In Harm’s Way Summary

Doug Stanton

In Harm’s Way

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In Harm’s Way Summary

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In Harm’s Way is a history book by Doug Stanton, published in 2001. Stanton employed some unusual narrative devices for a work of history in recounting the story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in World War II.

Stanton begins the book with an account of Captain Charles McVay’s last day alive in 1968, following him through the day that would end with his suicide via gunshot, at the age of 70. Stanton notes how most of the people who knew the man had no idea he was captain of the USS Indianapolis, and was court-martialed in 1945 after the ship was torpedoed by the Japanese—the only Captain in American history to have been court-martialed due to a sunk ship. Stanton notes that information classified during the war was finally de-classified in the early 1990s, containing information that might have cleared his name, but the authorities refused to take action.

In July 1945, the USS Indianapolis was in San Francisco undergoing necessary repairs after suffering damage from a Japanese suicide bomber near Okinawa. The ship had barely made it back to the U.S. McVay is captain of the ship and is surprised to receive orders to recall the crew and set sail, carrying one of the most secret and important cargos of the ship’s career: Parts for the atomic bombs that will be dropped on Japan in a few weeks’ time. McVay was not aware of the nature of his cargo at the time; the mission was top secret. McVay knew that the cargo was guarded, and he knew that two of the seaman on board were actually army officers.

McVay sailed the Indianapolis to a small island called Tinian, located in the Pacific Ocean. McVay was ordered to take the ship to Guam and then on to the Philippines, despite having no destroyer escort, as was typical because of the danger of enemy submarine attacks. McVay questioned this, but was told the route was considered safe by the Navy, and accepted this intelligence. What McVay did not know was that just a few days earlier a ship had been torpedoed along the route and sunk. The Navy was also aware of a network of submarines operating in the area, but did not inform McVay of this.

For several days the Indianapolis sailed without incident. Suddenly, a Japanese submarine came into range and fired two torpedoes at the unprepared ship. The damage was immediate and catastrophic, and the Indianapolis began to sink immediately, and had fully submerged within twelve minutes, standing up on one end and then sinking with increasing speed, swallowed by the water. McVay and his officers were able to send an S.O.S. signal, however. About three hundred sailors died in the explosion and immediate sinking. About nine hundred men were left floating in the ocean.

The survivors were in grave danger, however. Most were naked or dressed lightly and there had been no time to launch rafts or gather supplies, so they were forced to tread water with nothing to eat or drink. Most lacked even a life vest. McVay and his men believed that the ship would be missed very quickly and the S.O.S. would bring help very soon. However, the Navy made several mistakes concerning the tracking of the ship, and failed to investigate when it did not arrive at its destination on time. The S.O.S. signal was ignored by the three Navy stations that received it as well; one commander was inebriated, one had ordered his men not to bother him, and the third assumed it was a trick employed by the Japanese to lure ships and men to the area for ambush.

As a result of these mistakes, the men floated in the ocean for days. The men suffered terribly, initially from dehydration and exhaustion, and later by saltwater poisoning as several desperate men drank seawater. Sharks became attracted and began attacking the men, who formed into groups to defend themselves. Some of the men suffered mental breakdowns and attempted to drown or otherwise attack their peers. The men struggled for four days before they were spotted by a passing plane and a rescue was mounted. By the time rescuers arrived, only 316 men survived, including Captain McVay.

McVay was court-martialed on charges of failing to order his men to abandon ship and hazarding the ship. Despite the failure to inform McVay of the danger of Japanese submarines, he was convicted and disgraced. Shortly afterwards, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz remitted McVay’s sentence and restored him to active duty. McVay continued in the Navy until 1949 and retired as a rear admiral. However, he was haunted by the sinking, and tormented by the families of some of the men who died, who explicitly blamed him for their deaths. This endless torment followed him throughout his retirement and culminated in his suicide in 1968.