April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
To complete the story, one more famous ship, and a famous voyage: the U.S.S. Indianapolis , an eight-inch-gun cruiser of the vintage of the early 1930’s, which sailed from San Francisco in the summer of 1945, carrying a cargo which made her one of the ships that change history, and then went on to a resting place two miles under the surface of the Pacific, a tragic ship whose end was mystery and a dark portent.
The Indianapolis was a ship which crossed the border between yesterday and tomorrow. She died because of a thousand-to-one chance that went wrong, and her end was dark tragedy for hundreds of American families, and a plaguy problem for the United States Navy. The tragedy went unalleviated, and the problem, Heaven knows, went completely unsolved; but the ship itself went on to become one of the great, portentous vessels in the American story. In Abandon Ship! Richard F. Newcomb, an excellent war correspondent for the Associated Press, tells her story in first-rate style.
Until the summer of 1945, the Indianapolis was just one of many cruisers built and maintained by the U.S. Navy. Then she got a job to do: amid all of the trappings of top secrecy, she was pulled up to a pier in San Francisco and given a top-secret cargo to carry out to Guam—namely, the bits and pieces which would presently be put together to make the world’s first atomic bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima to end one era in human history and to open, cloudily but effectively, another. This, quite unintentionally, the Indianapolis did; then, her mission accomplished—and what warship ever had a more far-reaching mission?—the Indianapolis went on, with a routine assignment to go to the Philippines, indulge in a little special training, and then become one of the fleet that was going to make the final assault on the shores of Japan.
Abandon Shipl Death of the U.S.S. Indianapolis , by Richard F. Newcomb. Henry Holt and Co. 305 pp. $3.95.
The final assault never took place, because the bits and pieces that this cruiser ferried out to Guam changed the face of the world forever, and made it unnecessary for any sea-borne fleet to blast a way in through the perimeter defenses of Japan; but it would not have mattered much in any case, because the Indianapolis never even reached the Philippines. A few minutes after midnight on July 30, 1945, the cruiser was steaming along in mid-Pacific; a roving Japanese submarine just happened to surface a mile away, a fitful moon just happened to break through the clouds at that precise moment, the submarine’s skipper loosed two torpedoes, and the Indianapolis went down inside of twelve minutes, with a loss of some 800 American lives.
The loss became a cause célèbre , which is a hightoned way of saying that it raised an unearthly stinkpartly because, as a meaningless tragedy, it was announced to the world on the very day the war ended, and partly because it quickly became painfully clear that this warship had somehow fallen through a hitherto undetected gap in the American Navy’s system for handling its combat vessels in time of war. The Navy, to be blunt about it, simply lost track of this ship, for the 48 hours that really counted; because it had lost track of it, a good many members of the crew who might otherwise have been saved lost their lives; and the United States Navy, which could admit anything on earth except a flaw in its basic system for handling combat ships, made itself look infernally bad hunting for a few scapegoats who could be compelled to take the blame for the disaster.
Seldom has the Navy looked worse than it looked when it tried to explain this disaster away. It courtmartialed the cruiser’s captain, broke him, and then, half-apologetically, took it all back—the poor man’s career was wrecked, but if it helped he had the consolation of knowing that the Navy didn’t really mean it. Then it pounced on four underlings, blasted them, and finally had to back-track on that action. What it could not do—what no military organization can ever do—was admit that it had simply muffed one, not because of any individual failure but because the system which it had set up for moving ships from here to there in time of war had one unsuspected hole in it.
With all of this Mr. Newcomb deals at length, thoroughly and, I think, conclusively. Yet what sticks with one, when the tragic story is finished, is the realization that here, in the long history of American seafaring, was one of history’s fated ships: a ship which served as a hinge on which human history turned, and which, its mission accomplished, went to the bottom of the sea, with all its freight of human grief and suffering.
For the Indianapolis , like the Santa Maria , was sailing toward the wholly improbable. Before this cruiser left San Francisco, life was lived on one set of terms; after it went to the bottom, the terms on which people live had been transvalued, and nothing will ever be the same again. Nobody in this ship’s crew knew it, and if any had known it most of them would not have had much time to meditate about it, but the voyage of the Indianapolis was a cutoff point. Before that, one kind of life: after that, another kind.
We live today in a time when this new kind of life is giving us nightmares. Yet if any people on earth should be prepared to enter into change of this kind, it is the Americans. Once more, a horizon has been fractured; once more, the attainable bounds of human experience have been pushed back infinitely far. We were born that way. If now we face a time of danger and challenge, it may also be a time of enormous opportunity. Here we are, after five centuries, face to face with a world of wonder.