Review of Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man

indy book

The incredible amount of research on this latest book to come out about the loss of USS Indianapolis (CA-35), builds on and eclipses those previous. Navy veteran Lynn Vincent and filmmaker Sara Vladic do an amazing job re-telling the by now well-known tragic story in Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man. 

Having conducted interviews with over 100 of Indy’s survivors going back nearly 20 years, the authors mine some new, gruesome revelations, told by men now in their nineties. These stories only add to the horror most of us can only imagine. The details do not titillate, but rather add to the unfortunate fate these men found themselves in. The reader is able to share in the anger at the huge loss of life, especially after learning word of a distress call was sent out, but those who received it did nothing to expedite a rescue. The potential to save even more lives was therefore wasted.

Delving into the history of the storied cruisers exploits before and after the sinking, the story then shifts to the aftermath of the loss, focusing on the Navy’s court-martial and trial of Indy’s commanding officer, Captain Charles B. McVay III. The reader then learns about the decades-long efforts of her survivors to see their captain exonerated. By the 1990s, they enlisted the help of U.S. Navy Captain William Toti, skipper of the submarine USS Indianapolis (SSN-697). A young school kid researching a project on Indianapolis’ sinking, then helps lead the charge to have McVay’s named cleared. The results of all of their hard work and success on taking on Big Navy makes for an exhilarating read. The Navy should have known that the survivors of a tragedy on the scale of Indianapolis would never give up.


USS Indianapolis (CA-35).

Having personally conducted research into USS Indianapolis for work, concerning the attempts by a non-governmental group to have a military medal awarded to Father Thomas Conway for his actions in the water before he passed on the third day, I have read several accounts from men serving aboard the rescue ships. These ships searched a wide area to pick up any survivors still possibly in the ocean. I thought the authors may pass over these first-hand eyewitness accounts, as the sailors discovering these bodies related nightmarish stories of dead men being eaten by sharks, or bodies falling apart while being brought onboard. Again, I feel the authors did a great job in not being exploitative or unnecessarily ghoulish, while also not sparing the reader the awful truths associated with the reality of the men’s situation.

As disheartening as it is to read the tragic tale of the crew of Indianapolis and their exploits in the sea after her sinking, it is almost as equally appalling to learn of the Navy’s brass towing the same party line for five decades. Indianapolis is a touching and lasting tribute to all the men, living and dead, who suffered so much in the service of their country during the Second World War.

indy survivors group

Indianapolis survivors onboard the Hollandia, headed for home.


USS Helena (CL-50) Found Nearly 75 Years After Sinking During WWII Battle

USS Helena (CL-50) already had a long and proud history during the war before her tragic end. A survivor of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, she was the first ship to receive the Navy Unit Commendation award for her actions at Pearl, the Battle of Cape Esperance, Guadalcanal, the Solomons, and Kula Gulf.

Japanese propagandists also once complimented Helena’s gun crews. After a bombardment of Kolombangara Island in early 1943, Radio Tokyo announced that U.S. Naval Forces had employed a “new secret weapon-a 6-inch machine gun.” Although no such weapon existed, the Japanese were unwittingly heaping praise on the proficiency and speed of Helena’s gunners.

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USS Helena (CL-50) off Mare Island Navy Yard, California, following battle damage repairs and overhaul on 1 July 1942. Naval History and Command Photograph. NH 95813

Helena was sunk by three torpedoes during the Battle of Kula Gulf on July 6, 1943. Of the 900 men onboard that abandoned ship, all but 275 survived. Many were rescued by the destroyers USS Nicholas (DD-449) and USS Radford (DD-446). Some were not rescued for 11 days, after making it to Vella Lavella Island, where they evaded Japanese patrols, and received help from two coast watchers and several natives before they were picked up.

