Review of 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
I was first introduced to the Indianapolis story like a lot of people – from the movie Jaws. Quint’s riveting speech about his time in the waters after the sinking of the Indianapolis was one of the more memorable scenes in the movie. The authors quote the speech word for word. Richard Dreyfus once said in an interview that he wasn’t acting when he was listening to actor Robert Shaw deliver the speech. He was totally transfixed by the story that was being told.
Over the years I have read and watched numerous accounts of the story. What drew me to read this account was the addition of the subsequent investigation, court-martial trial, and the efforts to clear the captain’s name. Not only is this a story seventy-plus years in the making, but the authors spent a considerable amount of time bringing it all together. The end result is a compelling story that touches on one historical event after another.
The story is told in a mostly linear fashion, starting with some background on the ship and crew, previous battle history, including Okinawa and Iwo Jima, the delivery of the atomic bomb, the sinking, the five days in the water, and the rescue. Interspersed with this narrative are references to recent efforts to clear the captain’s name, the only person faulted for the sinking, Additionally, the authors weave in the perspective of the Japanese submarine captain Mochitsura Hashimoto.
The writing is detailed and vivid. You feel the fear and terror that the sailors felt. You empathize with their situation. One of the more frustrating elements of the Indianapolis story is the many missed opportunities that could have either prevented the entire ordeal or at least hasten the rescue. One example of a missed opportunity involved an Army aircraft that witnessed the sinking as it happened. The aircraft was at nine thousand feet. They saw what they later described as a spectacular naval battle. Unfortunately, the pilot mistook the fireworks display as a training exercise that he had been briefed on before his flight.
The story of the young Hunter Scott and his attempts, along with Indianapolis survivors and Commander William Toti, to clear Captain McVay’s name lacks the drama of the sinking but is nonetheless compelling.
After reading the book, I watched co-author Sara Vladic’s documentary Indianapolis: The Legacy. I recommend viewing the documentary after reading the book. You can find it on Amazon Prime. In addition to interviews with many of the survivors, the documentary incorporates images and video that add another level to the story you’ve just read. There was one short video of survivors being pulled out of the water that caught my attention. Many of the sailors were covered in diesel oil from head to toe. While certainly an irritant, the oil might have actually aided in the survivability by serving as a protectant against the sun and prolonged exposure to the elements.
The Indianapolis sinking remains the Navy’s second greatest loss of life in World War II. Out of a crew of 1,195, only 317 survived. The actual ship’s final resting place was discovered on August 19, 2017, by the high-tech research vessel Petrel.