Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic
Genres: Non-Fiction, History
Maturity Level: 4+
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Just after midnight on July 30, 1945, days after delivering the components of the atomic bomb from California to the Pacific Islands in the most highly classified naval mission of the war, USS Indianapolis is sailing alone in the center of the Philippine Sea when she is struck by two Japanese torpedoes. The ship is instantly transformed into a fiery cauldron and sinks within minutes. Some 300 men go down with the ship. Nearly 900 make it into the water alive. For the next five nights and four days, almost three hundred miles from the nearest land, the men battle injuries, sharks, dehydration, insanity, and eventually each other. Only 316 will survive.
It begins in 1932, when Indianapolis is christened and launched as the ship of state for President Franklin Roosevelt. After Pearl Harbor, Indianapolis leads the charge to the Pacific Islands, notching an unbroken string of victories in an uncharted theater of war. Then, under orders from President Harry Truman, the ship takes aboard a superspy and embarks on her final world-changing mission: delivering the core of the atomic bomb to the Pacific for the strike on Hiroshima. Vincent and Vladic provide a visceral, moment-by-moment account of the disaster that unfolds days later after the Japanese torpedo attack, from the chaos on board the sinking ship to the first moments of shock as the crew plunge into the remote waters of the Philippine Sea, to the long days and nights during which terror and hunger morph into delusion and desperation, and the men must band together to survive.
Then, for the first time, the authors go beyond the men’s rescue to chronicle Indianapolis’s extraordinary final mission: the survivors’ fifty-year fight for justice on behalf of their skipper, Captain Charles McVay III, who is wrongly court-martialed for the sinking. What follows is a captivating courtroom drama that weaves through generations of American presidents, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, and forever entwines the lives of three captains—McVay, whose life and career are never the same after the scandal; Mochitsura Hashimoto, the Japanese sub commander who sinks Indianapolis but later joins the battle to exonerate McVay; and William Toti, the captain of the modern-day submarine Indianapolis, who helps the survivors fight to vindicate their captain.
Guys, this book is bonkers! It’s a tale of heroism, and incompetence. The crew members of the USS Indianapolis exhibited amazing heroism in the face of an impossibly gruesome ordeal. Men literally kicking sharks off crew mates, men risking their own lives to swim after others who swum off towards hallucinations. But the elephant in the room is the complete and utter incompetence of the navy that led to the ship to be sunk in the first place, and then for it to be FOUR EFFING DAYS before anyone even noticed! AND THEN they went and blamed it all on the captain, who could have done literally nothing to prevent it, and didn’t own up to their own mistakes for over 60 years. This story is utterly fascinating, and my eyes were glued to the page.
And it is so well researched! Vladic has spent decades researching this subject, and it really showed. She covered all angles of Indianapolis’s journey, from crew member stories, to reporters, to Navy higher ups, to even the Japanese military. There was absolutely nothing I was left wondering, no question unanswered, no stone unturned.
Hats off to Vincent, as well, because the writing was outstanding. This book made me laugh out loud, cry, feel too afraid to fall asleep, and get angry to the point of shouting. It’s not every non-fiction book that can illicit that kind of emotional response, especially from me. I truly feel connected to this story and to the people, especially (and inexplicably) the submarine commander, Hashimoto.
My one criticism is that as a novice military history reader, there were way too many details. In an attempt to tell this story linearly and from all perspectives, the story was constantly jumping from character to character. I had a hard time keeping all the men straight, there were just so many of them, and I often found it unnecessary to know things like they were eating a ham sandwich when the torpedoes hit, or where they were sleeping. It was overwhelming. While I respect and appreciate that they wanted each of these men’s stories told, I just couldn’t keep up.
I highly recommend this book to history lovers. A great read for Shark Week.