Read the sad, but interesting story of S1c General P. Douglas, a survivor of the sinking of USS Helena, whose remains were found on Ranongga Island in June 2006. See the link below:

Hold the Potatoes: A Destroyer Officer’s Dream and His Legendary Crew


USS O’Bannon (DD-450) moored in mid-1942. Wartime censors re-touched the image to remove her radar and Mark 37 gun director. She’s painted in Camouflage Measure 12 (modified). National Archives Photograph. 80-G-44177.

Seventy-five years ago today, on 5 April 1943, USS O’Bannon (DD-450), the legendary WWII destroyer, sank Japanese submarine RO-34 using a well-placed shot-and potatoes. Among the many sea stories of the US Navy throughout our nations history, the sinking of an enemy submarine from potatoes has become legendary. It sounds like something only Superman or Captain America could pull off, except in this case, what happened that day 75 years ago actually did occur. Minus the potatoes.

On 4 April 1943, several U.S. destroyers of Destroyer Squadron Twenty-One (DesRon 21) had shelled enemy shore installations on New Georgia. Among those destroyers were the USS Strong (DD-467), USS Taylor (DD-468), USS Nicholas (DD-449), USS Radford (DD-446), USS Jenkins (DD-447), and O’Bannon. All were steaming back towards their base at Tulagi Harbor after the mission, when at 0225 on the morning of 5 April 1943, O’Bannon proceeded to investigate a radar contact with Strong standing by to assist.

O’Bannon’s skipper, Cmdr. Donald J. MacDonald, received word from his radarmen of an enemy submarine running on the surface at 7,000 yards. He brought O’Bannon close enough to the enemy submarine that his lookout, the ship’s cook, from his watchstanding station on deck, later told his captain that he thought he could have thrown potatoes at the boat.


Commander Donald J. MacDonald, Commanding Officer of USS O’Bannon (DD-450), received two awards of the Navy Cross, three Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit and two Bronze Star awards during the war. (National Archives Photograph. 80-G-44101-A). 

The legend holds that MacDonald prepared to ram RO-34, but suddenly worried at the last second the sub may have been in the middle of mine-laying operations. Fearing this would needlessly put his ship and crew in harm’s way, he ordered hard rudder left. Suddenly, O’Bannon was steaming parallel with the Japanese submarine. The American crew saw right away that the Japanese submariners were all asleep out on deck, but were unable to lower and fire their larger caliber guns at the sub, and did not carry small arms with them. The Japanese, finally waking up to Americans staring in amazement and curiosity at them, also had no weapons on hand. However, they did have a 3-inch deck gun that could fire upon the O’Bannon, and quickly made a run to reach it. In a newspaper article written some 40 years after the incident, some of O’Bannon’s veterans claimed the ship was able to fire “once” (they don’t say from which gun), took out the sub’s conning tower, and then found bins full of potatoes (why they’d be on the main deck and not on the galley deck is unknown) and began throwing them at RO-34, incredibly only “50 feet away”(!)

The Japanese, believing the potatoes to be either hand grenades, or having an irrational fear of vegetables, threw them overboard or back at the sailors on O’Bannon. But the sudden and inspired food fight worked. The Japanese were so distracted by the potato assault that every single one of them stopped running towards, or was unable to reach the 3-inch deck gun, and O’Bannon was able to pull away and then proceed to sink RO-34.

So what really happened?

MacDonald was a fighting captain (and an extremely highly decorated one to prove it). He immediately went into action. Attacking RO-34, he dropped three depth charges and also ordered his 20-millimeter and 40-millimeter gun crews to open fire. The depth charges straddled RO-34, while 16 rounds from the 20mm and 40mm guns struck her conning tower. O’Bannon came around for a second pass and dropped more depth charges while firing again from both of her 20mm and 40mm guns. RO-34 began to sink by her stern. By the time O’Bannon circled around and came in for her third attack, she reported the target “blew up as a result of firing.” The crew on deck watched as RO-34 jumped out of the water and was slammed down again, settling by her stern moments before feeling a violent explosion underwater.


