Review | In Harm's Way, by Doug Stanton

I read horror novels. I've read non-fiction books about psychotic murders, the killing streets of Baltimore, and battlefields across centuries and continents. I've seen movies like Saw and plenty of other frightfests. None of those terrified me like In Harm's Way, by Doug Stanton (2001).

The book is subtitled "The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors." The Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945, in the closing days of World War Two, though no one knew it was so close to over at the time.

(The Indy went down a few days after secretly delivering the components of the "Little Boy" atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima. The bomb was so secret that everyone assumed Japan would have to be invaded, at an estimated cost of 1,000,000 American casualties. Instead, Little Boy and Fat Man were dropped on August 6 and August 9; Japan surrendered on August 15.)

But even if the sinking of the Indy hadn't happened so close to the end of the war, it would have been no less horrifying.

When the ship was hit -- about halfway between the ship's last stop in Guam and its destination in the Philippines -- just after midnight, there were 1,196 men on board. It is estimated that 900 made it into the Pacific water alive. The ship radioed for help, but the messages were disregarded because they could not be confirmed; sending false distress signals was a common Japanese ploy. When the ship didn't arrive in port, it was "simply assumed that the Indy had been diverted to other action."

The men in the water were tortured by the sight of passing American planes for days, flown by men who simply didn't see the men in the water. It wasn't until after 11 a.m. on August 2 that the pilot of a patrol plane noticed the oil slick.

The last survivors was not pulled out of the water until August 3, more than 4 1/2 days after the ship sank.

Only 321 men came out of the Pacific alive. Four died in the next week.

During those 4 1/2 days, the men in the water -- many of whom were wounded -- slowly lost their minds, their bodies deteriorated in the salt water, and they suffered from hypothermia. (Even though the water was in the 80s, it still leached the heat from the men. Their core body temperatures dropped below 90.) When then men started to lose it, they began to kill each other.

And there were sharks, circling for the entire time the men were in the water. The book estimates that 200 died of shark attacks.

In Harm's Way might be the first book I've ever had to put down for a moment before starting to read again. I did that at this passage, the first real gut-churning moment of the book for me, on page 124:

Looking over his shoulder, he could see one of the ship's propellers still spinning. Men were jumping off the stern, screaming as they dropped. They hit the blades and were thrown into the air. One minute they were dropping straight for the sea; the next, they were flying sideways, wailing as they flew out into the darkness.

I was truly nauseated after reading that. I set the book down. But I had to pick it up again. It only got worse as I read the book in whatever spare time I had, finishing it in a day.

Stanton simply, but very carefully, lays out the disaster, mixing horrific detail with descriptions of the foul-ups that left the men in the water for so long. The stories of what the men were going through as they drifted, and the knowledge that helps was not on the way, upset me more than anything else I've ever read or watched. In Harm's Way is a fantastic book, a sharply written account of a story that needed to be told.

But it is not a book I could ever say I enjoyed.