In Harm's Way : The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors
"The worst part...wasn't the sharks, and it wasn't seeing your buddies die...It was when you realize...they've forgotten us. We can't last out here forever-- we're gonna die..."--Giles McCoy, private first-class, USMC, USS Indianapolis
On the night of July 30, 1945, the Navy cruiser USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese sub, sending 900 men into the black, churning waters of the Pacific. What happened next was a nightmarish battle for survival. Injured, adrift, clinging to each other and their waterlogged life rafts, the men watched in horror as their crewmates fell victim to catastrophic injuries, exposure, hallucinations, and relentless shark attacks. Worst of all, their last radio S.O.S. had been disregarded by the Navy as a possible prank. When help finally arrived an astonishing five days later, only 317 of the ship's crew were still alive. Meticulously researched, including eyewitness reports from USS Indianapolis survivors, In Harm's Way recounts with frightening accuracy those five harrowing days at sea, and gives readers a moving, unforgettable account of the worst naval disaster at sea in U.S. history.
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Henry Holt and Co.
May 01, 2002
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Excerpt from In Harm's Way by Doug Stanton
IN HARM'S WAY
SAILING TO WAR
Dad, there's a war to be won out there, and I'm going out to get this thing cleaned up. I'll be back shortly.
--ED BROWN, seaman first-class, USS Indianapolis
SUNDAY, JULY 15, 1945
San Francisco, California
The ship was still tied up in the harbor at Mare Island, but already the captain felt it was drifting out of his control.
Marching up the gangway of the vessel under his command, the USS Indianapolis, Captain Charles McVay was a man perplexed. Reaching the top, he turned toward the stern, saluted the flag, and strode on through the bronze light of the chill California morning, stepping past the electricians, painters, and engineers working on deck. No one watching the forty-six-year-old McVay, dressed smartly in his khaki and crisp campaign hat--its black vinyl bill decorated with gold braid that the enlisted men called "scrambled eggs"--would have guessed the depth of his concern. He hid it well.
He had just come from an early morning meeting at U. S. naval headquarters in downtown San Francisco. The meeting, with Admiral William R. Purnell and Captain William S. Parsons, had been disappointingly quick and to the point: this morning he was to take his ship from the Mare Island navy yard, thirty miles north of San Francisco, to Hunters Point navy yard, located just outside the city in San Francisco Bay. Once at Hunters Point, McVay was told, the Indy would take on board what was described only as a "secret project" before departing for the Pacific.
The meeting was over in less than an hour, and it failed to provide much information on his ship's new assignment.
McVay had a lot on his mind, much of it worrisome. Since May, the Indy had been docked at Mare Island, where it had been undergoing extensive repairs that were expected to take at least four months. Then suddenly everything had been accelerated. Three days ago, on July 12, McVay hadreceived mysterious orders from naval command to immediately ready his crew for a secret mission.
Hundreds of telegrams left the ship, calling the crew of 1,196 boys to sea; they had--at the most--just ninety-six hours to execute the command. Some of the veteran crewmen were dispersed across the country, on leave or at temporary training schools. The majority of the crew had stayed at the marine and naval barracks at Mare Island, killing time by drinking beer, chasing girls, and playing cards. Still others were being called to the ship--and to war--for the first time.
They came streaming to Mare Island and to the ship, stepping over tangled nests of air and water hoses, tools, and debris spread on her deck. McVay had watched as the newest crew members came on board, the older veterans cheering them on: "Hey, boys! Look at him," they cried out. "Ain't he pretty? Why, he doesn't even look like he's shaving yet!"
McVay understood how large the war loomed in the minds of these boys, "green hands" and veterans alike, who during these last few days had made love one last time, gotten drunk one last time, written last letters to mothers and fathers, and prepared to settle on board the Indy, into the rhythm of getting ready for sea. Rumors had started flying that the ship was headed back to the Philippines, then on to the massive invasion of Japan and its home islands, code names Operation Coronet and Olympic. But this morning, not even Captain McVay had any idea of their final destination.
