In Harm’s Way by Doug Stanton


Lately I seem to have gotten into a groove of reading about war (human against human and human against the elements) and survival, both fictitious and real-life. There was ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE, and CODE NAME VERITY, and IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE, and most recently (I read the last words this morning), IN HARM’S WAY.

IN HARM’S WAY isn’t a new book. It was published in 2001 (and speaking of war, a significant year for the U.S. and subsequently much of the world), but although I was aware of it and the praise it had received, I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. I’m working on an idea for a World War II novel, though, and the sinking of the Indianapolis plays a small part in it, so I finally had an excuse to use some writing time to dive into the book.

Dive I did. The author, Doug Stanton, does a masterful job of setting the stage but not lingering long on the setup. I was already aware of the basic story—the cruiser Indianapolis sails out of San Francisco Bay on a secret mission, the nature of which even the crew doesn’t know. The assignment: at record speed, deliver a couple of pieces of cargo to Tinian Island in the south Pacific. The cargo? The components of Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. After the mission has been successfully completed, the ship continues on, unescorted. Four days later a Japanese submarine torpedoes the Indianapolis, and in twelve short minutes it sinks below the surface of a desolate and hostile and unbelievably deep ocean and is gone.

The author’s prologue engaged me, made me want more, and from then on it was off to the races. The old cliché, I couldn’t put this book down, came alive for me as I got to know the characters and their backgrounds (their youth!) and situations and the details and horror of the tragedy and the grisly nature of what awaited them on and in the ocean and the bravery and pain and self-sacrifice and negligence and graphic examples of whatever can go wrong will go wrong and guilt and finger-pointing and the miscarriage of so-called military justice.

What the sailors and marines suffered and endured and achieved was almost unbelievable. What they carried with them the rest of their lives was almost unbearable, and for some it went beyond that. It’s a heart wrenching but at the same time inspiring story.

We still have selfless acts and heroism in our lives; we read about exceptional people doing exceptional things every day. But the word exceptional is a double-edged sword. It exposes the reality of life today, when military service to country is restricted to a tiny percentage of the population (a good thing in most ways) and there is no significant social-help equivalent for people wanting to serve (organizations like the Peace Corps and the Gates Foundation do good work, but again don’t involve many workers), and government is looked on as the enemy by many so-called citizens who spout the same kinds of prejudiced exclusionary crap that made our entry into World War II so justified and don’t seem to realize that in a democracy they ARE the government.

I don’t have a cure for the current disinterest and minimalism in working for a common good. But you can—and should—read about a time when the common good was a common goal. You can read a wonderful account of a time when real—not cardboard—patriots stepped—and swam—forward to do their parts. You can read IN HARM’S WAY.

(Review on Goodreads)

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