. Many were wounded.
At first, they were hopeful about a rescue that didn’t come for four excruciating days. The ship’s SOS call was picked up at three places, but the message was ignored. A failure in the Navy’s tracking system meant no one noticed when the Indianapolis didn’t show up at Leyte. Day by day, hundreds more died.
During the day, the sun tortured them. The salt water weakened them. Thirst agonized them. Their life jackets began to give out.
They died of exposure and exhaustion. They died from the nightmarish attacks of circling sharks. They died from the terrible temptation of drinking salt water. They died from madness. They died from sheer despair, giving up and sinking beneath the waves.
Still, somehow, at the extreme edge of human endurance, 317 men survived when a plane on a surveillance mission finally came across them.
For Capt. Charles McVay, a new agony began. As the Indianapolis sank, he had considered going down with the ship before getting swept away by a wave. At first separated from his men, he had the horrifying thought that he alone might have survived.
The Navy court-martialed him for not having zigzagged to evade attack, even though his orders only made it mandatory during the day, even though the maneuver was of dubious effectiveness, even though the captain of the Japanese sub said he assuredly would have sunk the Indianapolis anyway.
There was a much stronger case that McVay had been let down by the Navy, since he wasn’t apprised of reports of Japanese subs operating in his vicinity and the Navy, shockingly, lost track of his ship. Yet McVay was found guilty. A broken man, he took his own life in 1968, and the Navy didn’t expunge his record of wrongdoing until 2001.
It’s another tragedy associated with a ship whose drama, heartbreaking and astonishing, will never leave us.
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