Out of the Depths - The USS Indianapolis - Edgar Harrell
This is the first Warship book that I've read, which has actually been written, by one of the survivors, of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis - the retired US Navy Marine, Edgar Harrell:
I found within it's pages, a retelling of the Loss of the USS Indianapolis, that serves to highlight, both the absurdities of War, and the Refusal of the Human Spirit - to give up! An absurdity of War ... Two Marines sleeping on a Turret roof one night (owing to the heat of the Pacific), with one Marine (Edgar Harrell), choosing not to the second night - only to have that same Turret roof, blown sky high (by a Japanese Torpedo / Magazine Explosion), knowing for well that your friend is gone (as he slept on the Turret's roof again that night). A refusal to give up ... Bobbing away, in a sun bleached sea, with a life jacket that's waterlogged, in a circle of corpses (your former crew-mates), surrounded by sharks (whether you knew it or not), with a parched mouth, and swollen lips - then out of the distance, something bobs up and down, a crate of potatoes, half rotten but Heaven! And it is here, that Edgar Harrell, felt that he would Survive, the ordeal of the Crew of the USS Indianapolis, floating in the Pacific Ocean (for up to four and a half days) - because he knew for well, that God had a plan ... Yes indeed, did I find that this retelling, is as much to do with God, as is the fact, that the US Navy blundered - knowing not (through various absurdities of Command), that the crew of the Indianapolis, were adrift at sea! In places, I found this book hard to read (or at least to relate to), because I don't believe, that I'm very religious (although I like the idea, of such a hierarchy and it's symbolism). Granted, it's hard to say for sure, how many of us would behave (and what we would choose to believe in), having just witnessed, several of our former crew-mates, being ripped to bits by sharks, whilst those very same sharks, chose to pass us by! In any case, there's several parts of this book, that stood out for me ... First: the USS Indianapolis herself. She was a workhorse of the US Navy, featuring in many of the campaigns of the Pacific. I especially liked the recounting, of the bombardment of Iwo Jima - as the power of the Indy's five inch, and eight inch Naval Guns, is made very clear. Added to this, is the technology of a Warship, which even in 1945, could hone a five inch shell, onto the path of an incoming enemy plane - through the marvel of Radar :) Second: the horror of having a Warship, fall apart beneath you. It's hard to imagine, that solid steel could bend and buckle, until you see it - Edgar Harrell did, the bow was gone! I was shocked, by the truth of his recount - at the injuries of the men, who were just trying to make their way, to the decks of a ship, that was rapidly taking on water, whilst exploding all around them, in Fires of Hell! Yet even then, would those same men, have chosen to remain on-board, if only they had the choice. Third: the reality of floating in a sea/ocean (for several days). You can't escape it, unless you die. You have to ride it, even a fifteen foot wave. You have to take it, sun blistered skin. You have to bear it, darkness of night. You have to go with it, this endless tide. For there's simply nowhere, you can go! Your at the mercy of the sea. As was Edgar Harrell, and his fellow survivors. Whilst reciting his tale, did I feel that Edgar, answered an important question - just how would you pass the time? As Edgar was blessed with a working watch, both a blessing and a burden (as he says). I felt that I connected with, an idea that was proposed here - were going to swim for the coast! Though it be, hundreds of miles - were a Marine, and we Strive to Survive :) Fourth: is the disbelief that was encountered, by Edgar Harrell and his fellow survivors, at the persecution (and court-martial) of their Captain - Captain McVay. It seems absurd to me, that you can blame a Captain, for the loss of his warship, whilst they were at war - especially when it was higher up, that the blunders occurred. The fact remains that the Indianapolis, should never have sailed unescorted, through hostile waters. I fully agree with Edgar, that McVay was not at fault - and I feel that the various letters of correspondence, really adds a unique perspective, to the contents of this book. Fifth: Is a further absurdity of War ... Which for me, is perhaps the most striking part of this tale. Whilst many of the survivors, may very well have survived four days at sea (through strength, belief, willpower, luck, etc.), it was that last half a day (from when they had been spotted), that I feel for many, the real test came! For one simple reason: they'd almost run out of, the energy to keep going (e.g. the ability to tread water) - yet they had to wait, for the various rescue ships, to arrive on the scene! It must have been a true Test of Faith, where I suspect minutes felt like hours, and a still mind-numbing thought: that they had been left afloat for so long, in the first place! I wonder how many more would have been saved, if they'd been found, half a day earlier? As at the end, all strength fails - you succumb to the sea. Overall: this book really is, a recounting of one man's Quest for Survival, and the Strength of his Character - amongst the Cruel Sea, of a Pacific War. Whilst I might not share, all of Edgar's views and beliefs (pertaining to God), I feel that I can relate, to two important points that he makes. The first: Edgar won't go near the sea/ocean these days. I can understand why. It would almost be like going back. And as Edgar says: the visions of the dying throws of the Indianapolis, are still raw in his mind (let alone the sharks). The second: when not everything is going to plan, and your entire World seems to be falling apart (let alone a Warship), just remember one thing - God Wills It (at least I believe, that's what Edgar was hinting at). Peace.
