Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Missing but not missed

In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its SurvivorsIn the final days of World War II, one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the US Navy occurred: the U.S.S. Indianapolis and its crew of 1,196 men went missing... and the few who noticed did nothing about it. On July 26, 1945, the Indianapolis delivered - unbeknownst to its crew - the uranium that would be used in the atomic bombs dropped on Japan less than two weeks later. In a cruel twist of irony, while it steamed on to the Philippines three nights later (July 29), the Indy was hit by torpedoes launched from one of the few Japanese submarines left patrolling the sea. It was estimated that 300 men died instantly and 900 went into the ocean in the short 20 minutes it took the ship to sink. The men who survived the sinking were in terrible shape, many of them wounded and burned, with few rafts and floatation vests available to them as they floated in the fuel oil released by their dead ship.

Drawing on the testimonies of the survivors, particularly Private Giles McCoy, ship's doctor Lewis Haynes, and ship's captain Charles McVay, In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors by Doug Stanton tells the story of the crew's ordeal. Covered in oil - many of them having swallowed some of it - and floating in harsh saltwater for days, the men had few options as they drifted further apart. Many who were injured were the first to die. Others went crazy and drowned themselves or turned on one another. And then there were the sharks, circling all day long and attacking at dusk and dawn. It was estimated that 200 men were killed by the hungry predators. In the end, only 317 survived.

But the real tragedy was the missed opportunities when they might have been rescued. The last minute SOS message sent as the ship sank was ignored and search ships called back. The Indy's failure to show up at the expected time didn't provoke any response from the Navy in the Philippines, either. Even after their rescue, additional indignity was heaped upon them as the Navy court-martialed Captain McVay, despite evidence that he had acted prudently (even the Japanese submarine commander testified that there was nothing the Indy could have done to avoid being sunk!). None of those who neglected to act upon reports of the missing ship received so much as a meaningful reprimand.

This is the kind of story you read, not because it has a happy ending or displays American perseverance in the face of adversity, but because of the sacrifice that has been made to preserve the liberties we take for granted.

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