A crisp, well-executed reconstruction of naval warfare’s darkest chapter: the sinking and abandonment of the USS Indianapolis.
Men’s Journal editor Stanton sets out to vindicate Captain Charles McVay and to force the navy to declassify information relating to one of the worst disasters in naval history. After fulfilling a secret mission (the delivery of atomic bomb parts from Guam to Tinian) in July 1945, the cruiser Indianapolis was sent for gunnery practice in Leyte—without destroyer escort, and without classified information regarding Japanese submarine activity. The ship was torpedoed and sank in approximately 12 minutes, spilling about 900 sailors into the Pacific. On shore, her hurried SOS message was intercepted, then disregarded, by the radioman’s commanding officer. Furthermore, she was not noted missing by naval administrators for more than five days. Following a suspenseful account of the sinking, Stanton assembles a detailed chronology of the horrors endured by the floating survivors via a risky device: He narrates the sinking and its aftermath by assuming the voices of Captain McVay, the ship’s doctor, and one of the few surviving Marine guards. The latter two (and other survivors) were interviewed by Stanton; McVay, the only Navy captain ever court-martialed for losing his ship in wartime, shot himself in 1968 after years of torment. The author’s minute depiction of their privations—from shark attacks that killed an estimated 200 to homicidal dementia—is appropriately terrifying; he captures his characters’ surreal horror at watching their comrades needlessly perish prior to a belated rescue (which is also dramatically rendered). The conclusion explores the remaining survivors’ efforts to officially clarify what really happened (and McVay’s actual heroism), but the dark heart of the tale lies in its sustained, gruesome survival narrative.
Stanton’s prose has qualities of jittery brightness, but this dramatic recreation plays to his strengths and feels passionate and correct. His personal veneration of the survivors sustains a positive tone, despite uglier historical truths.