He'd been told that the earliest the ship would leave San Francisco would be July 16, which was tomorrow. McVay had been given four days to do what seemed impossible. During the past twenty-four hours, he'd been crashing through night fog and heavy seas around the Farallon Islands, thirty miles west of the San Francisco coast, running the Indy through abbreviated but punishing sea trials. Thecrew had practiced radar alerts, radar jamming, and emergency turns. The Indy performed well, all things considered.
But how well was good enough? The ship was still fresh from the disaster that had necessitated all the repair work: on March 31, the Indy had suffered a nearly fatal kamikaze attack off the island of Okinawa. The incident had left nine men dead, twenty-nine wounded. One of McVay's boys, bugler second-class E. P. Procai, had been laid to rest at sea, accompanied by a twenty-one-gun salute. The remaining eight sailors were interred on one of the tiny islands west of Okinawa, a repair facility for damaged destroyers and a burial ground for the dead.
After the attack at Okinawa, the Indy had limped the 6,000 miles back across the Pacific. Two of her propeller shafts, a fuel tank, and her water distillation plant had been badly damaged. Back on land, some of the crew had begun asking for transfers off the ship. "When we get hit again," they were saying, "you'll be able to drive a bus through the hole." The Indy, they grumbled, had "turned poor."
They now wondered if she was an unlucky ship.
Not long after the captain's return, at about 10 A.M., Dr. Lewis Haynes heard the hiss of the Indy's PA system, a sound like air rushing through a hose, which was followed by the shrill piping of the boatswain's pipe. "Now hear this, now hear this!" came the announcement. The doctor listened as McVay's soft voice echoed through the morning air: "Men," he told his crew, "we are headed tomorrow morning to the forward area." This meant they were going back into the war zone.
The boys halted in midstride and in midchore--brooms and water hoses cradled in their arms as they cocked ears to the speakers tacked to the bulkheads, or outer walls, of theship. They were to depart immediately, the captain announced, for Hunters Point, a supply depot and loading point of final stores for Pacific-bound ships. And then the captain delivered the news that a sailor dreads hearing: all shore liberties for the evening were canceled. McVay signed off, "That is all." The PA line went dead.
A groan went up among some of the boys. They had plans--and these included getting into San Francisco tonight. The city, still a Wild West town, was the last stop for Pacific-bound sailors, who congregated at all-girlie shows at the "Street of Paris" on Mason. In the three and a half years since Pearl Harbor, several million soldiers had passed through; in the last four months alone, the army and navy had shipped more than 320,000 troops from the port city.
McVay next gave the order to sail, and minutes later, the Indy backed from the pier at Mare Island and cruised past Alcatraz Island into the wide, placid water of San Francisco Bay. Soon, the sun having risen high and the morning's fog burned off, she was snug to the wharf at Hunters Point, standing motionless against her mammoth eight-inch mooring lines sprung from bow and stern.
Dr. Haynes had thought the abrupt change in the ship's plans was odd. The inquisitive, red-haired physician had been under the impression that preparations were being made to get the ship ready to join Task Force 95 for the invasion of Japan. At the moment, the task force was in the Philippines, and the invasion was scheduled for the end of the year, which was still about four and a half months away.
The war in Europe was over, and the Pacific theater was paused before this final assault on the Japanese homeland. Two months earlier, Germany had surrendered; the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, had left the U.S. First Army with 6,603 casualties, 1,465 of them fatal. But this paled in comparison to the estimated toll for the invasion of Japan: at least 500,000 American casualties. The boys of the Indy talked openly and often with one anotherabout whether they'd survive the battle. On the island of Tinian, which the Indy had bombarded and helped secure in 1944, there were reports that Japanese troops were still hiding in the jungle hills, resorting to cannibalism to survive, and that they could hold out another five years against an invading force. The end of the war seemed near to some, Haynes knew, yet to many it still felt like a dream.
This morning, he wondered how a ship like the USS Indianapolis was going to shorten the war. And he thought of home.
