I read Indianapolis by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic at the recommendation of a tall, strange friend who text me “this story is the wildest sh*t I ever heard.”
He was right. It’s not that the story about the USS Indianapolis is crazy, sad, frustrating or inspirational – although it is all that and more – it’s that it actually happened, and a handful of the people involved are alive to this day. What’s more, every single person aboard the legendary ship had a hand in a single event that forever changed history for the United States and much if not all of the world.
This book has endless subplots, but as any reader will find, there are really two themes: the event itself and what led up to it, as well as its long-standing impact and the actions taken by the United States and its military leaders.
But let’s step back and examine the catastrophe itself a well as the circumstances surrounding World War II’s conclusion. Spring turns to summer, 1945. Adolf Hitler just ended his life, and the Axis powers are in the process of surrendering across Europe. The United States and the Allied powers are on the cusp of victory following a horrific war that claimed the lives of what is one day estimated to be 70 – 85 million people around the world. Japan, the country that bombed Pearl Harbor which led to America’s entry into WWII, is the last enemy standing.
The USS Indianapolis, captained by Charles McVay III, is the flagship of the Fifth Fleet, playing an integral role in battles across the Pacific Ocean. Now, they’re sitting in San Francisco harbor undergoing repairs from a kamikaze bombing that killed nine crewmen months earlier. Most men are having fun, visiting family, etc. now that peace seems to be around the corner.
However, they’re soon recalled to their ship for a secret mission. Cannisters and a large package are brought onboard accompanied by high ranking officers who don’t seem to match exactly what their title and credentials state. The USS Indianapolis is given strict orders to keep the contents under guard and sail directly to Tinian where they’ll be offloaded. The men guess and prod about the mystery shipment but no one, not even Captain McVay, are told of its contents.
The mission is successful, and the secretive military men and their cannisters are dropped off at Tinian, on schedule, on July 26t.
During what is expected to be a short trip to Leyte, further west in the Pacific, tragedy strikes. A Japanese submarine commanded by Mochitsura Hashimoto, fortuitously spots the ship and launches five torpedoes shortly after midnight on July 30t. Two are direct hits. In minutes, the USS Indianapolis is sinking to the Pacific floor, and approximately 900 of the 1200 men who aren’t killed during the attack plunge into the waters, alive.
The next four days and five nights are the most hair raising elements of the book. Many succumb to their wounds shortly after the sinking. Others drown. Sharks arrive, and men isolated from rafts and floating nets who are fighting to stay above water in their life vests, are plucked from the surface, disappearing in a cloud of blood. As days go by, others lose their sanity and swim toward land that doesn’t exist, and the men gradually turn on each other with knives and other weapons.
Four days later, the groups of floating men are spotted by US planes, a sheer miracle given nobody was looking for them. You see, despite being over three days late arriving in Leyte, nothing was ever reported.
316 men are rescued including Captain McVay. Their story isn’t told for weeks, mostly because the Navy doesn’t know what happened and certainly doesn’t want to world to know. Why was the ship not advised there were submarines were in the water? Why did the SOS distress calls fall on deaf ears? Why was the ship not reported despite being several days late?
According to the Navy, someone must be held accountable for these deaths, and despite knowing the nationality and identity of the actual commander who sank the ship, the scapegoat turns out to be McVay.
I don’t want to ruin it for you, but you can likely guess what comes next. False testimony is given, the public is manipulated by the media, and…wait, what year is this? 2019?…
…oops. I guess some things have always been this way.
This story left me feeling inspired by the men and their courage, as well as thankful for their service and commitment to each other and this country. Without those who valiantly served in WWII and a number of other wars before and since, civilian lives like mine could never be so easy.
But the tale of the USS Indianapolis also left me outraged. The end of Captain McVay’s life wasn’t pleasant, and without the amazing effort of the survivors, members of the public (including a 12 year old boy, Hunter Scott), a noted historian, a group of dedicated politicians, and even Commander Hashimoto himself – the end of this story would almost be as bad as that of the event itself.
Human beings are capable of amazing things, for this I am certain. But for every group of honest and hard-working people, there will be a smaller but more powerful contingent of those who place the special interests of themselves and people like them over that of the common man. This story happened in 1945 and 1946, but it could have been last week. Like those whose efforts made the ending of this book a positive one, we must remain committed to the truth, no matter how ugly it may be.
Back to the importance of those cannisters. They contained the uranium and other components for the first atomic bomb, aptly named “Little Boy,” which was dropped on Hiroshima, a critical moment in human history that ultimately hastened the ending of World War II. The men aboard that ship changed the history of the world, and most paid the ultimate price for it.