Monday, May 12, 2014

"In Harm's Way" by Doug Stanton (2001)

You first heard of the story of the USS Indianapolis from Robert Shaw as Captain Quint, the fictional captain in Speilberg's movie Jaws. You've been fascinated by the story ever since.

You have a pretty healthy phobia of sharks. You don't try to hide it. When you take the kids to the aquarium you always reach into the petting tanks to touch the rays and fish that glide by, but you stay well back from the shark tanks. Nico, eight years old now, thinks it's funny to see his father, who is fascinated by everything, standing tight-lipped and dry with his hands by his sides, yards away from an experience as amazing as petting a live shark. But in your mind, maybe you should blame the movie Jaws, or maybe blame your own irrationality, these animals are pure killing machines. They have evolved for hundreds of millions of years to do one thing and one thing only... to eat anything they can. Reading "In Harm's Way" didn't exactly do a lot to help you conquer this fear.

The USS Indianapolis was an American cruiser that was built a decade before WW II broke out. Cruisers aren't as big as battleships and they don't pack quite the punch, but they are much lighter and therefore much faster. The Indy, as she was known, became a favorite of President FDR's and he toured South and Central America in her during the 30's. After war broke out, she was legendary Admiral Spruance's flagship. The Indy used her speed to keep the famous commander of the US 5th Fleet in the thick of battle wherever that may be. Her crew became used to having their orders changed on the fly. She was in almost constant combat from the minute the bombs fell over Pearl Harbor until the minute a kamikaze slammed into her off the coast of Okinawa in March of 1945. The Indy had limped 6,000 miles back from Okinawa to San Francisco Bay. She'd been docked at Mare island for four months for extensive repairs, and by July she was almost ready to get back into the war.

Captain Charles McVay, commander of the USS Indianapolis was surprised to hear that his famous cruiser would be leaving her repair dock on a secret mission before she was completely brought back up to 100%. The United States needed a fast, proven ship to deliver top secret cargo and the Indy and her crew fit the bill perfectly. Unbeknownst to anyone on board, The Indianapolis would be transporting the world's first nuclear weapon, the bomb called Little Boy which would later be dropped on Hiroshima. She would be bringing Little Boy to the island of Tinian where a B-29 bomber was waiting to fly it on the most destructive bombing mission any airplane has ever flown. Along with the secret cargo, two "artillery officers" came aboard (actually, they were experts in radiation detection and in the assembly of the bomb).

After the bomb was loaded onto the Indy on July 16th, she paused in the waters of San Francisco Bay. She was waiting for orders to proceed until after the results of a secret test. The world had just experienced its first nuclear explosion when the scientists from the Manhattan Project detonated their Trinity device in the deserts of New Mexico. As soon as the results of the secret test were verified, the Indy was allowed to sail underneath the Golden Gate bridge and out into the Pacific. Twenty one days later, the city of Hiroshma would be destroyed.

As the 12,000 men on board the Indianapolis steamed at full speed towards Pearl Harbor in July of '45, long gone were those early panicky, lean, holding-on-by-the-skin-of-our-teeth days of the Pacific War. The US Navy had recovered from the devastating losses of the first battles in the conflict with Japan. Over the last four years of a naval war that spanned a quarter of the globe, the US Navy had become a behemoth, a massive bloated fighting machine. More than a million men had passed just through San Francisco on their way to the war and over one third of them had done so in just the last four months. The invasion of the Japanese home islands was being planned and there was speculation the death toll for both sides would be unimaginable. The war was going to end soon, the question was how many more people had to die before it was all over. The Indy held the answer in her cargo hold. The faster she could delivery it, the sooner the bloodiest war in human history might end. The USS Indianapolis made the 2,405 miles from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor in 74.5 hours, a record that still stands today.

By July 26th the Indy had successfully delivered her special cargo to the world's largest airbase at the time. Tininan was a tiny island on the rim of the Mariana trench. It was from this speck in the ocean that the massive B-29 bombers had been launching their bombing runs against Japan's cities and industries 1,600 miles to the north. A bomber named the Enola Gay was there waiting for her special payload and her chance to make the most famous bombing run in history. Just six hours after arriving at Tinian, the Indianapolis was already at sea again. She had left behind her on the island the two guest "artillery officers" and her special secret cargo, a uranium-based fission bomb called Little Boy.

