by Lynn Vincent & Sara Vladic
Simon & Schuster, 2018
The catastrophic sinking of the USS Indianapolis in July of 1945 has generated controversy – and books – for decades, and it's now the subject of one of the best World War Two histories of the year. Written by journalist and bestselling author (and Navy vet) Lynn Vincent and documentary filmmaker Sara Vladic, Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man is both exhaustive and, as the enormous subtitle hints, crusading.
The authors narrate the final voyage of the Indianapolis in fine detail, telling the familiar story – ship torpedoed shortly after delivering the Hiroshima bomb to its destination in the Pacific Islands, nearly 900 men surviving as castaways on the open ocean hundreds of miles from the nearest land, only 317 surviving after days of onslaught from the elements, dehydration, and of course hordes of sharks – with dramatic urgency and plenty of dialogue. This is a story that's been told in many books, and Vincent and Vladic go at their task with fresh energy and a consistent eye for the macabre:
Ed Harrell's swimmer group floated among those toward the north. With the sun full up, Harrell could see that about a third of the men in his group had died during the night. He and others removed their dog tags and vest and relinquished them to the deep. But many of the dead refused to leave, and soon the fifty or sixty men still living found themselves swimming with a school of corpses.
The book's strong final section follows the story long after the survivors are rescued. The captain of the Indianapolis, Charles McVay, was court-martialed for the sinking, a verdict that's been hotly contested ever since, particularly by many of the men who served under McVay. In Vincent and Vladic's handling, the basic injustice of this verdict is epitomized by a question asked at one point during courtroom proceedings by Senator Bob Smith. “The perception is that [McVay] was court-martialed because the ship went down and 1,200 sailors went into the water,” Smith said. “... Frankly, I think you have to ask yourself, honestly … if the ship had not sunk, and Captain McVay had entered port, would he have been court-martialed?”
The answer is clearly no, and this book is the most emphatic statement of McVay's case ever made.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com