The U.S.S. Indianapolis was the flagship of the Fifth Fleet during WWII.
Adm. Raymond Spruance commanded Pacific naval battles from its decks. The 44-gun heavy cruiser racked up 10 battle stars and was commissioned with a top-secret mission to transport parts of Little Boy, the first nuclear weapon used in warfare.
History has mostly examined the ship, however, from a singular perspective — as one of the greatest single losses of life at sea — and the tales of shark attacks have gripped people’s imaginations since a now-famous monologue in the movie “Jaws” retold the story.
Two authors have now written the “definitive story” of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, with an examination of the full breadth of the ship’s history and the events before, during and after its sinking at the hands of a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945, just days after the historic secret mission.
Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic will give the closing address at the 2019 Savannah Book Festival on Feb. 17 with a presentation on their new book, “Indianapolis.”
Vladic became intrigued with the story after she watched a documentary when she was young. She raced to the library in the pre-internet days to find more information after being dissatisfied with the documentary's summary of "the ship that carried the bomb and was sunk." Finding only shards of information, Vladic was further intrigued, but figured someone else would tell the full story someday.
Years later, after finishing college, she noticed that no one had yet told the story of the U.S.S Indianapolis, and so she set out to do it herself. Vladic is now an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the world’s leading expert on the Indianapolis.
“I reached out to the survivors and found the survivors' organization led by Paul Murphy and met with him and his wife,” Vladic said. “Told them I was very interested in their story. They invited me to my first reunion. That was 2001. I started going to their reunions. They kind of took me in as family. That was coolest thing to me. Getting to spend time with them and hearing their stories and getting to know them well.
"A couple of years later, they asked me to be the storyteller. That’s where it all started.”
Over the last 17 years, Vladic has interviewed 108 of the ship’s survivors and formed relationships with them. This laid the foundation for the new book. She presented the story to a major production company as a miniseries, similar to HBO’s “Band of Brothers.” But the company told her they wanted it be based on a book.
“As a Christian, I pray a lot about my work,” Vincent said. “I had done other military books. Of course, I am a Navy veteran. I had literally been praying for a couple of years for an iconic WWII story to write. Those were the words I used in my prayers.
“Through some family connections, she connected with me. She didn’t know I was a Navy veteran. She obviously didn’t know about this prayer. When we connected, it was really a match made in heaven, literally.”
More than a shark story
The most highlighted portion of the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis revolved around the days following its sinking. The Japanese submarine I-58 had caught the ship by surprise. Intelligence had missed the submarine in the area, and so the crew of the Indianapolis was unaware of its presence. The torpedo damage was immediate and immense. The ship sank in 12 minutes with 300 souls on board. Of the original 1,195 crew members, the remaining 890 spent the next four days adrift in the open ocean.
They faced exposure, dehydration and shark attacks. Through a confusion with the Navy port they were headed for, the ship was never registered as missing. They were spotted by a PV-1 Ventura on routine patrol four days after sinking. Only 316 men survived.
“One of the things that we set out to do in the very beginning was to elevate this story above a shark story,” Vincent said. “We wanted to pull back and restore Indianapolis to her rightful place in history. That was one of our big focuses.
"Another opportunity we saw was to tell a lot of stories that hadn’t been told yet. Including the transport of the atomic bomb," Vincent continued. "Almost always, that was reduced to a single line or paragraph. We were lucky enough to come across the private papers of Major Furman, who was head of intelligence for the entire Manhattan Project. He left handwritten notes and lengthy journalist-like narratives about his time aboard Indianapolis. We were very privileged to be the first people to get to tell that story."
Ship's legacy today
“Another part was, the exoneration of what [Capt.] McVay went through,” Vladic added. “A lot of that hadn’t taken place till after 2001. The last major book released about Indianapolis was released in 2001. There was a lot to be told about what happened to McVay after they came home from the war and how the survivors rallied to defend their captain.”
In 1945, McVay was court-martialed for the loss of his ship on two charges: failing to order his men to abandon ship and hazarding the ship. He was convicted of the latter. The controversial court marshal was overturned in 2000. The United States Secretary of the Navy cleared McVay of all wrong doing in 2001.
“One of the great advantages we had was Sara’s 17-year relationship with the survivors,” Vincent added. “Where other books had covered the survivors' experiences as they lived and died in the water, Sara had this long 'honorary granddaughter' relationship with these men and their families. We were able to fully bring that to life not only during the ordeal, but before and after. “
In 2017, a team financed by Paul Allen found the U.S.S. Indianapolis in the Philippine Sea at a depth of 18,000 feet. Vladic received a call at 4 in the morning informing her of the find. She was charged with contacting the survivors.
“It was quite a privilege to be one of the people that got to call and give that information to the guys,” Vladic said. "There was such reverence. There were jokes, too. One of the guys, Sam Lopez, had been playing dice earlier that day and won quite a bit of money. He wanted to know if they’d go in his locker and get the money he left behind!”
Vladic added, “We really, across the board, with all of the survivors, have been told this is the definitive book. That was really the important thing for us to them; we got it right and honored the true story.”
Editor’s note: For this week’s cover, we wanted to feature the Savannah Book Festival. I set up a shoot with Geoff L Johnson, who found a model for us, Stephanie Forbes, whom I’d never met. When were staging the shoot, I handed her a copy of “Indianapolis” to hold in the photo. She asked if it was about the ship that sank in World War II. I said yes. She said her uncle was on the ship and survived. "He used to tell me the story all the time," she said. She did not know the book existed, so I gave her my copy. Sometimes, things come together nicely.