Within days, the Indy had reached Guam, the headquarters for the US Fifth Fleet. From here Captain McVay received orders to continue unescorted to the Philippines. The Indianapolis had no sonar, hunting subs was a job for destroyers, not cruisers. The waters she was sailing into, the Philippine Sea, some of the deepest on Earth, were known to have Japanese subs in them. The problem was that this knowledge came from a classified American code-breaking program called ULTRA. No one on board the Indianapolis had clearance to be briefed in on ULTRA intelligence and the Navy couldn't take the chance that the Japanese might realize their codes had been broken. Rerouting American ships into safer waters would be a dead give away to the Japanese that their communications had been compromised. 1,200 men on one of the US Nay's most famous ships were sailing into dangerous waters with no idea there were Japanese submarines prowling them.

The I-58 was one of only six submarines the Japanese Navy still had in operation in July of '45. Just after midnight on the night of July 29th, two torpedoes launched from the I-58 smashed into the forward sections of the Indianapolis. The second torpedo hit a 3,500 gallon fuel tank. The damage was catastrophic. Within eight minutes, the order went out verbally among the crew (all of the electronics on board were knocked out, including the coms) for all hands to abandon ship. Moments after the torpedoes had struck her, the flagship of the US Fifth Fleet had rolled onto her starboard side and was sinking. There was no time to release any of the ship's lifeboats. Some of the men were able to simply step into the sea without even getting their hair wet. Within twelve minutes of the strike, more than 900 of the crew of the Indianapolis were in the water watching her burning hulk disappear under the waves. Four days later, only 317 of them would come out of the water.

Hundreds of men had been vaporized instantly or had burned alive in the attack. More had been crushed by heavy equipment sliding across the decks when the cruiser rolled. These men never had a chance. They were dead within minutes, or even seconds of the torpedoes' explosions. Their friends who had survived would soon consider those who had died in the attack to be the lucky ones.

Sharks are attracted to electrical currents. This sixth sense allows these keystone predators to detect prey even when visibility is low. Huge warships steaming over open waters not only create massive electrical fields but they also create a trail of trash that would have also attracted sharks (opportunistic feeders that they are) for miles and miles around. After the ship sank, it is likely that hundreds of sharks who had been trailing in the cruiser's wake feasted on the corpses of the sailors from the doomed Indianapolis. After the first day, they turned their attention to the surviving crew members, many of whom had been horribly wounded or burned when their ship was attacked.

The sharks, mostly tigers, blues, makos, and whitetips, attacked the periphery of the groups of survivors who had clustered together. The sharks preferred to eat at dawn and dusk. The men watched during the sweltering daylight hours while hundreds, maybe thousands of the ancient predators circled them. The waters of the South Pacific were clear enough that the sharks, each averaging ten feet long, could be seen even fifty feet below the survivors' feet. As the sun came up every morning and set every night, the monsters would strike from the deep and from the darkness.

It must have been like a nightmare. Not a metaphorical nightmare, but an actual nightmare, like the ones that you have occasionally. You know the ones. They are soaked in blood and fear, with rows of ghastly silver teeth gruesomely ripping apart living flesh. The ones where screams fill the air and death is personified by sleek and swift beasts who kill without reason. The sharks averaged fifty kills a day among the survivors of the Indianapolis. Fifty men were eaten alive every day while their helpless friends watched. Some died screaming and fighting back, while others were killed more surreptitiously. Sometimes sailors would nudge their sleeping friends only to realize, to their horror, that the head and shoulders bobbing in the life vest were all that remained of their friend. As you read "In Harm's Way" you wondered how any of these men maintained any scrap of sanity.

Most of them did not. Exposure, dehydration, and the constant threat of being eaten alive would be enough for most humans to loose their minds. But the men of the Indy also had to deal with the psychological effects of ingesting salt water. No matter how educated a person might be in the dangers of drinking ocean water, being surrounded by 10,000 square miles of water when you are dying of thirst can prove too tempting for even the most stalwart. Too many men could not fight the urge to drink their fill. Those who gave in, quickly went insane as they floated on the waves. Salt water psychosis is incredibly painful and many of the men died screaming in agony, even those untouched by sharks. Some began hallucinating and at times many of them would have mass group hallucinations. Often, these hallucinations ended with the men drowning themselves or drinking even more saltwater, which proved just as deadly. Tragically, early on the morning of Wednesday, August 1st, one group of deranged boys attacked one another with knives and bare hands. Fights broke out for the most illogical of reasons and, in the throws of insanity, sailors killed each other. After just a few minutes of this, fifty more of the survivors from the Indianapolis floated lifeless on the waves, murdered by their own shipmates.

