Injustice at sea: USS Indianapolis

April 22, 2001|By Tom Bowman | By Tom Bowman,Sun Staff

"In Harm's Way," by Doug Stanton. Henry Holt and Co. 333 pages. $25.

"The Tragic Fate of the Indianapolis, The U.S. Navy's Worst Disaster at Sea," by Raymond B. Lech. Cooper Square Press. 309 pages. $18.95.

The American military has, at times, been like a fickle lover, treating its most ardent suitors -- the warrior class -- with cruelty and neglect. It court-martialed Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell in the 1920s for sharply criticizing -- justifiably -- the Army leadership for failing to press ahead with air power. His ideas were finally embraced in the years before World War II.

And in the 1990s, the military forced out Maj. Gen. John E. Longhouser, commander of Aberdeen Proving Ground. Longhouser once had an "affair" while legally separated from his wife. No matter that Longhouser was not responsible for the sex scandal that was engulfing a school at the Maryland base, no matter that he was a decorated combat veteran of Vietnam and had a stellar career, no matter that he reconciled with his wife. His personal life was an embarrassment in light of the widespread scandal. He had to go, at a reduced rank.

Yet perhaps the saddest fate to befall an American military officer came in the closing days of World War II. It is the story of Navy Capt. Charles Butler McVay, skipper of the cruiser USS Indianapolis and a U.S. Naval Academy graduate from a proud deep-water Navy family. His ship carried the first atomic bomb to Tinian island in late July 1945. The bomb "Little Boy" would soon be fastened on the Enola Gay for its flight to Hiroshima. Meanwhile, the Indianapolis set sail for Guam. It never arrived; a Japanese submarine slammed two torpoedoes into the Indianapolis and it sank in 12 minutes. Some sailors died outright in the explosions and fire, while others were killed by sharks over the next five days. Of the 1,199 men on board, 883 perished in America's worst naval disaster.

Now two new books tell the grim tale of the series of mistakes and failures that led to the sinking. And while numerous enlisted men and officers were at fault, the bulk of the blame fell on the blameless Captain McVay, who was court-martialed for the incident, the only skipper in U.S. history prosecuted for having his ship sunk from under him.

Doug Stanton, a magazine writer, retells the story with his stylish work, "In Harm's Way." And Raymond B. Lech, a Marine Corps veteran and author, also weighs in with "The Tragic Fate of the Indianapolis, The U.S. Navy's Worst Disaster at Sea."

Both authors relay how McVay was a scapegoat for institutional problems. The captain was not given the crucial intelligence information about Japanese submarines in the area. His radio messages about his arrival in Guam were mishandled. Therefore, no one was expecting him and there would not be a search in the event of his delay.

Most disturbing, his disaster radio messages from the sinking ship also were mishandled and not acted upon. Only a routine Navy surveillance plane spotted the debris and bobbing survivors. Nonetheless, McVay was court-martialed for negligence and found guilty. He committed suicide in 1968, wracked with guilt over his lost sailors but never blaming the Navy for his prosecution.

Each book has its stengths and weaknesses. Stanton's "In Harm's Way" is beautifully written. His sharp eye for detail makes the story all the more heartbreaking. He writes of how days of exposure to salt water eats into the skin. He tells of hallucinations and of the piercing cries of young sailors as the sharks tear at their limbs. And he tells how McVay was clutching a hate letter from an Indianapolis relative and sobbed, 'I can't take this' in the minutes before he took his life.

Still, Stanton gives short shrift to the court-martial itself, while Lech in "The Tragic Fate of the USS Indianapolis" provides useful detail on the court action. He also includes documents ranging from the Indianapolis' orders to intelligence reports to court testimony. But Lech's work reads like a stilted military after-action review, lacking Stanton's lilting prose.

It would be inspiring postscript if both stories of the Indianapolis caused the Navy to do the right thing and exonerate McVay. Don't count on it. Pressed by Indianapolis survivors and others, Congress last fall passed a resolution recognizing McVay's "lack of culpability" in the sinking. The Navy responded by declaring the "fairness and legality" of the court-martial.

Tom Bowman is The Sun's military affairs correspondent. He also covered the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis where he interviewed a number of World War II heroes, including Arleigh Burke, and wrote about efforts to exonerate Adm. Husband Kimmel, the Navy commander at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Bowman holds a master's degree in American studies from Boston College.

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