One of the most interesting battleship books that I have encountered recently, is Robert Ballard's Bismarck:
My favourite chapter is - First Blood. This chapter covers the details of the Battle of the Denmark Strait - yes it is about the sinking of HMS Hood, but it also considers the aftermath of the battle (such as the damage that had been done to the Bismarck - especially towards her bow). There are some chilling first hand descriptions of the explosions on-board HMS Hood (as viewed from both the Bismarck, and Prince of Wales) together with some details on how Hood's three survivors survived. After reading this chapter, it's a miracle that there were any survivors at all: one jumped overboard (but got entangled in aerial wires as Hood sunk), another (Ted Briggs) escaped the compass platform/bridge (but was soon dragged under with the pull of the ship) the third was essentially washed through a window - from the highest point on the ship (the spotting top). Contrasted with this, are the thoughts of the Germans on-board Bismarck: which seem to have been at first astonishment, followed quickly by disbelief, followed quickly by transfixing (an inability to act), followed later by thoughts of impending doom - when it became apparent that the British intended to sink the Bismarck at all costs. My second favourite chapter is - Bismarck, Then and Now. I have always enjoyed looking at pictures of battleships - and this chapter has more than enough, but with a unique twist: as it compares black and white photos of the past (from previous voyages), together with basic photos of the wreck. I use the term basic photos, because at the time of the dive on the Bismarck (1989), the ability to both photograph and video underwater wrecks was in its infancy (at least by today's standards). Thus, the underwater wreck photos are somewhat on the smaller side/grainy (although not all), but I found that this mattered little - as I found them sufficiently spooky (especially when combined with the artists impressions of the overall wreck of the Bismarck). If you were to ask me, what my favourite diagram is within the book, then I would say that it is the diagram that explains/shows how the Bismarck sunk. It clearly shows that she rolled over, with her four 15 inch gun turrets falling out, as she descended rapidly towards the sea bed. Yet it is here, that an oddity occurred - for the Bismarck righted herself on her way to the bottom, before eventually slamming into the side of an extinct underwater volcano, and preceding to slide down it's side. My other favourite diagrams are the Bismarck's starboard profile, interior profile (showing key armour locations) and an overhead view - as they are also compared to original black and white photographs of the day. Overall: this is a highly detailed book, that provides a tonne of information on the battle (and it's aftermath), together with a great many pictures of the Bismarck (both past and present) which is mixed in within the Hunt for the Bismarck (aka the search to find the wreck).
In Harm's Way - The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis - Part Two
Third - Rescue: What shocked me the most, was that it was only through luck, that the crew of the USS Indianapolis (floating in the Pacific), were even spotted in the first place!
