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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book Review: In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors by Doug Stanton

I had declared a WWII moratorium almost exactly two years ago, after reading All the Light We Cannot See. Now don't get me wrong, I did like that book. But I was so tired of WWII. It was just everpresent. With Life After Life and The Boys in the Boat and everyone pushing me to read The Nightingale, and I just couldn't take it anymore. I was so oversaturated that I was prone to dislike an otherwise good book, just because it was set in WWII. So I gave away The Nightingale and happily declared my moratorium and didn't miss them at all. I thought the moratorium would only last a year but it was instead almost two. It started to sneak back in in small doses, through The Radium Girls and Hidden Figures, which are not about WWII but do in a small part take place during the war. Technically The Port Chicago 50 is the first real WWII book I read this year, except it entirely takes place on US soil and the men involved weren't allowed to fight in the war, despite it taking pace in 1944. So I will declare Bomb to be the first real WWII book to break the fast. And then right after reading that book, I saw the movie Dunkirk, and then I just had to read this book, In Harm's Way, that my husband had recently read, and which I had seen praised highly on at least two different book lists last week of books about sharks (since it was Shark Week.)

The USS Indianapolis gets a solid mention in Bomb as it was the ship that delivered the components of the atomic bombs to the Enola Gay to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the book about the atomic bomb, the fate of the Indianapolis then merits just a passing aside. But my god, what a fate! After dropping off the bombs, it headed out for its next port, and was torpedoed by a Japanese sub and sank. Due to a terrible policy, some poor handling of various messages, fear of Japanese fake messages to lure Allies into traps, and so on, the sailors and marine who survived the initial two torpedoes and explosions, who didn't die right away but instead managed to find a life jacket or life boat and get away, then had to endure nearly 5 days at sea, without food or water or shelter, most just in the water not in a life raft, and of course, surrounded by sharks. When they were finally spotted--by accident as still no one was looking for them!--a fraction of the men who had survived the first day were still alive.

Boy, this book had a forward propulsion like few I've read. For a nonfiction, history book, it read so fast, and was absolutely unputdownable. It wasn't a short book but I read it in two days. In the end, I think the navy made a lot more mistakes and errors than they ever took responsibility for, and seriously mislaid the blame. The author also takes a half dozen men (who obviously survived as he'd obviously been able to talk to them) and uses their experiences--in different groups, in different levels of injury and danger--to demonstrate the situation for all the men, and to humanize the tale in a very effective way. This is a top-notch work of history about an often overlooked (the news of the sinking finally broke the same day Japan admitted defeat so it was inevitably lost in the brouhaha) but horrifying and gut-wrenching part of history. These men made the end of the war possible, and then were forgotten as their own lives were imperiled.

This book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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