Book Reviews

USS Indianapolis


Carissa Sutter, 126

“You know the thing about a shark? He’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at you he doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites you, and those black eyes roll over white.” -Quint, Jaws

One of the most chilling scenes from Jaws was the speech given by Robert Shaw when he describes the tragic aftermath of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. Having never been much of a fan of WWII history, never mind WWII naval history, it is unlikely that I would have heard about the Indianapolis any other way. I’ve learned that it was the most catastrophic naval embarrassment in the history of the United States, and it happened right before the end of the war. According to Doug Stanton, author of In Harm’s Way, those two elements combined to make a perfect platform for a cover-up. The navy didn’t want their incredible incompetence advertised, and Americans just wanted to hear about the war being over. While historians like Stanton have worked to remind people what happened, it has been mostly just a story known by navy aficionados and WWII historians. And Jaws fans.

(**Read the very end of the article to find out how Jaws was accurate and inaccurate concerning the story of the Indianapolis**)


I’ll be honest. I wanted to know more about this story because of the gruesome way it was described in the movie. But underneath that was an interest in the story of survival. How do you sit in water for five days surrounded by thousands of sharks and live?

So, I got a book. Which I read twice in a day. Then I got another book written by a survivor. Which was kind of disappointing in its delivery. So I got a third book. By day four, I had bought and read four books (two histories, two biographies) about the USS Indianapolis. Unfortunately, almost all of this reading was done at night, so it’s been kind of an exhausting experience. I thought I should do “books” review, or a layman’s historiography, or a history of my own. But I will mostly just review one book, including some of my favorite facts, and give you a summary about why the other books weren’t as good.

     The first book I read, which turned out to be my favorite, was In Harm’s Way by Doug Stanton.  I admit, the beginning of this book was misleading. Not in the direction that the book was going, but the direction that the storytelling was going. The beginning was incredibly boring. I’m not sure how, but the author managed to make a heartbreaking suicide read like a depressing moment in the life of a senior citizen. Which I suppose it was, but it was a depressing moment in the life of a senior citizen who had been unfairly held responsible for the deaths of over 800 sailors. He was their captain, but he couldn’t save them. And he couldn’t live with it.

See, that wasn’t so hard.

Another problem in the first part of the book was that it becomes incredibly detailed about things unimportant to the main event. This is a sluggish read for people who are not obsessed with navy lingo and technical events leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima. Which I am not. While it is fun to learn that an ice cream parlor on a ship was nicknamed a “gedunk,” a Dear John letter was a “green banana,” and a candy bar was named “pogey bait;” it just made me feel like skipping the first chapters altogether.

Stanton’s thesis is that the aftermath of the sinking of the ship (i.e. the four or five days these men lived and died in the ocean) was covered up by a naval and political conspiracy. To support his thesis, there were some navy policies to cover, and some background on the state of the war in the armed forces by 1945. Of course, he had to include that the USS Indianapolis was on a classified mission to deliver the Hiroshima bomb, and why, and what it took for that mission to land on the almost-outdated cruiser. The classified status is the most obvious reason that the navy overlooked a missing cruiser (and the flagship of the Navy’s Fifth fleet) for almost five days – even though the classified mission had been completed by the time of the sinking. Sadly, the fact that it had just completed a classified mission was not even the beginning of the problem. To Stanton, it was just another excuse for the total disharmony of an overworked navy.

The most cohesive aspect of Stanton’s book is how he chose to focus on four survivors and their perspectives of the events. The other history book that I read, Ordeal by Sea: The Tragedy of the USS Indianapolis by Thomas Helms, sometimes seemed to describe the experiences of every single person on board, whether they lived or died, including their names and hometowns. This would have been overwhelming if I had read it before In Harm’s Way. The survivors Stanton focused on were Captain Charles Butler McVay III, a third generation navy man; Private Giles McCoy, a war-tested marine; Doctor Lewis Haynes, a navy surgeon; and to a small extent, Ensign Harlan Twible, a green sailor just two weeks out of the Naval Academy.Men

It was 12:01 in the morning when the torpedoes, carrying 1200 pounds of explosives (each), hit the “forward starboard” (right-front) and the “mid-ship.” The torpedo in front hit a tank carrying 3500 gallons of aviation gasoline, setting a river of fire through some parts of the ship and sinking the tip into the ocean almost immediately.(Gause)  The torpedo that hit the mid-ship exploded a room that carried the powder magazines for the 8-inch guns. This led to some extra explosions, to say the least.

In Harm’s Way describes many terrible things that happened during the eight to twelve minutes that it took for the ship to sink. That was one of the things that was most honest throughout this history. Bad decisions that were nobody’s fault. Terrible decisions that were a result of navy protocol – such as “dogging down” the doors – ship doors have to be locked down watertight in order to prevent or slow down sinking. This had to be done even with men trapped inside, screaming for help.

