Book Review: Indianapolis

Anyone who has seen the movie Jaws will recall the scene when Robert Shaw, playing the role of Quint, delivers a monologue describing his terrifying experience with the sharks after the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. The book, Indianapolis, by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, tells the ship’s entire story.

Almost as riveting as the story of the sinking and the terrors at sea are the events before and after it sank, including the court martial of the ship’s captain, Charles McVay. Indianapolis tells the ship’s tragic and heroic story in a detailed, methodical, yet readable style.     

The U.S.S. Indianapolis was a heavy cruiser in the United States Pacific Fleet during World War II. It is described in the book as “grand but svelte” and
“colossal, sleek, magnificent.” Its officers and crew totaled approximately 1,200 men.

On March 1, 1945, the Indianapolis was struck by a Kamakazi off of Okinawa, the final stepping stone toward the invasion of Japan. (A truly fearsome prospect ironically rendered unnecessary by the events that led to the ship’s destruction.) It headed to California for repairs. It was there that the ship was selected for the most highly classified mission of the war, transporting “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb, to the tiny island of Tinian in the Pacific. The Indianapolis arrived at Tinian on July 26, 1945, where its lethal cargo was unloaded.  McVay was then ordered to Leyte in the Philippines. His routing instructions included a boilerplate provision that he was to “zigzag” (take evasive measures designed to make submarine attacks more difficult) “at his discretion.” This provision and its interpretation would have tragic and profound implications for everyone involved.

Top secret ULTRA intelligence revealed that there was a threat of submarine attack along the route, but this was not revealed to McVay. Equally as ominous was the fact that, due to a shortage of destroyers, the Indianapolis (which lacked sonar) would not have an escort.

Because of overcast skies, the night of July 29, 1945, was considered to be sufficiently dark to allow the ship to proceed without zigzagging. Japanese submarine commander Mochitasura Hashimoto was patrolling the area. At midnight, Hashimoto’s submarine surfaced and spotted the Indianapolis. It fired six torpedoes. Two of them struck the ship, which sank within 12 minutes.  Approximately 900 men remained alive after the ship went under.   

The survivors’ most immediate and terrifying threat was the sharks. They were described as seemingly “lazy and nonchalant.” However, when aroused, they were “utterly relentless.” Men would suddenly disappear in a “tornado of fins and froth.” Moreover, as fresh water supplies ran out, thirst became unbearable. In the face of the constant terror and physical agony some men just let go and vanished beneath the waves. 

The ship was scheduled to arrive at Leyte on July 31. However, in an effort to cut down on message traffic, an order had been issued that it was no longer necessary to report that a ship had safely arrived at port. Unfortunately, this was interpreted to mean that no report was required if a ship did not arrive. This dubious logic subjected the men to another two days adrift at sea. 

On Aug. 2, a U.S. Ventura Bomber spotted some of the men in the water. Eventually, 316 survivors were rescued. One of them was Captain McVay. 

Shortly after the rescue a decision was made to court martial McVay. (This was the only time in U.S. history that a captain was court martialed for the sinking of a ship as the result of an act of war.)  The primary charge was “hazarding the ship” by failure to zigzag. Remarkably, McVay was given only four days to prepare. But the most controversial event occurred when the prosecution called submarine Captain Hashimoto to testify.  On balance, his testimony seemed to favor McVay. Given the ideal circumstances, Hashimoto believed that he would have been able to hit the Indianapolis whether it was zigzagging or not.

McVay had an expert witness who also testified that the zigzag maneuver would have been useless under the circumstances. However, McVay’s lawyer asked the proverbial “one question too many” on redirect examination, which undermined much of the expert’s prior testimony.  

McVay was convicted for hazarding the ship. (Technically, the offense was not the sinking of the ship, per se, but because the failure to zigzag, in and of itself, constituted negligence.) Although few of the survivors blamed him for the disaster, for years many family members of those who died wrote him letters blaming him for the death of their loved ones. On Nov. 6, 1968, McVay committed suicide.  

Information not made available to McVay’s defense showed that the risk of a submarine attack was significant and known by various high ranking officers. There was almost certainly an element of scapegoating involved in the Court Marshal. Nevertheless, to his credit, McVay bore the trial and its aftermath with a stoic, almost fatalistic dignity.

Ever since McVay was convicted, there remained a lingering sense that a great injustice had been done. Captain William Toti, the commanding officer of the ship’s namesake, spearheaded an effort to bring the matter before Congress. Congress fully exonerated McVay with a Resolution signed by President Bill Clinton on Oct. 20, 2000. After 55 years, the wheels of justice finally ground to a just conclusion. (Too late for Captain McVay, however.)

 The Indianapolis was discovered on the ocean floor on Aug. 19, 2017. Its remains mark a watery grave for sailors who met a terrible, but honorable, fate.  Fittingly, on Dec. 20, 2018, the entire crew was collectively awarded the Medal of Honor.

For anyone interested in military history, or just a compelling story, I highly recommend this book. 

Steve Barton is a shareholder in the Lewis Thomason Memphis office and co-chair of the firm’s Construction Practice Group. He has defended claims involving professional liability, construction, workers’ compensation, premises liability, intellectual property and personal injury. He has argued cases before the Tennessee Court of Appeals and Supreme Court as well as the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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