BOOK REVIEW : Last Chapter Finally Written on a Tragedy of World War II

FATAL VOYAGE The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by Dan Kurzman Atheneum $19.95, 331 pages

On Nov. 6, 1968, a retired Navy officer named Charles B. McVay III used his service revolver to take his own life. In a sense, he was the last belated casualty of the sinking of the Navy ship Indianapolis. Nearly 900 of McVay's officers and men suffered and died when the cruiser was sent to the bottom of the South Pacific by a Japanese submarine in the final days of World War II--but McVay's ordeal lasted another two decades or so before he joined them at last.

McVay's tragic story--and the saga of the Indianapolis--are told by veteran author and journalist Dan Kurzman in "Fatal Voyage." It's a book about two tragedies: first, the agony of the 316 survivors (out of a crew of nearly 1,200 men) who bobbed for five terrible days in shark-infested waters while waiting for the Navy to realize that the Indianapolis had been lost; and then the official scourging of McVay, who was court-martialed by the United States Navy on charges that he negligently failed to "zig-zag" and delayed in giving the order to abandon ship.

Kurzman, an accomplished (if sometimes over-enthusiastic) storyteller, gives us one of the great survival stories of World War II, a tale full of heroism and courage in the face of genuine horror.

After delivering components of the atomic bomb to Tinian, where they were assembled for the attack on Hiroshima, the Indianapolis was torpedoed on its way to the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. The sailors who survived those five hopeless days in the water were plagued by killing thirst, marauding sharks, outright madness--and redeemed by occasional acts of stirring self-sacrifice.

Many did not survive. Some resorted to drinking seawater--a sure death. Some were carried off, one by one, by sharks. Others swam toward an imaginary island or dived to reach the hotel that they saw just beneath the surface. "But the men who had gone down," one survivor observed, "never seemed to come back." Others fought with each other over the meager supplies of food and water, or the precious space on the life rafts, or some imagined slight. One sailor, as Kurzman delicately puts it, was attacked "by crazed shipmates demanding sexual satisfaction."

The survivors were finally spotted by a routine reconnaissance flight, and a heroic rescue effort was undertaken. Here was an occasion for new acts of kindness and courage. So monstrous was the disaster, however, that even the rescuers wondered whether these haggard sailors with blackened faces were actually Japanese in disguise: "Where do the Dodgers play?" one officer asked. " 'In Brooklyn,' a voice warbled."

But McVay, having survived the perils of Japanese torpedoes and the onslaught of the elements, now faced a much more formidable and relentless foe: the U. S. Navy. The sinking of the Indianapolis--and the long, disastrous delay in rescuing its survivors--threatened to tarnish the reputation of the Navy and put it at a disadvantage in the turf wars that the brass were fighting. The sinking was not even announced until after V-J Day, and then McVay was summoned before a court-martial to answer charges that the sinking of the Indianapolis had been the result of his own negligence. The Navy even resorted to bringing the captain of the Japanese submarine to Washington to testify at the court-martial--a scene of exquisite irony that surpasses fiction.

Kurzman managed to interview a number of survivors of the ship and several members of the I-58 crew, including the commanding officer, Mochitsura Hashimoto. The author studied Navy documents, and quotes generously from transcripts of McVay's court-martial. And so he brings to "Fatal Voyage" a sense of urgency and high drama, the gritty realism of one who was there.

On the other hand, Kurzman is sometimes tempted to hype a story that needs no hyping at all. He is unabashedly sentimental: "McCoy thought of his mother: Would he ever again hug her, or taste her pumpkin pies?" He is moved to lurid description: "But when morning came, the torment continued, with the demons of night giving way to the demons of light." And he even engages in a little black humor, as when he describes how a few survivors aboard a raft tried to keep their spirits up by singing "Rum and Coca-Cola."

"But they were not the Andrews Sisters," Kurzman writes, "and the sharks apparently realized it; they tended to disappear during these frequent concerts."

But Kurzman asks some good questions of his own, echoing the insistent arguments of the families who are even now seeking to remove the cruel stigma that ultimately cost McVay his life. Why did the Navy fail to warn McVay that Japanese submarines were operating in the area through which his ship had been routed? Why did it take five days for the Navy to discover that the ship had been sunk--and then only by happenstance? And, above all, why did the Navy choose to make a scapegoat of McVay, the first naval officer in American history to be court-martialed for losing his ship in combat?

McVay, as Kurzman suggests, is "a victim not only of the Navy's worst sea disaster, but possibly its worst moral disaster as well." Thanks to "Fatal Voyage," the sacrifice of the men of the Indianapolis has been suitably remembered--and honored.

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