Book Review: In Harm’s Way By Doug Stanton

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“And suddenly, I understood what I hadn’t grasped before. Of all the dreams I had while writing ‘In Harm’s Way,’ the most powerful one was of floating on a burning, inhospitable sea, willing myself to stay alive. During my interviews with survivors, nearly all of them had recalled that, at some point, they had made a vow to themselves: I am going to live.

“This had always struck me as a startling, existential moment – it had haunted me, and still does. What the men were remembering were those people back on land who had at some point told them – in words or through deeds – ‘never to give up.’

“I told the reporter that I wondered if I had ever said anything to my own son, to my daughter, to my wife, to any of my friends – to anybody – that would act as a lifeline if they found themselves in a similar situation.

I said that I didn’t know, but that I hoped I had.”

Thus ends the author’s note at the close of the incredible book “In Harm’s Way” by Doug Stanton. The book recounts the story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the end of World War II.

The Indianapolis had taken parts of the first atomic bomb to the Pacific Island of Tinian and returned to military headquarters in Guam. After leaving Guam for the Philippines, the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The massive ship, carrying some 1200 sailors, sank to the bottom of the ocean just twelve minutes later.

Help did not arrive for four days.

Just over 300 men survived.

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History and Lessons

“In Harm’s Way” is notable not only for its skillful retelling of the facts, but its glimpse into the humanity of the survivors. We travel with them through days floating at sea, experiencing hunger, thirst, heat, cold, delusions, desperation, anger, and peace. Their pain comes alive as they say goodbye to buddies – sometimes dozens per day – and we see the heroism of young men who had barely lived at all yet. We feel the injustice of the ship’s noble captain being court martialed for his role in the disaster, because we know it was entirely out of his control. The decision ultimately destroyed his life.

Finally, we end the story thinking about the ways our words and actions can impact and encourage the people in our lives; if a loved one was in a dire situation, could he or she draw strength and determination from things we’ve said?

“In Harm’s Way” is an excellent reminder of the sacrifices, bravery, and determination of the Greatest Generation. While we will never measure up, the story provides a powerful lesson to each of us that our words and our influence matter, even in the ordinary minutiae of our lives.

Note: “In Harm’s Way” was also a 1965 movie starring John Wayne, based on a novel by the same name by James Bassett. Though both are about the USS Indianapolis, Stanton’s book is non-fiction and was originally published in 2003.

Rebecca Horvath
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