Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man

Image of Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man
Release Date: 
July 10, 2018
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

It is always a pleasure to read and review a publication that deserves one’s endorsement. This volume has a lot going for it that will be referenced below. Even though the subject has been previously covered through many articles and books yet largely unfamiliar to the public, it not only includes some previously unavailable material but also updates the ongoing decades-old story to exonerate the ship’s captain for the alleged hazarding of his vessel.

For those unfamiliar, the Indianapolis’ most important mission during World War II was the delivery to the Mariana Islands of some of the components for the atomic weapons that were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, weapons which effectively forced the Japanese to surrender. Its unescorted return to the fleet in the Philippines, its loss to a Japanese submarine, the horror at sea endured by the surviving crew members, and their rescue are all part of the story.

However, in the decades following the court martial of the captain—a tragic tale in itself—those crew members, the commander of the ship’s namesake submarine in the 1990s, a young boy on his own personal mission and, indeed, one of the co-authors, came together in an effort to obtain exoneration for him following his conviction, based primarily on the fact that he did not zigzag his ship as was generally the Navy rule for vessels sailing in active war zones.

Extensively based on interviews with survivors, this is a much more personal, fact-and detail-oriented telling of this tragedy. Employed as well are many primary sources in government archives, documents, reports, and memoranda along with other books, articles, personal and other sources which co-authors Vincent and Vladic have weaved into an eminently readable narrative, as much from the American point of view as that of the Japanese.

A last section in the text also notes the discovery of the ship’s wreck last year at a depth of more than 18,000 feet in the Philippine Sea by the research vessel Petrel, which is owned and operated by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The video and photographs that resulted from that effort gave the remaining survivors, in their 90s now, one last look at their ship before they are all gone.

In spite of the sometimes graphic events in the text, there are many features to be praised, indicating a high quality publication. Besides the narrative itself, there are two photographic sections, both of which contain shots from the period of crew, rescuers, the Indianapolis, and other relevant subjects. The second section also includes some modern-day color photographs of survivors, postwar reunions and government officials crucial to the captain’s exoneration process.

Additionally, there are several excellent maps included which show the overall Pacific war zone, the route taken by the Indianapolis and location of its sinking, among others. Multiple diagrams provide information on the U.S. Navy’s theater chain of command (which explains much of its confusion, negligence, and indifference following the ship’s loss), the ships involved in the survivors’ rescue as well as one of the Indianapolis for purposes of familiarization.

A final list of the ship’s crew provides the names of those aboard and notes those who survived the sinking and their ocean ordeal. The first appendix enumerates and gives a short summary of the ships which assisted in the rescue, search and recovery. The second appendix, by co-author Sara Vladic, is more of an aside that relates her personal “journey” to tell the story of the ship and its crew.

Although this is another publication whose notes are specific to pages and quotations and expressions found therein and lacks traditional footnotes, that is not necessarily a criticism here as the bibliography lists an extensive array of sources consulted and one can see for oneself the depth of the research, interest, and the enthusiasm for the story that went into its telling.

This is another publication that demonstrates, again, the sacrifices made by our Greatest Generation, and, in particular, that anything that can go wrong could very easily go wrong, much to the detriment of those affected. It also shows that sometimes justice can be served, even after the fact. In any event, read this book despite its sometimes grisly and graphic details. It is highly recommended.