If it hadn't been for a loan submarine bomber (piloted by Lieutenant Chuck Gwinn and his crew), then it seems likely to me, that they would only have been found, when all were dead ... What really stands out for me (in this book), is that the entire rescue effort - stems from Gwinn. If it hadn't been for him, and his two radio reports (of survivors in the water), then nothing would have happened - as it seems as though, the hampering of the chain of command (aka the need for confirmation), would have sealed the crew of the USS Indianapolis's fate (as indeed it had, up until now). For once those two radio messages were received, did the US Navy swing into action - as it seems to me, that various superior officers were now not so keen, to be seen as the one's that did nothing. I was further shocked by the book at this point, as no one knew who these men were (that were floating in the sea). It is here that this book, helps to convey the selflessness of the rescuers, that helped to save the crew of the Indy ... For I found this especially true in two places: i) the sea plane that put down, to haul over fifty survivors on-board - knowing for well, that landing the sea plane on open choppy water, could have doomed their own fate. And ii) the American rescuers, that dived into the water, knowing for well that there were sharks down there! Added to this, was the fact that these rescuers, still did not know exactly who they were rescuing - as it took a question about baseball, and a direct answer: were from the USS Indianapolis. Shock ... That was felt by both the rescuers, and the survivors (as many felt that they were still hallucinating). And yet, ask any sailor, who has been adrift at sea for days, wondering whether they would ever be rescued, what the most important thing in this entire world is? And their answer shall be: water! As fresh water is worth it's weight in gold - actually, forget the gold, just give me the water :) With that in mind, was there also another part of this book, that stood out for me: the quality of the care, that the men received (after they had been rescued). For most (if not all), were covered in oil (that had to be removed), before their various injuries could even be looked at (such as broken arms and broken legs), together with the effects of long term exposure to salt water (such as salt water ulcers). In essence, this part of the book, left me with the impression that medical crews (such as doctors and nurses), worked tirelessly to bring these shipwrecked men, back to full health (as indeed they did). Conclusion: I found this book, to be a draw-dropping read, about the horrors of war - I simply could not believe, some of the things I was reading (although I did). I was particularly amazed, by one simple point, that kept tugging at me, as I continued to read: how easily avoidable, the aftermath of the sinking could have been. As it seemed to me, that there were four opportunities earlier on (in the disaster), where the crew of the Indy - could have been rescued far sooner. Three of these stem from the SOS message, that the radio crew of the USS Indianapolis, managed to send out as she sunk. It would seem that this SOS message, was received not once, but three times (by on-shore listening posts), that failed to act on the SOS - because they awaited confirmation from the Indianapolis, that she was in-fact sinking. A command/requirement, that the Indianapolis could not meet - as she was sunk in around twelve minutes. The sending of the SOS (which the Indy's radio crew stand/swear by), was complicated by the specific set-up of the Indy's radio equipment. She had two radio rooms (one forward, one aft). The forward one was the primary (i.e. could both send and receive messages), but it was taken out by the second torpedo hit. This left the aft radio room ... But whether through design, or an operational quirk (I do not know which) - it could only receive, incoming radio messages! Even so, does this book make it clear, that the Indy's radio crew, managed to improvise/modify some of the radio equipment, so that it could send an SOS. I think it's crazy, that a ship the size of the Indianapolis (610 feet), would of only had one workable send and receive radio room (both should have been set-up as such). And the fourth opportunity to have rescued the crew of the Indianapolis much sooner? Well ... For me, that lays entirely with her estimated time of arrival (in the Navy port of Leyte). It seems absurd, that she would have been allowed to go (approximately) two days overdue - without anyone asking (by way of a radio message), whether she was still out there? Granted, it may have been unwise to have reported the Indy's position (in such a response), but a simple YES I'M HERE would have worked wonders. Finally: I'm on the side of Captain McVay! I don't see how, you can hold a Captain responsible for the loss of his ship, when that Captain requested an anti-submarine escort (aka a Destroyer) - and was told that none was necessary. As if none was necessary, why did McVay's orders include a requirement for zigzagging? Granted, the zigzagging was to be carried out at his discretion - but why include them at all, if intelligence believed his route to be safe, and free from Japanese subs? It feels to me, as though higher up Navy personnel, were simply covering their own backsides - by pinning it on McVay.