And the boats. When the men got into the water they found that none of the boats had the standard survival packages and almost none had water that was clean. Indy’s departure had been hurried because the Hiroshima bomb had to switch ships at the last minute. With the rush, the supplies had not been checked or replenished. There were some regular rafts, floater nets, and whaleboats. The sailors managed to get around twelve (or less) of the thirty-five rafts free during the twelve minutes it took for the ship to sink.  The standard number of sailors allowed per raft was 20, but up to 50 sailors would pile in when and if they were able to find a raft. Some rafts were only partially filled. Everyone who couldn’t get in or find a boat had to make due with a life vest or a belt float. There were around 900 men in the sea when the ship sank, the vast majority were in the water.

Now, here is the unexpected part. Though this sinking is famous for the hundreds that died from shark attacks, there were twice as many that died for other reasons. How did that happen?

Stanton covers the physiology of exposure in the ocean thoroughly in his book. The other books I read either quoted his description of the impact exactly, or describe the problem generally. Stanton explains that the ocean is basically a mild acidic bath filled with flesh-eating bacteria. The sailors were swallowing small amounts of this poison whenever a wave hit them in the face, and the high potassium levels they consumed broke down their red blood cells, leading to anemia and physical exhaustion. If they breathed it into their lungs, they could eventually have respiratory failure and heart problems. There was the danger of hypothermia, even in the warmer southern waters, and saltwater ulcers which could eat through their muscles to the bone. Sailors also suffered from photophobia from the brightness of the sun, which made most of them blind during the day. And small fish were nibbling at their wounds.

IMG_7016.JPGThe most dangerous problem was the psychological trauma of being dehydrated, starving, exhausted, and constantly terrified swimming above man-eating sharks. To some extent, it drove all of the men insane. Many of them started to drink the seawater on purpose, either believing that it was fresh water down deep below the surface, or that they could drink it out of their hands, or just deciding that they wanted to drink it.  If a man drank a lot of it, he could die within two hours. If he drank a little, he might flail around wildly and end up separated from the group and at the mercy of the sharks.

Every man suffered from delusions, some more deadly than others.

The entire section concerning their lives in the water was fascinating. The men who survived said that they had to watch the sailors who had no family, because they were the ones who were most likely to give up. This was reminiscent of what was written in Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, a book written by a psychiatrist who survived the holocaust. Frankl observed that it was those who made plans for the future who were able to keep fighting for life. The ones who had lost all hope for any future would just shut down. Once they gave up, their bodies would give up soon after. Frankl says he survived the holocaust by constantly making plans, both for within the concentration camp and after the war. Some of the Indy survivors worked the same way. They would think about their children and their parents, and worry about how to survive for them. The poor captain spent his time worrying about his likely court martial, when he wasn’t busy worrying about how to sustain the men in his group with the limited supplies they were able to salvage.

The survivor stories aside, Stanton’s book is about the poor decisions of various officers in the navy and the suspiciously calculated and unjust attacks on the captain after the survivors were found. And honestly, his facts are pretty damning. There were a number of reports that were withheld from the public until the late 1995 when those documents became unclassified, and all of them point to extreme negligence by a number of officials. The book ends with a detailed description of the trial, which was obviously a show for the press, and a return to the narrative of the sad old man that the captain became before his suicide in the 1960s. The captain was court-martialed for not doing enough to protect the ship from the submarine. There was never any justice for the things that happened after the men were abandoned in the water for five days.



The other books that I read:

Ordeal by Sea: The Tragedy of the USS Indianapolis by Thomas Helms. Be warned, the kindle version has some weird problems, like words missing at the end of random sentences. However, this book provides a much wider perspective of the sinking and the time in the water. The main problem with the story is the constant introductions of the sailors. It gets very tedious reading “So and so from typical american small town____, raised in poverty, has 15 brothers and sisters waiting for him” to introduce the owner of each perspective, every other paragraph. Also, it was written around 1963, so there is a lot of classified information the author did not have access to, and some of his technical facts are actually wrong. Overall, if you’ve read the Stanton book and are looking for more details about what individuals went through this will be a great second-book. He even covers different parts of stories of men mentioned in Stanton’s book, so you get a fuller picture of what they went through.





