Last week, a day or so before I was scheduled to travel to a professional library association conference in Indianapolis, I stumbled across a book on the discount shelf in the Barnes and Noble entryway. The name in the title, Indianapolis, piqued my interest because I was curious about the city that warned of over 8 inches of snow buffeting a bevy of hotels crowded around a busy convention center.
I’m a city-lover and I wondered what memories and images I take home with me from the Indiana's capitol. Conferences never leave me sufficient time for meandering or touring, yet I always try to fit in a journey to the library or to a park where I can learn a bit of a city's history or glean a taste of its culture. So, I decided to check out a copy of Doug Stanton’s “In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors” (2001) from our the library and read it on the plane.
Of course, I knew that the book wasn’t about the city of Indianapolis but was about the U.S. Navy cruiser named after it. Furthermore there are several remarkable things about the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a story that I had never learned before. One was that she carried an unusual cargo in her last days spent cruising the Pacific Ocean. Another was that her last captain, Charles Butler McVay, III remains the only commander of an American Navy ship to be court-martialed “for negligence resulting in the loss of his ship during wartime."
That charge was contested over and over again for over half a century. It was only because a young student’s history project about the U.S.S. Indianapolis and trip to Washington, D.C. that McVay’s dishonor was essentially revoked. Sadly, this was long after the former Navy Captain’s suicide in 1968.
In the ship's early years, she carried FDR at least three times on official presidential business. Later she served valiantly in the Pacific, suffering significant damage at least once in battle before her last voyage. The most crucial responsibility of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (as part of the Fifth Fleet in the Central Pacific) and her crew was to deliver some of the components of “Little Boy” to the Pacific island of Tinian. “Little Boy” was the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.
Within days of unloading its remarkable cargo, the U.S.S. Indianapolis was sunk on July 30, 1945 in the middle of the ocean. The 10,000 ton ship was torpedoed by an Imperial Japanese sub and went down in about 12 minutes.
Many people remember Robert Shaw’s monologue in the 1975 movie “Jaws” in which he described (some say it was embellished in the movie) the horror of that sinking. Over 879 men of the 1196 on board survived the ship’s immediate sinking. Over 600 of those perished in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. It was the most disastrous loss for the US Navy at sea during World War II and the greatest single event of loss of life at sea in our country’s history.
Worse still was the way the men died, forgotten for days – either going down with the ship, eaten by sharks, drowning and dying because they were exposed to the elements of wind, sun and sea. Many errors were made in the grievously delayed rescue – communications were never sent or were misread, egos were unchecked, and faulty conclusions made. In fact, the disaster was not reported to the world until after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. News of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis was not released until the surrender of the Japanese in mid-August.
A made-for-television docudrama featured the disastrous sinking in “Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis” in 1991. A movie that will begin filming this summer will portray the unlucky captain and crew, the sinking and the struggle for living members of the crew and that young history student, Hunter Scott, to exonerate Captain McVay.
The first book written about the U.S.S. Indianapolis was published in 1958 and written by Richard Newcomb, “Abandon Ship! The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy’s Greatest Sea Disaster." An updated edition was subsequently published in 2000, nearly half-a century after the disaster with a new introduction and afterword.
“All the Drowned Sailors: The Tragic Fate of the USS Indianapolis, the U.S. Navy’s Worst Disaster at Sea” was written in 1982 by Raymond Lech. It was reissued as “The Tragic Fate of the U.S.S. Indianapolis” in 2001. Lech also includes the “blunder and subsequent cover-up” and the scandal that surrounded the ruin of McVay’s career and life.
“Fatal Voyage: the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis” by Dan Kurzman, written in 1990, has also been updated with another current edition in 2001. The interpretation I read, “In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors” is a suspenseful, engaging read and a complete account of the ship, its crew, and the subsequent court-martial of its captain.
Lastly, a young adult non-fiction book “Left for Dead: A Young Man’s Search for Justice of the USS Indianapolis” (2002) by Peter Nelson traces the incredible work of the young history student, Hunter Scott, who took on the arduous task of helping the survivors of the ship “set the record straight” about their captain, Charles McVay, fifty-five years later.
During my trip to Indianapolis (a rather smaller downtown even though it is the 13th largest city in the United States), I discovered numerous war memorials. In fact, those memorials are strikingly present in multiple squares and parks. Along the Canal Walk, there is an inspiring monument to the soldiers of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. A museum dedicated to the ship’s crew and disastrous voyage is a focus of the Indiana War Memorial Plaza. This plaza takes up five city blocks.
Before my visit to Indianapolis, I could not have conceived how powerful this history of a ship is to a city. America lost 400,000 soldiers in World War II, a mere fraction of the losses worldwide (50-70 million). Indiana itself lost 12,000 young men, Hoosiers of Indiana. The city of Indianapolis remembers those soldiers – and the loss of an extraordinary ship, the U.S.S. Indianapolis.