In Harm's Way - The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis - Part One
So, you think your having a bad day? Think again! Just chat to any of the survivors of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis - and tell me again ... As they truly were - In Harm's Way:
Reading this book shocked me. As I simply could not believe, that at the closing stages of World War Two, that an entire US Warship could be lost - without the US Navy being aware of it at all! And yet, that is EXACTLY what happened ... For the USS Indianapolis, was torpedoed and sunk by herself, in the middle of the Pacific - compounded by a complete breakdown in the Laws of the Sea, or at least, what a sailor can expect when their ship is overdue. First and Foremost, I liked the layout of this book, as I found that it was split into three main sections: Sailing to War (telling you of the Indy's top secret mission), Sunk (telling you that some sailors nightmares - do come true) and Rescue (telling you just how precious life - really is). I shall now consider each of these sections in turn ... First: Sailing to War ... Having been under repair (for a Japanese Kamikaze attack), the USS Indianapolis was suddenly whisked into active duty again, when it was decided that she would transport the atomic bomb (Little Boy), that would help seal the fate of Japan. As the book coveys, much of her crew was surprised by this whisk (as they were on leave) - which was further wrapped in mystery, as the crew knew nothing of the details of her cargo! I was especially surprised, by the fact that Captain McVay, also did not know of the identity of his cargo - only that it was important (as I'd previously believed that a ship's Captain, was a high enough rank to have known). But ... Such is the Secrecy of War! It is here that the book reveals, that the USS Indianapolis, was a flagship of the US Navy - having been chosen by Admiral Raymond Spruance (because of the flexibility of her high speed). Thus, was I surprised to learn that the USS Indianapolis, had been ordered to sail by herself, between the (previously occupied) Japanese Islands of Guam and Leyte - aka, through Japanese sub infested waters! For me, the fact that she was a flagship (alone), meant that she should have been escorted (by at least one Destroyer) - as the Indianapolis, could neither detect nor attack, enemy submarines: she was a heavy cruiser, that was designed to bombard shore installations (with her nine eight-inch naval guns). It was also within this section, that I found myself surprised by: i) how differently two sailors can view the same event (such as the loading of the nuclear bomb components on-board), and ii) by the believability of wartime decisions (such as attempting to pass an army medical officer off - as a navy gunnery expert). Second: Sunk ... What would qualify as a nightmare for you? Sleeping near the bow of the Indy, when a torpedo slams right into the bow - blowing you fifteen feet into the air? Or seeing the men that that happened to, simply being vaporised? Or perhaps ... Seeing your ship ploughing through the sea, having lost it's bow - water quickly rising? Or even sliding from the decks of the Indy, in your injured state - straight into an oil soaked sea? Or perhaps ... Being caught in a flash fire, that cooks your mate - but misses you? How about being dragged underwater, by a snaring cable - just when you'd thought you'd escaped? Being dragged down and down, until your blasted to the surface - by an escaping air bubble? Well ... That was just the start of the nightmares, for the men of the USS Indianapolis - as their ship sunk beneath them, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the Pacific! Yet it was known by her sailors (or at least believed), that after a day or two, that she would be declared overdue - and that their ordeal (of floating in the Pacific), would soon be over. Except ... That never happened :( For the survivors of the Indy's sinking, found themselves adrift in the Pacific Ocean, with no food or drink (i.e. fresh water), or medical provisions of any kind (in the most part), for four and a half days! If they were lucky, they'd managed to grab either a life vest, or a life belt - or if they were really lucky, they'd managed to grab a space on a raft. And yet, was I surprised to learn, that many of these sailors were actually injured (with broken legs and/or broken arms), together with various degrees of burns (to hands, torsos, faces and eyes). Yet even if you consider a sailor with a life vest, and a broken arm, that's covered in ship oil, to be extremely lucky - would that same sailor, need even more luck, to survive through to rescue! For as the crew of the USS Indianapolis, drifted clear of her oil slick, did the survivors start to become aware, of a menace beneath their feet: sharks!! Consider for a moment ... Could you drift for four and a half days in a life vest (that's becoming waterlogged), knowing that there's hundreds of sharks swimming, both around and beneath you? Your answer is NO!! Yet for the crew of the Indianapolis, they had to - for where else could they go? It's the chapter called Shark Attack, that all this is revealed in. It's the chapter called Genocide, where the nightmares came alive! As American sailors, started killing each other. As American sailors, started whole scale hallucinating: the USS Indianapolis had returned, and many of the boy's simply swum down to meet her. It was the sea salt you see, compounded by glaring sunlight, and no hope of rescue: for to the crew of the USS Indianapolis, did it seem that they had been forgotten about (which indeed they had - as no one knew!). Or did they?