View of ship’s after 20-millimeter battery, on the fantail, while at sea, c.1943.
 (National Archives Photograph. 80-G-K-3975).

At 0250, she reported to the task group that the enemy vessel was still on the surface and damaged but “unable to dive.” Cmdr. MacDonald later wrote: “This contact may be considered a destroyer officer’s dream…First there were radar contacts, then sight contact, then the submarine was hit and remained dead in the water while the O’Bannon came in close enough to throw depth charges at her and finally send her to the bottom.” RO-34 sank shortly after with all 66 hands. Already by 1943, O’Bannon’s crew, under MacDonald became legendary fighters, never losing a single man during the war. Their skipper recalled, “All I had to do was say, ‘Commence firing!’ and they put on a wonderful show.”

When daylight finally arrived on 5 April, pilots reported a thick oil slick, as well as debris from the location, giving O’Bannon credit for a probable sinking of the submarine. However, the American press quickly picked up the story, and printed it as the epic tale of an American destroyer that attacked an enemy submarine by throwing potatoes at surprised Japanese sailors standing around on their ship. O’Bannon even received a plaque from a group called the Maine Potato Growers, to honor the occasion. The tall tale began taking on such a huge life of its own that even some of O’Bannon’s own former crewmen began telling and re-telling it to audiences, making it more difficult to disprove. But long after the war, MacDonald himself admitted, “I’ve been trying to drive a stake through this story for years.” He agreed that he maneuvered O’Bannon close to RO-34, but explained that even the crewmember with the best throwing arm could not have tossed a potato or anything else across the gap. “From that single remark [of the cook] has grown the entire legend of the use of Maine potatoes to sink a Japanese submarine.”


Commander Donald J. MacDonald, CO, USS O’Bannon (DD-450) (left), and Captain Thomas J. Ryan, CO, Destroyer Division Twenty-One (DesRon 21) (right). Commander MacDonald received the Navy Cross on board his ship on 22 August 1943. Captain Ryan presented the award. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. 80-G-56139).


Colleen Johnson, “This Spud’s For You: Shipmates Recall Holding off Japanese Sub,” The Pittsburgh Press, July 14, 1984.

John Sherwood, “The Legend of the Deadly Potatoes,” Washington Times, April 17, 1974.

John Wukovits, Tin Can Titans: The Heroic Men and Ships of World War II’s Most Decorated Navy Destroyer Squadron (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2017), 132.

USS O’Bannon (DD-450) War Diary, Monthly War Diary, June 1942 to October 1945

Bring the Bell Up?

USS Indianapolis Found

Due to the recent discovery of USS Indianapolis resting 18,000 feet at the bottom of the Philippine Sea by billionaire Paul Allen, some people have already called for one particular object to be raised from the depths.

Recent photos released by the submersible visiting Indy’s watery grave show one particularly interesting photograph of a ship’s bell. But it is not THE ship’s bell, which has been on display at the Indiana World War Memorial in Indianapolis.

Should they still bring the bell up?

USS Indianapolis ship’s bell

“Historian” stole WWII heroes’ dog tags from National Archives for profit

Antonin DeHays, a French historian living in College Park, Maryland, has been charged with stealing dog tags from National Archives II at College Park and selling them on Ebay.

The 32 year-old DeHays was also charged with the theft of government records in federal court Tuesday, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Maryland in a news release.

Authorities said the dog tags of a downed Tuskegee airman were stolen and that
DeHays “donated” them to a Virginia museum in exchange to sit in a vintage Spitfire aircraft.

“The theft of our history should anger any citizen,” the Archivist of the United States David Ferriero said Tuesday in a statement, “but as a veteran I am shocked at allegations that a historian would show such disregard for records and artifacts documenting those captured or killed in World War II.”

A search of DeHays’ home led to the recovery of six more dog tags and documents missing from the National Archives. Facing up to 10 years in prison, DeHays admitted he stole the items for “personal financial gain,” according to a Washington Post article dated 14 June 2017.