PROLOGUE THE SHIP
SHE WAS BORN FROM soil as American as the men who sailed her. Ore mined near the Great Lakes and in the Tennessee Valley. Transported by barge and train to steel mills in Detroit and Pittsburgh. Machined and welded and hammered together in Camden, New Jersey, by tradesmen from across the forty-eight states. From her keel—forged red-hot and laid in 1930—she rose amid clang and clamor and showering sparks, unfolding bow to stern in 147 bands of high-strength steel, her superstructure climbing toward the sun until, in 1932, she parted water for the first time and was christened USS Indianapolis.
Indy was grand but svelte. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made her his ship of state and invited world leaders and royalty to dance under the stars on her polished teak decks. When war came, many of the sailors she carried into battle were still teenagers. They slept in bunks three high, went to chapel on Sunday mornings, and shot dice on the fantail on Sunday afternoons. They danced to Glenn Miller and sang along with the Andrews Sisters. They referred to Indy as their first love and the Queen. At least one of their wives called her “the other woman.”
Indianapolis was the flagship of the World War II Pacific fleet—the largest naval fleet in the history of the modern world. Along her centerline she carried three 250-ton turrets, each hefting three eight-inch guns that could reach out eighteen miles to rake beaches, destroy pillboxes, and punch through the armor of enemy ships. Her hull bristled with two dozen 40 mm Bofors guns, some radar-aimed for lethal precision, along with thirty-two machine guns that could cloak a mile-wide circle around her in a hail of 20 mm rounds. From her decks, Fifth Fleet commander Admiral Raymond Spruance would build an island bridge
that stretched west from Pearl Harbor to Japan and was mortared in the blood of nations.
By the summer of 1945, the Pacific war was churning toward its fiery climax. A new weapon had been born, a “destroyer of worlds.” During the last week of July, under the command of Captain Charles B. McVay III, Indianapolis delivered the core of this weapon to its launch point, completing the most highly classified naval mission of the war. Four days later, just after midnight, a Japanese submarine spotted Indy and struck her with two torpedoes. Three hundred men went down with the ship. As Indy sank into the yawning underwater canyons of the Philippine Sea, nearly nine hundred men made it into the water alive.
Only 316 survived.
The sinking of Indianapolis was the greatest sea disaster in the history of the American Navy. It was also a national scandal that would bridge two centuries. There would be a controversial court-martial. An enemy witness. Lies and machinations by men of high rank. Broken lives. Suicides.
Decade after decade, the survivors would fight for their captain, battling to correct a vulgar injustice. As Indy’s story rolled forward, spanning thirteen presidents, from FDR to George W. Bush, it would inspire a filmmaker named Spielberg, an eleven-year-old boy named Hunter Scott, a maverick lawmaker named Bob Smith, and Captain William Toti, skipper of her namesake submarine. Men fought over her for decades, and no victor emerged for fifty years.
Indianapolis is a war grave now. But don’t think of her that way. Roll the film backward. Watch her rise.