Book Review: Abandon Ship!

If you hold even a passing interest in World War II history, you have probably heard of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.  If you have ever seen the 1975 blockbuster, Jaws, you have heard of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.  But have you ever read the real story?

Abandon Ship!  The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy’s Greatest Sea Disaster is the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, its secret cargo that ended the war, its sinking by a Japanese submarine, and the tragedy of its crew.  Of the 1196 men who were on the ship, almost 900 survived the explosions from the torpedo and were forced to abandon ship only 12 minutes after the torpedo struck.  Of those almost 900 men, only 321 were rescued four and a half days later.

Abandon Ship!  The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster

Abandon Ship! The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy’s Greatest Sea Disaster

Ultimately, 317 men survived the ordeal.  Over 500 men perished in the water, succumbing to injuries sustained in the explosions, exhaustion, drowning, or madness.  Or shark attacks.  There is no way to know how many died as a result of shark attacks, but the best estimates by the survivors are a couple hundred.  Hundreds of men, left in the water for over four days – eaten by sharks.

This book isn’t just about the shark attacks.  In fact, it is much more than that.  It documents the entire mission of the Indianapolis, from its departure in San Francisco with its precious secret cargo, to its brief stop in Hawaii, to its hurried trip across the Pacific to deliver its cargo to the island of Tinian.  Then a brief stop in Guam, to replace some of the sailors on board.  And then after Guam, a more leisurely trip to report to duty in Leyte.  Except the Indianapolis never made it.

Very few of the men on board knew that they were delivering the first atomic bomb, nicknamed Little Boy.  Several days later Little Boy would be dropped on Hiroshima; only a few days after hundreds of men had been pulled from the water after spending four and a half days floating.

The book details how the failures of multiple men and the lack of administrative protocols came together in a perfect storm.  A storm where a missing ship carrying almost 1200 men was simply never missed.  And how distress calls heard and documented in three different commands were dismissed without investigation.  How if it weren’t for a single plane flying overhead, with a single man happening to notice an oil slick, these men might never have been saved.

That man thought the oil slick might be an enemy submarine, so he opened the bomb bay doors to get a better look and drop a depth charge.  And that’s when he noticed hundreds of tiny heads bobbing in the oil.  They were so covered in goo that he couldn’t tell if they were American, or British, or Japanese.

A call for rescue ships went out over the radio; at that time the Navy still didn’t know that these were the sailors from the Indianapolis.  A seaplane was dispatched to drop survival supplies – however, upon seeing all of the men floating alone in the sea, with sharks nearby, Lt. R. Adrian Marks disobeyed orders and landed on the open ocean.  His plane was damaged, but not enough to disable it; he taxied around and collected single men into the plane.  Once the plane was full, he tied more survivors to the wings with parachute cord.

Marks was not the only officer who disobeyed orders that day – en route he overflew the U.S.S. Cecil J. Doyle and alerted her commanding officer to his mission.  Graham Claytor, Jr. went off route and began steaming towards the site.  His was the first rescue ship to arrive.  Although the Doyle was eventually dispatched to respond, the fact that Claytor set course several hours earlier for the site undoubtedly saved many lives.

Sadly, Captain Charles B. McVay III, was court martialed and tried for his failure to zigzag while en route to Leyte.  He was convicted despite the protests from most of his men, and the testimony of the commander of the Japanese submarine that sunk the Indianapolis, who had said that it wouldn’t have mattered.  The Navy was looking for a scapegoat to divert attention from their own failures to notice the ship was missing, and they found one.  McVay’s sentence was remitted and he served the rest of his career on desk duty, but the guilt from so many years of hate mail were too much.  He committed suicide in 1968, dying with a small toy sailor in his hand.

For over 50 years the story was largely buried by the Navy, until a 12 year old Florida boy watched Jaws, and got the idea for a school history project.  Hunter Scott decided to place an ad in the Navy newspaper looking for Indianapolis survivors.  A few responded to his ad, and he began interviewing them; in the end he interviewed 150 survivors.  He learned of the injustice of the court martial and got the ball rolling to exonerate Captain McVay.

Congress finally passed a resolution exonerating him of the loss of the Indianapolis in 2000, 55 years after her sinking.  In 2001, the Secretary of the Navy placed a letter in McVay’s file, clearing him of wrong-doing.  It was about time…



4 thoughts on “Book Review: Abandon Ship!

  1. It sounds really interesting! So it’s written so the book is engaging? True stories themselves can be fascinating, but it definitely matters how the story is written.

    • This book really is an interesting and engaging read – I agree, some history books seem to be written like textbooks… boring… But this one does hold your interest. A little surprising since the book was written in the 50s, back before writers tried to write to make history more interesting.

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