During the Indy's furlough, Haynes had been lucky enough to return to Connecticut for several weeks, where he played in the surf with his wife and two young sons and felt the pure joy of not being at war wash over him. At thirty-three, he was one of the oldest, most well-seasoned sailors aboard the ship. In 1941, on the destroyer Reuben James, he'd ridden out a North Atlantic hurricane that no one aboard thought they'd survive. He also held an informal record for continuous duty at sea. Before being assigned to the Indy, he'd logged thirty-nine months without a leave while aboard destroyers and the battleship USS New Mexico. He never complained to his superior officers about his unusually long stint--except once, which was the same day he was awarded leave. His thinking was: he had an important job to do. And that was saving boys' lives.
He almost hadn't made it home to Connecticut last month. Scraping by on his meager lieutenant commander's pay, Haynes had decided he couldn't afford the train fare. He hadn't seen his wife or sons in six months, but he was broke. Then one afternoon as he was sitting at the tiny desk in his berth reading a Zane Grey novel borrowed from the ship's library, Father Conway, a priest from Waterbury, Connecticut, scratched at the black curtain that served as Haynes's door.
Haynes and the ship's dignified priest were friends, and sometimes they went on liberty together. Conway askedHaynes when he was going home. "Well, Tom," Haynes replied, "I have this problem. I can't afford it." Conway left, and Haynes returned to his novel. The next day, the priest tossed a handful of bills on the doctor's desk. "There now," he said, smiling, "you are going home!" Haynes could have wept over the kindness.
He had been back on the ship two weeks now, working temporary duty in the naval yard's medical dispensary. Besides the usual cases of tonsillectomies and circumcisions--many of the boys, apparently, hadn't been able to afford, or had never considered, getting a circumcision before joining the navy, and Haynes performed so many for the Indy's crew that they'd renamed her the "clipper ship"--there were more disturbing, war-induced maladies. One crew member was admitted to the hospital with a case of tuberculosis. Another walked in with a harder-to-treat diagnosis of "nightmares." Haynes, like Conway, understood how hard it was for some of these boys to come back to the ship. He had heard them refer to the Indy's hurried departure from San Francisco as a major piece of "grab ass." How were they supposed to say good-bye so quickly to a place that had become their home away from home?
After the Indianapolis had sailed into San Francisco for repairs in May, many of the crew had telegrammed girlfriends, wives, and family members, who flocked to the city and rented apartments, found jobs, and set up housekeeping. New lives had quickly taken root on land. Some boys got married. Women got pregnant. Brothers were reunited.
The boys of the Indy fell in love with San Francisco, where in diners and soda shops Benny Goodman was on the radio; beer cost fifteen cents a bottle; Luckies were a dime a pack. In July, the Fillmore was showing Bob Hope's flickGive Me a Sailor, and the Paramount was playing The Call of the Wild, starring Clark Gable. If the boys were feeling flush, they'd drink at the Top of the Mark hotel overlooking San Francisco Bay; if they were broke, they would stumble into Slapsy Maxie's and drink on a tab the patriotic bartender was in no hurry to collect on. Their average age was nineteen, and for many this was their first time on their own.
During the summer, there had been no end to the ways the boys could get into trouble. (The Bluejackets' Manual, a sailor's handbook of proper conduct, had warned of all sorts of dangers: "Bad women can ruin your bodily health," admonished one chapter. "Bad women especially are the cause of much grief. Sexual intercourse is positively not necessary for healthy and proper manly development." And this bit of advice to the downhearted: "You will be homesick for a while. We all were. You are starting a new life. Grin and bear it as we all did. No man ever succeeded by hanging on to his mother's apron strings all his life.") One sailor was arrested for "attempting to urinate in public view," and another was cited for "possession of a knife while on liberty." The knife-wielding sailor lost the privilege of five future liberties, and the urinator was fined and sentenced to twenty days' confinement in the ship's brig, an airless cell deep in the Indy's stern. He was fed bread and water.
Captain McVay was billeted, along with his newlywed wife of one year, Louise, in a comfortable but spare officers' community of apartments named Coral Sea Village located within the confines of the Mare Island navy yard. With time on his hands while the Indy was undergoing repairs, McVay, like his young crew, also found ways to enjoy himself. Shortly before receiving his surprise orders, he'd taken a brief, impromptu fishing trip to a steelhead trout river north of San Francisco.