The Best Books of 2018: "Indianapolis"

Adrian Liang on November 16, 2018

In July, Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic's book Indianapolis brought to life new, fascinating, and sometimes horrific details of the last weeks and days of the World War II warship—not only tales of heroism under duress but the just-as-human stories of willpower bending and sanity breaking.

We picked Indianapolis in July as one of the best books of the month. Now we are delighted to name Indianapolis as among the top three Best Books of 2018.

I spoke with Sara Vladic and Lynn Vincent by phone about how they came to team up on the project, why the survivors of the sinking revealed moments that had never been spoken of before, and why it's so important that the full story of the disaster has been finally told.

Adrian Liang: This book began as a documentary that Sara was researching and filming about the crew of Indianapolis. Sara can you tell me about the genesis of the film project and how it changed into a book project?

Sara Vladic: The story of Indianapolis actually intrigued me back when I was about 13, and at the time I was looking for more information on it, and there really was nothing out there. So I thought, "Someone will make a movie about this day or tell the story someday." By the time I graduated from college, no one had done so. I reached out to the survivors' organization with the intention of telling their story as a movie. I met Paul Murphy, who was the chairman of the survivors' organization at the time, and he invited me to my first reunion. That was really where I got to know these men and their families. Over the next couple years of attending reunions and visiting them at their homes, they asked me to be their storyteller. At that point I started doing interviews on camera, and was able to interview over a hundred survivors and rescue crew members.

LynnVincentSaraVladic-c-HollyHepburn-HepburnCreative.jpgI was using those interviews to write a screenplay for a miniseries—a Band of Brothers sort of thing. And when that was done, we took it to a major network. They said, "We love this. It's the best thing since Band of Brothers. But it needs to be based on a book." I hadn't written a book before. I'd written screenplays; it's what I do for a living. I started asking family and friends: "You know anyone that knows how to write a book? I need advice." And that's where Lynn comes into the picture.

Lynn Vincent: All of a sudden I get an email from Sara. She only knew about me because her mother-in-law had attended a book group where I spoke about another bestseller that I had, Same Kind of Different as Me. So Sara emailed me for advice. But what she didn't know was, first of all, that I was a Navy veteran. And she also didn't know that I had been literally praying for an iconic World War II story to write. I'm Christian; I pray a lot about my work and believe that God brings stories into my life to tell. And so I had been praying about that for a couple of years. Then I got this email, and we got on the phone, and Sara told me that she was in touch with the survivors of Indianapolis, and had been asked to be their storyteller, and she wanted to write this book. And so I'm like, Dang it. All she wants is advice. I want to help her write the book. How can I manipulate her into letting me help her? [Laughs] Over the course of a few phone calls and then a couple of meetings, we decided to team up.

Sara, for your part, were you thinking, while you were having these conversations, "How can I tell her I don't want her advice? I just want her to write the book!"?

Sara Vladic: [Laughs] Well, I wanted to write this book, too, but I also secretly wanted her to write it with me, especially after I met her the first time. She had this incredible reputation, and I was absolutely intimidated because she's such a talented writer, and I thought, I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy. But we started meeting and talking and realizing that we were on the same page, and our writing styles were very similar and we were both very passionate about this story. And so it absolutely made sense.

It's hard not to talk about the sinking of Indianapolis without talking about the men being in the water for four days and being attacked by sharks. But I found that the scenes that really stayed with me were the not the shark scenes—although those were pretty gripping—but the ones that involved the human heroism and the human selfishness of the people as they went through the sinking and then later the court martial of the captain. Sara, how did you discover the less-heroic stories that are in these pages?

Sara Vladic: These stories didn't come out at the very beginning; they came out after ten years of knowing the men and them trusting me. As they approach the end of their lives, they said, "People need to know the real story. If we all die and no one tells it, it will be lost forever, and people won't understand." They at that point started telling me everything, and it really matched up with the court of inquiry documents. Prior to that, we were thinking, "Something isn't adding up; someone's not telling us the whole story." Then when the men started speaking about it and filling in those blanks, then it all made much more sense. By telling these stories, we are giving you an understanding of how hard it was. Remember, these men aren't in rafts. They are swimming for five nights and four days. Would you be the person that would fight for someone's else's life, or would you fight for your own?