Through a series of tragically unpredictable circumstances, almost no one else in the US Navy had any idea a ship had been sunk. The Indy had sent out a distress signal and she was missing from her appointed meeting the next day, but a ship like the Indianapolis was regularly called away from her assigned missions and sent where she was needed with no warning or notification. It was assumed, by those who even noticed she was late, that she had been called off to more pressing matters.

After four days of their agonizing ordeal, on Thursday August 2nd 1945, the survivors were spotted by an American anti-submarine bomber. The men from the Indy floated in a skein of so much fuel and oil from the sinking of their ship that the pilot of the bomber began to make an attack run on them, mistaking them for a Japanese submarine. Realizing his mistake, he radioed in the location of the desperate flotilla of survivors and so began one of the largest rescue operations in the history of the US Navy. By then, their life vests were so inundated with water that even the men who were lucky enough to have worn a vest were in danger of drowning. The pilot of one PB-Y seaplane, seeing how desperate the situation was below him, even ditched in the massive ocean swells, damaging his airframe so badly that the plane would never fly again. The pilot, Adrian Marks, used his ruined aircraft as a lifeboat, a refuge from the sharks and a place to administer rudimentary medical treatment for the most grievously wounded and malnourished among the survivors. 56 men were saved by Marks and his PB-Y.

American ships for hundreds of miles around converged on the area. The survivors were spread out over miles of open ocean. The currents and the winds had drifted them over one hundred miles from where they had first entered the sea. Within a day, all of the survivors had been pulled aboard American ships. Most of them were suffering from burns, lacerations, fractures, skin ulcers from the salt water, dehydration, starvation, pneumonia, shock, exposure, and shark bites.

Six days later, when Little Boy fell out of the sky above Hiroshima, it had the words "This is for the boys of the USS Indianapolis" written on its side. It is remarkable that the men who delivered the most technologically advanced weapon ever used in warfare, something out of a science fiction story, soon found themselves at risk from one of the world's oldest killers. It was a reminder to you that humans may be able to harness the power of the atom, but we are still part of a natural world and sometimes that world asserts itself in the most fearsome of ways.

Captain McVay survived the ordeal only to be court martialed for the sinking of his ship. To this day he remains the only American captain to be brought up on charges for losing his ship to enemy action in a time of war. The war was over within weeks of the recovery and the papers that heralded the end of hostilities also give a few inches of space for the sinking of the Indianapolis. It was an embarrassment for the Navy and they needed a scapegoat. Ostensibly, Captain McVay was reprimanded because he was not sailing his ship in a zig zag course. The prosecution argued that this would have prevented any submarine from being able to plot an acurate firing slution and would have saved the ship. The defense brought in not only a prominent American submarine commander to refute this assertion, but also the captain of the I-58 himself! The very man who had sunk the ship testified that zig zagging would have done nothing to complicate his calculations and the Indy would have been sunk anyway.

It didn't matter. The Navy was not interested in looking to place blame any higher than the rank of captain. In 1968, after two decades of shame and after receiving stacks of hate mail from grieving family members of the sailors who died under his command, Captain McVay killed himself on the steps of his New England home. In the history of the phrase "adding insult to injury" this injustice against Captain McVay surely stands out as one of the most apt.

Reading "In Harm's Way" reminded you that some fears and some phobias are not always illogical. There are monsters out there in the world, and sometimes they really do want to eat you. But it also reminded you, once again, of the extraordinary sacrifices people have been willing to risk in order to fight against totalitarianism, to protect their country and their way of life. They knew that they were possibly protecting these things not for themselves, since they might not live to enjoy them, but for their families at home and for the people of the future... for you. If there are monsters in the world, it is good to remember that there are also heroes who are willing to risk everything for the people they love.

On to the next book!

P.S. You can't end this review without linking to the clip from Jaws of Robert Shaw as Captain Quint giving one of the best speeches in movie history. Richard Dreyfus' reaction in the background is exactly what you felt like when you were reading some of the most unbelievable parts of this book, slack-jawed and humbled to speechlessness.