Picks and Pans Review: Fatal Voyage

updated 08/13/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/13/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Dan Kurzman

There is a gruesome scene (a verbally gruesome moment amid all the other artful action) in the film Jaws in which Robert Shaw describes how he became a snarly old shark hunter. He was, he says, aboard the USS Indianapolis, the cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine during World War II. There were 1,196 crewmen on the warship when it sank in less than 15 minutes on the night of July 30, 1945. The great killer sharks, he says, began to pick off the sailors until only 316 of them were rescued five days later.

As chilling as Shaw's cinematic depiction of the event was, Kurzman's gripping book paints an even more horrible scene.

The sinking of the Indianapolis was—and remains—perhaps the most shameful naval disaster in American history. Sharks were only one enemy. There were thirst, hunger, wounds and madness too. And there was the sloppy, bureaucratically inept U.S. Navy.

The Indianapolis had just completed a secret mission—delivering vital parts for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima—then headed for port across the Philippine Sea, where it was sunk.

Due to a confusion over orders on reporting missing ships, no one went to look for the 880 survivors of the torpedoing. Many of them went insane after drinking salt water, attacked their shipmates and suffered wild fantasies.

During those five blistering days and brutal nights, there were acts of unbelievable heroism and deeds of shameless cowardice. But the most cowardly behavior was that of the high Navy brass who court-martialed Capt. Charles McVay in 1946 for negligence. The disgraced McVay, the son of an admiral, committed suicide in 1968.

The real guilt obviously lay with the Navy, which hadn't told McVay of the presence of Japanese subs on his course and didn't launch a search after the Indianapolis failed to reach port. But naval authorities didn't want to blemish their record during the nation's great victory celebration.

Kurzman, a former Washington Post correspondent, is clearly affected by the subject; he can barely contain himself, and his prose gets choppy. Yet his passion seems appropriate as he writes of the Navy's relying on the all-purpose excuse that can justify any behavior as being "for the good of the service." (Atheneum, $19.95)

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