We sat down with author Doug Stanton to discuss his recently re-issued book In Harm’s Way, which tells the story of America’s worst naval disaster during World War II—and of the heroism of the men who, against all odds, survived. The re-issued version of the book includes a whole new chapter of previously unreported history of the USS Indianapolis, disclosing the experience of Black sailors aboard, the discovery of the ship by Paul Allen in 2017, and more. Read on for our conversation with Doug.
In Harm’s Way required extensive research. Did you do any traveling or visit any exciting places while researching the book?
Doug: I visited survivors in their homes around the country and sat with them at their kitchen table to ask about their experiences—how did they survive, and how do they feel it affected their lives? Nearly every one of the survivors was quite adamant that after getting out of the water, they’d never had a bad day. It’s surprising to meet someone who says this and means it. And yet at the same time carries this awareness quietly through their lives. I attended the reunions of the survivors where more relationships came to life, as new people joined the group, finally deciding later in life that it might be a good idea to be reunited with old shipmates. Why? Because even to have served on the ship, whose battle experience was extensive in the war—to have survived even that would have been enough to fill life—but to also have survived the sinking, and then to have never been able to speak about it with anyone after the survivors scattered across America after the rescue, these experiences all left many unanswered questions for the crew. Writing the book, and talking with crew and families, was also then a way to find information that’d been lost.
How long did it take you to put this book together?
Doug: I met the survivors in July 1999 at an annual reunion and wrote a long reported story for Men’s Journal, with no intention of writing a book. It was an unexpected project. As I reported the story, the more I got to know the survivors and their families, the more I began to reflect, and to ask the men themselves to reflect, on what surviving such an ordeal meant, the more I saw this story as one about citizenship: “Who we are when no one is looking? How do we act? How are we to act toward one another when the chips are down? What is heroism, small “h,” as these folks would never call themselves heroes?” A hero, I came to understand, was someone who did the right thing when no one was looking—especially when no one was looking. Small acts, enormous consequences. That’s what I was thinking about up to the point when In Harm’s Way was published in May 2001, and in some ways I’ve been thinking about these matters ever since.
What’s your favorite history book? Is history your genre of choice or do you prefer other types of books?
Doug: I’m a fan of writers like Erik Larson and Hampton Sides when it comes to narrative nonfiction, and of espionage and crime writers like Mick Herron and Tana French. Carl Hiassen, Yaa Gyasi, Adriana Trigiani, and Anna Quindlen too for irony, insight, discovery, humor, good cheer—the attributes could go on. The poems of Louise Glück and Elizabeth Bishop are favorites. Poetry is the purest form of speech someone once said, and narrative history should strive to capture the voice saying the story it most needs to utter. As a writer, listening is the first important act. Sustained listening. “Who are we in relation to one another?”
What attracted you to the story of the USS Indianapolis?
Doug: When I came to the story, it had been written about as a legal drama about a court-martial. When I asked the crew how they’d survived the sinking, and when they started to speak, I realized that they’d never fully told the human story of the ordeal—that beyond the legal drama, there was an existential one inside many of them. Questions like, “How had this affected me? And when I reflect on how I almost didn’t survive, how does this affect how I live my life?” Of course, millions of men and women—in the armed services, and families back home—faced such daunting questions during the war. The story of the USS Indianapolis, however, over the five-day ordeal of its sinking and the rescue of its crew, compresses so much of life into such a short time period that it provides a way to explore ideas and themes within small moments—at times, dramatic and terrifying ones to be sure. Here are ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. We wonder—or at least I wondered, “How are we like them, and how are we different? What does their experience tell me about resilience, the capacity for empathy for another’s plight?”
And on a “historic” level, the story of USS Indianapolis keeps offering discoveries—the ship’s final resting place was located during an epic search by a team organized by Paul Allen in 2017. Other voices and stories are still coming to light—we are hearing untold stories that must be heard, such as the experience of Black sailors aboard the ship. Twenty years after the publication of In Harm’s Way, I wanted to update the story and give a dramatic glimpse of some of the stories we can expect to hear more of, from the people best able to tell them. A lot has happened in two decades, and the new writing and reporting brings us forward. It’s in the new pages of this new edition.
What do you admire the most about the survivors you interviewed? Did anything, in particular, stand out to you about their accounts of the incident?
Doug: One of the admirable traits among the crew is their lifelong sense of camaraderie, that no matter what walk of life, they continue to walk along the story of this ship with each other. As I look back, I’m also aware of the courage it took for them to disclose their stories when meeting someone like me, who asks, “How did you survive this?” Answering that might mean talking about things you haven’t talked about, even with your closest friends or family, and yet so many answered with such grace and humility. I remember sitting in the living room of survivor Bill Drayton in Florida, and having this proud man tell me his story—no bravado, just the experience as he’d lived it. The US Navy at one point adopted In Harm’s Way as required reading on its list for officers, and I think that was because it’s a story about leadership, perseverance, and discipline. It’s about doing the right thing—or at least attempting the right thing—at the most difficult moment. I was privileged to hear a man like Bill Drayton talk, first for those reasons, and then grateful that his talking allowed other members of his family a chance to learn some of what he’d lived through.
Doug Stanton is a #1 New York Times bestselling author whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The New York Times, TIME, The Washington Post, and other national publications. The bestselling In Harm’s Way was included in the US Navy’s required reading list for naval officers. His book Horse Soldiers is the basis for the movie 12 Strong, starring Chris Hemsworth. Stanton lectures nationally and has appeared on national TV and radio. He and Anne Stanton provided an initial donation for the publication of Only 316 Survived, and founded a scholarship program benefiting grandchildren of the USS Indianapolis crew.