'Indianapolis' sheds new light on WWII naval disaster that cost nearly 900 lives
By CHRIS WOODYARD | USA Today | Published: July 18, 2018
As sea stories go, few are more gripping than the sinking of the heavy cruiser Indianapolis and the loss of about 880 men in the closing days of World War II.
This yarn has it all: a U.S. warship torpedoed by a Japanese submarine after delivering the core components of the atomic bomb that would destroy Hiroshima. Distress signals that never got through and Navy bungling that resulted in four days passing before a search was mounted. Among the survivors, stories of courage, cowardice and sharks -- lots of sharks. Then, after hundreds of sailors and Marines perished before a dramatic rescue was in full swing, the court-martial of the ship's captain, including the unthinkable step of bringing the Japanese submarine skipper to Washington to testify at the trial.
The disaster has been the subject of numerous books, including several excellent ones, and became part of popular lore when it was referenced in the movie "Jaws." Like yet another Lincoln or Nixon biography, you wouldn't think there would be much left to say. But, as it turns out, there is.
In their new book "Indianapolis" (Simon & Schuster, 448 pp.), the team of writer Lynn Vincent and historian Sara Vladic have delivered an account that stands out through its crisp writing and superb research. "Indianapolis" also goes where past books haven't, to the full story behind the decades-long movement to clear the captain's besmirched name.
Until now, books on the Indianapolis have followed a three-box narrative -- events leading up to the July 30, 1945, torpedo attack in the Philippine Sea; the struggle to stay alive at sea by about 880 shipwrecked crewmen (about 300 went down with the ship, and only 317 survived the aftermath); and the subsequent court proceeding.
Now comes a fourth element: the unlikely coalition that set out to clear the name of Capt. Charles McVay, who was found to have endangered his ship by failing to require that it take a zigzag course to confound enemy submarines.
The coalition included not only aged survivors of the disaster, but a 14-year-old who took on the cause after learning of the Indianapolis sinking in "Jaws," and the former skipper of the Indianapolis' namesake, a nuclear attack submarine. That officer, William Toti, took on the case partly out of a sense of obligation to the survivors who overwhelming appeared to back absolving their captain of blame.
The team's effort would involve years of painstaking research, including secret hearings and elusive references to backroom deals by Navy brass anxious to save face with grieving families by making McVay a scapegoat for a naval disaster that, in terms of loss of life, is compared with Pearl Harbor.
The whole case ends up before Congress in a drama that one suspects the Navy hoped would never resurface. Somehow, Vincent and Vladic manage to weave the story of the fateful voyage with events occurring 55 or more years later, making for taut action throughout the book.
Is this the definitive and final narrative of the Navy's worst sea disaster? "Indianapolis" is sure to hold its own for a long time. But like any good sea yarn, this epic no doubt will continue to bob to the surface for years to come.
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