Hood - Life and Death of a Battlecruiser - Roger Chesneau - Part Two
Analysis Three - Death and Inquest. The fact that HMS Hood was heavily used meant that she never received the overhaul that she so desperately needed:
It's true to say that she was modified (e.g. for better air defence), and that she was overhauled/serviced as required (e.g. to maintain the efficiency of her boilers and her top speed). BUT, what was really required was a complete gutting of the ship, with the addition of thicker deck armour - permitted by the saving in weight gained from fitting new machinery (e.g. smaller boilers and turbines), and perhaps the removal of the entire front conning tower's spotting top (again to save weight). Unfortunately, this never happened. Thus, would one more Atlantic sortie - prove to be her demise! It is here that the book helps recreate some of the events of that particular day - as by all accounts, the crew of HMS Hood viewed their final voyage as just another routine patrol. When reading this chapter, did I feel that the Author played right into this part - as he has presented the tale straight to the point: Hood was gone, and in less than three minutes! With the build-up of the preceding chapters, did I feel shocked (even though I knew what happened anyway). I also found the contrast between this book's two inquests to be something of a shock. Whilst the first inquest (into why Hood was lost) was ridiculed as being too quick and not having looked at all the facts - it is surprising that the second inquest (which looked at all the facts or at least many more) concluded the same as the first: that Hood was lost because of insufficient armour thickness (to guard against plunging shellfire), which allowed a large calibre shell to explode inside the hull-form, which in-turn, caused the explosion of a primary magazine. It is only with the recent underwater expeditions (to look at her shipwreck) that the first conclusive evidence has been found that this is (at least a part of) exactly what happened. Not only that though, as from the state of the wreck (as mentioned in the book) - it appears that there was also a second explosion (in the forward parts of the ship) which when taken together, explain why so few of Hood's crew survived. Overall: a very good book, that I feel - tells the whole story of HMS Hood (both peacetime and wartime). When she sunk, it was not only the men on-board that died - but also (for a time) the spirit of the entire British Empire.
