In Harm's Way

by Doug Stanton

Published by Henry Holt

352 pages, 2001

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An Elegy for the Greatest Generation

Reviewed by Patrick A. Smith


Contrary to conventional wisdom, storytelling and the oral tradition are not dead. Witness Doug Stanton's In Harm's Way, an account of the events surrounding the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the final days of World War II. The book is the latest entry in what has become a race against time for those who would preserve the events of the war through the memories of the people who fought it.

This effort is one that's bound to draw us closer to an understanding of the sacrifice, courage and often unredeemed tragedy that accompany the John Wayne images of war. The tale is at once tragic and disturbing, in no small part for the way nearly 900 men died (317 out of 1,196 survived the attack), many because of the neglect of the very military organization to which they had given their allegiance. The story's aftermath is all the more heartrending for the continued suffering of many who made it through the attack: When the remaining 220 survivors met for the first time since the war in 1960, the gathering was bittersweet at best, the men unburdening themselves of the guilt they had suppressed in the 15 years following the tragedy. Captain Charles McVay, who suffered the nightmare of those five days along with his men, committed suicide in 1968, having received hate mail from the families of dead sailors up to the end of his life. Even today, the United States Navy refuses to erase the charges against McVay, whose record shows a felony for dereliction of duty.

In late July 1945 McVay, a capable and respected commander, took the ship's order without question, as was his habit. Not until later did he and his men discover that the Indianapolis had made a delivery that would help win the war. One of Stanton's strengths is his eye for the catchy detail and his scene-setting in the early part of the book is timely and sharp as he describes the precious cargo: Inside a wooden crate that took extraordinary effort to load onto the ship, "sat the integral components of the atom bomb known as Little Boy. In the canister welded to the flag lieutenant's cabin was the carefully packed uranium-235, totaling half the fissible amount available in the United States at the time, its value estimated at $300 million. In twenty-one days, the bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima."

The delivery was made on time and the ship was ordered to Leyte, where the men would prepare to join a final naval operation against Japan. Unknown to the captain and his crew, the course of the journey put it in imminent danger from a Japanese I-58 submarine. The captain of the sub, Mochitsura Hashimoto, had patrolled the Pacific for four years without a kill.

His luck would change in the early morning of July 30, 1945.

Beginning with a blast that killed as many as 300 sailors instantly and ending more than a hundred hours later in unimaginable horror and a freak rescue, the story's details would seem gratuitous were they not true. Immediately after the torpedo struck the ship, "The scene was horrifying. Spread before [Haynes, the ship's doctor] were piles of about fifty wounded boys in various stages of delirium, some burned beyond recognition. Some were walking about in a daze, clothes scorched from their bodies, hair smoking. One man held up his arms, and Haynes saw the burned flesh hanging down in ghostly streamers." Even after the men fall or jump into the ocean to escape the sinking ship, they realize that their lives are in danger "from dozens of probing bacteria and organisms which, as the men drifted, began gnawing at their flesh. The salt water itself was a caustic brew .... Floating in it was not unlike immersion in a mild acid bath."

The greatest threat to the sailors and one that killed as many as 200 men -- readers will recall Captain Quint's reference to the Indianapolis in Jaws -- is the methodical murdering of the men by sharks, who preyed on the helpless sailors during the morning and evening hours. The ones who weren't eaten alive faced hypothermia. In the late stages of their delirium, many committed suicide by drowning themselves -- swimming away to imaginary paradises that they would never reach -- or drinking salt water to slake their thirst, which triggered a chain of chemical reactions in their bodies that led, almost invariably, to an excruciating death.

Clearly, the story is one of survival. More importantly, it is a story of loss.

Striking a balance between tragedy and the triumph of the spirit -- underscoring the ambivalence of the situation both during the ordeal and in the subsequent years -- is Stanton's strength. Fortunately, the author is passionate enough about his subject to immerse himself fully in it and confident enough in his skills as a writer to allow the memories of the sailors to speak through him.

For the survivors, dredging up memories that have been buried for more than six decades is an act that verges on heroism. Haynes recalls that at one point several days into his time in the ocean, he was holding dog tags that he'd collected "from the boys he'd personally buried over the three days. There were well over 100, their silver chains wrapped tightly around his fist." Jack Miner relates that "In all the intervening years, I've only had the nightmare once of [a] dying friend slipping out of my grasp, and slowly sinking through the crystal-clear water until he faded from sight. One dream like that is enough." Michael Kuryla, with staid understatement, remembers that "[In the hospital], there were holes all the way to my bones, with gauze and Vaseline to keep my skin moist. I said, I'm going to live. I went to church, and then I went to a gin mill. I had some of the money [that guys had given me in the water] -- it was all brown and stained with salt. And I had a drink. And then I came home on a train, and that was it. I was home."

These are the kinds of stories that round out the history and the ones that add to the tactical and historical information that already existed on the topic, specifically in Richard Newcomb's Abandon Ship!, which was recently reissued more than 40 years after its initial publication. Now, for the first time, we're closer to knowing the thoughts and emotions of the men who for days prepared themselves to die.

In order to convey the frustration of the men who spent more than a hundred hours in the water, Stanton uses a deft sense of irony, of the connections and coincidences that draw the ship and her crew toward their destiny. The account is filled with "could haves" and "should haves," testament to the number of things that had to go wrong before the body count went as high as it did. The Navy itself, because of a series of miscommunications and bureaucratic SNAFUs, never missed the ship until after the rescue was under way. Within hours of the survivors' being hauled on board rescue ships and being treated for dehydration, madness and other excruciating pains that prolonged exposure to salt water will cause, the war would end with the bombing of Hiroshima (one member of the team responsible for loading Little Boy into the Enola Gay for her flight over Japan inscribed on the side of the bomb the phrase "This one is for the Boys of the Indianapolis"). More than one sailor who had lived through the ordeal watched his rescuers circling, only to fall back into the water and sink like a stone -- within minutes of a bed, a warm meal, a trip home to loved ones.

If it hadn't been for the improbable sighting of the survivors by a pilot whose job it was to seek out and bomb Japanese submarines, all 1,196 crew members would have died.

Fifty-five years after the fact, the psychic devastation caused by the sinking and the way that it was handled by the Navy is a lasting reminder for the survivors, for whom "the disaster of the Indy is their My Lai massacre or Watergate, a touchstone moment of historic disappointment: the navy put them in harm's way, hundreds of men died violently, and then the government refused to acknowledge its culpability." In order to put the tragedy into perspective, Stanton demeans what he had always assumed were hard times in his own life, acknowledging that, "In retrospect, these adventures were my way of looking for what William James called the moral equivalent of war. But these survivors were the real thing. In writing their story, I knew it was a profile in courage and sacrifice."

Perhaps we're too far removed from such realities to feel it viscerally. As 1,500 World War II veterans die each day, our sense of the importance of their contribution ebbs correspondingly. Stanton's effort here -- superbly written and evocative of the time and the spirit of the event -- is justly and necessarily overshadowed by the enormity of the loss. The tragedy of the Indianapolis will stand as one of the most poignant stories to come out of the war. This account is certainly the most compelling. | April 2001


Patrick A. Smith lives and writes in Tallahassee, Florida.