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

Vincent, Lynn and Sara Vladic. Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man.  Simon & Schuster. 2019.

Reviewed by Charles Gundersen, museum volunteer

Comments of the author are his and do not represent the policy or position of the U.S. Navy.

I knew it was a book before I even finished ripping off the Christmas wrapping paper.  The book was cover-side up and I saw the title:  INDIANAPOLIS.  Instead of immediately being thankful for the gift, given to me by a close family friend, my only thought can be expressed in one word:  sharks.

Early in the book, the action begins during the invasion of Okinawa where INDIANAPOLIS suffered damage due to a kamikaze strike.  Reading this story reminded me of my father who was on the bridge of SS Josiah Snelling in May 1945.  They were supporting the Okinawa invasion when his ship was attacked by a kamikaze who gave his life for the emperor in the empty hold of the Liberty ship.

This action off Okinawa was the trigger event leading up to the I-boat attack on INDIANAPOLIS.  After repairs stateside and a quick stop at Tinian Island to drop off a “package,” the ship began its fateful voyage down the transit lane to the Philippines.

I suppose now is the time to talk about sharks.  But I won’t – you should go see the movie, Jaws.

The book does not end with the survivors being dropped off in San Diego.  But this part of the story is very brief and I wish the authors discussed the reception the survivors received (if any) in San Diego.  Did they receive DD-214s as they were hustled out the door?  It seems like they should have gotten more than just a form letter.

The book is very well written (but as a former engineering major at the UW, I am not in any position to critique anyone’s English).  However, there are a few examples where you can tell the authors were not long-time sailors in the U.S. Navy.  We all know the story of the sinking, but after reading this book, you will know the rest of the story.  Buy the book and read it (unless you are about to board a warship yourself and sail off into the Pacific Ocean as I did in 1962 while waiting in line to board USS MIDWAY).  I’m glad I had not read the book before then.

It should be noted:  This book is about exoneration.  The survivors of the sinking wanted to make right an obvious injustice (the Court-Martial and guilty verdict against Captain McVay).  The prosecutors wanted to nail McVay because he hazarded his ship.  He did not zigzag during the transit to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.  Note:  A surface ship zigzags back and forth over its intended course in an effort to confuse the attacking submarine’s fire control solution.

In the sinking of INDIANAPOLIS, the Navy had lost a large combatant during an enemy attack while the ship transited the Philippine Sea.  Someone had to go down and the natural person was the ship’s commanding officer, Captain McVay.  Should he have been held responsible for an event over which he had no control?  What could he have done to prevent the sinking?  The authors suggest there were several things the local U.S. Navy commands could have done to reduce the risk of an attack before McVay left Guam.

Since INDIANAPOLIS did not possess anti-submarine warfare (ASW) sensors nor any ASW weapons, McVay should have been offered the services of several escort destroyers.  If none were available, they should have, at least, offered to divert him around the known and current ASW activity against Japanese submarines directly in his path.  Why wasn’t McVay warned of this?

Instead, he was court-martialed in haste.  The authors suggest the pre-trial investigations were incomplete possibly due to the potential of embarrassing some senior officers.

Many questions were left unanswered in the years following the court-martial.  But the proverbial pot eventually began to boil.

The survivors had suffered through both air and undersea strikes.  They finally made it back to the States, only to be drowned again in the legal / political system – for the next 50 years.

Issues such as these waited to be addressed:  If U. S. Naval intelligence had intercepted the report from the captain of the Japanese submarine (I-58) that it had just sunk an enemy ship, why did the Navy do “absolutely nothing to follow-up on that report”?  Or to restate this unanswerable question in another way:  Why wasn’t anyone in Naval intelligence prosecuted for their error in judgement regarding the lack of any follow-up on I-58’s report of sinking an enemy ship, while McVay was tried and convicted for an error in his judgement regarding the miss-handling of his ship?  Questions like this were called “Murder Board Questions.”

This line of questioning reached a new low with this gem:  If McVay reached his destination by steering a straight-line course directly to Leyte Gulf would he have been arrested and tried for putting his ship in danger by not zigzagging?  Answer that, Sir!

Most survivors believed “the sinking of INDIANAPOLIS was beyond McVay’s control.” And if so, “Why is the Navy still out to falsely persecute and defame him?”

After much debate, the decision to exonerate Captain McVay was ultimately left up to the Congress of the United States.

Again, this book is very good, even if you do not want to be a maritime lawyer.  I strongly recommend you read this book.

See a graphic of the ship’s mission timeline and course at