Hood and Bismarck - Channel 4 Documentary - Part Two
In stark contrast to the sinking of HMS Hood (which was all over in a matter of minutes), The Battle of Hood and Bismarck documentary - explains that Bismarck, took several hours to sink:
And yet, this is not the only difference between the shipwreck of HMS Hood, and the shipwreck of Bismarck. Where as Hood is in a terrible state (with wreckage blown over a large area), Bismarck's wreck is a totally different story. Rather amazingly, her hull form sits perfectly upright, on the side of an underwater volcano. Her hull form also appears to be amazingly intact, as the documentaries underwater footage shows ... With for example, her bow swastika - being clearly visible. One of the most amazing scenes (for me), is the underwater footage of an open barbette, as it drops away to the dark depths, of the innards of this once mighty battleship. The documentary also explains an important difference between how HMS Hood, and Germany's battleship - the Bismarck, were sunk. In essence, the Royal Navy stood back and pounded the Bismarck for over an hour (with heavy calibre shells from the battleships HMS Rodney, and HMS King George V). The Royal Navy wanted revenge for the Hood, and the Bismarck's crew paid - the ultimate price. As such, it seems that the Bismarck's above deck areas were utterly destroyed - which was fundamental to the reasons of her loss: she lost the ability to fight, and as such, was unable to return fire with her eight 15 inch guns. The documentaries underwater footage provides evidence of this, as for example, the large superstructure, together with various range finders, are found separate to the main hull form, on the bottom of the sea bed. There is also a difference between how the crews of both HMS Hood, and Bismarck awaited their fates. On Hood, the catastrophic explosions, probably gave little to no time at all - to know what was happening. On Bismarck, her crew knew full well what was happening, as her rudders had been damaged (by a Royal Navy Swordfish air-strike) - which meant that she eventually meandered towards her awaiting fate (the heavy pounding by available British battleships). The documentary concludes by laying a Memorial Plaque on Bismarck's superstructure, and overseeing a memorial gathering, with both Hood and Bismarck survivors. Overall: Hood and Bismarck - an informative DVD to watch, on one of the last great sea battles ... Both Hood and Bismarck were for me, the Space Age of their time - as they must have been as far beyond, the Ships of the Line, as a 15 inch shell is beyond, the power of a cannon ball. It is somewhat fitting then, that this documentary, levels the playing field so to speak - as undersea exploration, is still very much, in it's infancy ... Yes, David Mearns finds the wrecks of both ships, but it is a real challenge. In finding those wrecks, do I feel that he helps to remember - the spirit of the men, that served on them. And it is for us to remember, that such wrecks are still tasked with an important duty - the homes of the sailors that lost their lives, lay undisturbed, looked but never touched, for all of time.
Hood and Bismarck - Channel 4 Documentary - Part One
One of the best documentaries I've seen on HMS Hood is - The Battle of Hood and Bismarck:
This DVD tells the story of these two massive warships, both in terms of their history, and in terms of the exploring of their wrecks. There's a fair amount of footage of HMS Hood, which only helps to build up her sense of invincibility. With the footage of Hood's World Cruise, do we realise just how famous The Mighty Hood actually was (as she was known by much of the British Empire - and had for example, been used in the early twenties for entertaining numerous dignitaries/VIPs). I became immersed with the memories provided by Ted Briggs (Hood's last remaining survivor). I felt that he honoured his fellow crew-mates, when he laid Hood's Memorial Plaque, on one of her bow anchor chains. I felt saddened when you see the wreck of HMS Hood on the bottom of the sea bed. For want of a better expression, she's in a terrible state - with the expedition leader (David Mearns) using the phrase: that a wreck is exactly what this is (to describe her). In short: Hood was blown apart by a massive explosion that spread her hull form, guns, and superstructure out over a large area. It is here that this documentary proposes an interesting idea: for it seems that Hood was destroyed by not one, but two magazine explosions (one in the stern, and one in the bow). In turn does this documentary, answer an important question: Why did so few people survive the sinking of HMS Hood? In turn does this documentary, provide an answer: If you have the whole battleship exploding, then it's surprising that any crew members survived at all. As such, I feel that this was the main reason, that Ted's memories haunted him for over sixty years. It is here that this documentary, goes to great lengths, through the use of computerised animations - to explain why ... For me, the most chilling scene, is seeing Hood's bow disappear beneath the waves (with her bow inclined vertically upwards) - and hearing the chilling tale, about how the crew in the front parts of the ship, must have died (essentially the immense pressure of water forcing it's way through the forward parts of the warship - all over in the blink of an eye). The documentary also helps to dispel, other myths about the sinking of HMS Hood. For example, I have heard that various enquiries had proposed the idea that her steel was brittle (hence hastening her sinking). This documentary proves that this was not the case: with the side of her hull form showing evidence, that her steel stretched considerably, before breaking. Even so, I'm still amazed, by the shear amount of devastation, that's present upon the sea bed ... And as you will see, in the second half of this review (see link below), what befell the Pride of the Royal Navy, is somewhat different, to the last moments of - the Bismarck.