Unsinkable: The inspiring true story of USS Indianapolis survivor: Robert P. Gause, QM1 by Jill Noblit MacGregor

This one was a biography about Bob Gause and was very different from the histories. Which was good, and bad. It was good because it focused almost entirely on his own perspective of events, so it was the polar opposite of Helms “let’s get to know all 1196 sailors.” This allowed for a more detailed, step by step experience of the chain of events – which was especially helpful and instructive in the series of events directly after the torpedoes hit. It was bad because there were many points in the book, especially in the end, where his life story becomes the centerpiece. And it’s not that interesting. Honestly, I gave up at the end because he was taking up pages fulfilling his promise to spread the word that God saved him. This was not a unique promise, by the way. A lot of the men spent their days at sea talking and making promises to God. Not to belittle that practice, it just wasn’t written well enough to want to read about it. However, he saw some things during the sinking that weren’t in any of the other books, even though he contributed to all of the other books. Most interesting was Gause’s discovery that the front of the ship was gone after the torpedoing. No one else mentions his perspective of the extent of the damage in the first stages of sinking, and in Ordeal, Helms claims that no one confirmed what happened in the front and no one ever returned from the front after being sent there by the captain. Which was weird, since he interviewed Gause and Gause was not a shy man who held back information. Stanton does mention that about sixty-five feet of the “bow” was “simply obliterated,” but it was much more fascinating to read Gause’s account of realizing the front of the ship was gone by nearly falling into the sea.



Out of the Depths by Edgar Harrell USMC with David Harrell

This book has four and a half stars on Amazon. My theory is that nobody is going to give a survivor of the Indianapolis a bad rating. I know that I can’t bring myself to do it. This man went through as much as any of the survivors, and I respect that. One major problem is that this is really more of a testimony than a history. I don’t know why it isn’t mentioned on the cover, but it is a story about a Christian experience of salvation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, I just feel like it should have been mentioned somewhere in the summary. Otherwise, people might feel ambushed. And that isn’t why I think it deserves less than four stars. I think it deserves less than four stars because it was vague and did not disclose experiences in a well rounded way. Gause’s book also had a lot of “testimony” style descriptions, but it felt more honest and even humble. One of the main things that I found was universal among the survivors was that they spent their time in the water praying, so to deny that would be a lie and distort their stories of survival. But I honestly would not recommend this book to Christians or atheists.





A short guide to the inaccuracies of Jaws


Jaws, accurate

-The ship did go down in about twelve minutes.

-A man died about every ten minutes, but not from shark attacks. The sharks killed about fifty men a day, mostly during their hunting times of dusk and dawn. The other men died from succumbing to exposure.


Chuck Gwinn in front of his Ventura bomber plane

-Bob Gause had the experience of reaching to try to wake up his friend, who then upended where he’d been bitten off at the waist. The story was included in Ordeal by Sea. However, Gause never told anybody the name of that sailor. He didn’t want the boy’s family to know.

-Most men did gather into large groups, to try to appear more intimidating to the sharks.

-It was a Lockheed Ventura PV-1 Bomber named “Gambler 17,” flown by Charles “Chuck” Gwinn, who found them by accident.


Jaws inaccurate

-A distress signal WAS sent. They received it at three separate radio shacks. On the island of Leyte at the naval operating base at Tacloban, at Tolosa and on a landing craft in the harbor. The officer at Tolosa even sent two tugs to go check the coordinates of the sinking. But the Commodore found out that they were sent to sea without his permission and recalled them after they had gone seven hours into the twenty-one hour trip. The distress signal hadn’t been confirmed with a reply, which had become a requirement during the war because the Japanese had used “prank” distress calls to lure out search vessels. No one followed up.

-Sharks only caused about a third of the deaths (200) that happened after sinking. The sharks did eat the men who had already died from exposure.

-It took more than three hours after being spotted to be rescued. Some men waited another twenty-four hours to be found.

-Most men didn’t notice the sharks on the first night. They were still sitting in a “poisonous field of black fuel oil…sticky as molasses” (Stanton) which may have repelled the fish until the sailors drifted out into the clean ocean the next day. However, there was so much chaos that night and so many men who were still screaming and dying from severe burns, some think there could have been shark attacks that went unnoticed.

-Sharks weren’t attacking all day and night, they mostly fed at dusk or dawn.

-317 men came out of the water. For a long time they reported 316, possibly because one of the men had severe pneumonia when he was rescued and his doctors marked him as a fatality in the initial reports.

-“They didn’t even list us overdue for a week.” The Indy was listed overdue after two days, and marked as an “Expected Arrival” for Wednesday, then Thursday. They were found by accident on Thursday, day four, but no one was searching for them.

People claim that the character Quint was based on Bob Gause, who was a fisherman from Florida. But Gause was never a shark hunter, well…he did occasionally hunt them for sport, but he had no hatred towards sharks. In Unsinkable, he described sharks in this way:

“The best way I can explain a shark is to compare it to a bad dog. A bad dog won’t bite you every time you walk by, but he’s still a bad dog because he bites. Like a bad dog, the problem with sharks is you don’t know when one will bite. Sharks are unpredictable creatures, not misunderstood….I’ve discovered that [they’re generally up to] one or two things: they’re either up to nothing, or up to no good.”

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