But the survivors were really behind telling the whole story of Indianapolis, even the really tough parts that their families had not heard before. It's kind of scary to put out there that not everybody is a hero. That came from the men themselves, with support from the book that they wrote called Only 317 Survived. Every now and then we get a little push back—"Did that really happen?" It did. It was a privilege, and also scary as heck to share that.

You also spend time in the book on the Japanese submarine commander Hashimoto, who sank the Indianapolis and who later testified in the court-martial of Captain McVay. Lynn, what was behind the decision to include the Japanese commander's point of view?

Lynn Vincent: We wanted to pull back the lens on Indianapolis because up until this point she had mainly been known as a sinking story, a shark story. We wanted to remind people that she wasn't just that—she was the flagship of the Fifth Fleet, and that Admiral Raymond Spruance had conducted much of the Pacific campaign from her decks. We also wanted to set Indianapolis in her proper historical context as really being the final braiding together of the European conflict and the Pacific conflict, and one of those stories is the story of how the atomic bomb was transported [on Indianapolis]. During our research we came across the private papers of Major Robert Furman, who was the head of intelligence for the Manhattan Project, and it was really cool for us to be able to tell for the first time the details of that transport mission, which was the most highly classified naval mission of the war.

We also wanted to portray the Japanese side of the entire Pacific conflict, so that's why we brought in Admiral Ugaki, who was the kamikaze commander, and Emperor Hirohito, and of course Lieutenant Commander Hashimoto. They were also men who fought out of their conviction, really believing that they were doing what was right for their country. In particular in Hashimoto's case, we wanted to get into his mind and show the reader what he was thinking instead of having him just be this cardboard cutout enemy.

It astonished me that the survivors of Indianapolis were essentially discovered by accident by an airplane testing out a new radio antenna, and that no one had realized that the ship with more than a thousand men on it had gone missing. How was that possible?

Sara Vladic: It really was kind of a perfect storm. The ship that was supposed to know it was intended to arrive [in the Philippines] received a garbled message, so they weren't even aware that she was coming to meet with them. She sank in the middle of nowhere at midnight. And when the ship sank in 12 minutes, they really couldn't get an SOS out. There was no transmission—at least there's no transmission that they have record of receiving—that she was sunk.

Lynn Vincent: Lieutenant Stewart Gibson was a young lieutenant at Leyte, and he was in charge of seeing which ships were in port: which ships had arrived, which ships hadn't. There had been a really critical directive that came from the Pacific Fleet Advance headquarters that said, Arrival reports for combatant ships shall not be made. The entire focus of the war effort was now focused on the Japanese home islands, and there was a lot of intelligence and message traffic running back and forth. They were trying to reduce routine message traffic. And so Gibson, who had earlier been reprimanded for his addle-brained ways, looked at this message and he said, Well, if I'm not supposed to make an arrival report for combatant ships, I suppose that means I'm not supposed to report when they don't arrive. He knew for two days that Indianapolis hadn't arrived as scheduled.

Sara Vladic: What's really important to note about that is that he didn't receive any kind of mark on his files. He was interviewed, but he didn't he didn't even get a slap on the wrist for this.

Lynn Vincent: Three officers were reprimanded by letter—and he was one of them—but a few months later all of those letters were withdrawn and it was as though they had never happened.

It's now about five months since Indianapolis was published. What has the reaction of the survivors been?

Sara Vladic: It's actually been overwhelmingly wonderful. A survivor by the name of James Smith called me two days after we sent him a copy, and he said, "I couldn't go to sleep. I stayed up for two days and read it. I had to find out what happened!" [Laughs] And they have said, You finally got it right; you finally told her whole story.

Indianapolis has traditionally been a topic that seems to fall into an all-male demographic, but we’re actually hearing more from women who have absolutely loved the book and found that it read like personal histories and accounts, and nothing like previous histories they have read in the past—especially with the stories from the homefront included, and what it was like for the wives and mothers of these men while the war was going on.

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