My newest novel, Prisoner of War, is on sale now. It is another based on a true story, of a young boy who joined the service in 1941 at the age of 15. His home life was not so good. But he was big for his age and in those days, if you could get a relative to vouch for your age, you got in. That’s what he did.
I changed the names to protect the privacy of the families but the story is true. In Prisoner of War, young Henry Forrest was sent to the Philippines. There his true age was discovered. He was to be sent home. His departure was scheduled for December 8, 1941. Needless to say, he didn’t make it.
Along with thousands of American and Filipino troops that surrendered to the Japanese he was sent on the Bataan death march. He survived it. He managed to survive life in a Japanese POW camp where he was tortured and beaten. As Japan was driven back by the Allied advance, he was removed to Japan where he was put into forced labor at a steel mill. Finally, at age 19, he was liberated when Japan surrendered. Try to imagine that for a moment. At an age when you should be in High School, this hero was suffering unimaginable treatment by a horrific enemy.
Prisoner of War is a story of war and survival. Henry Forrest is forced to find a way to keep his humanity in the face of ultimate evil. He will find the best and worst of men at war. And in the end he will learn he is more courageous than he thought.
Prisoner of War is receiving great reviews. Kirkus calls it “gut-wrenchingly vivid.” School Library Journal says it is “A powerful read.”
1) The USS Indianapolis was a Portland Class heavy cruiser. When it was first commissioned in 1932, it was referred to as the ‘jewel of the fleet.’ It was the ship President Franklin Roosevelt sailed on during his goodwill trip to South America. During World War II, Admiral Raymond Spruance often used it as his flagship, while he commanded the 5th fleet.
2) The Indy won ten battle stars in service during World War II. In March 1945, a Kamikaze attacked the ship. Anti-aircraft guns managed to shoot down the plane, but not before it managed to drop its 500-pound bomb. The bomb went through the ships superstructure before detonating below decks. The explosion cost massive damage, but did not sink the ship. It was able to make it to a repair facility under it’s own power.
3) The Indianapolis then sailed to San Francisco for a major repair and refit. Once finished, the components of the first atomic bomb were loaded on board and the ship was given orders to deliver their cargo to Tinian. The USS Indianapolis departed San Francisco July 19, 1945 and stopped for refueling in Hawaii on the way. Arriving at Tinian July 26, their voyage established a speed record for that distance that still stands today.
4) On July 28, 1945 the Indy was sent to the Leyte Gulf where it was to join a fleet for the panned invasion of the Japanese homeland. On July 30, 1945, shortly after midnight, it was struck amidships by two Japanese torpedoes. The ship was so badly damaged it sank in under twelve minutes. Nearly 900 of the 1200 crewmembers managed to abandoned ship. Three and half days later only slightly over 300 men survived.
5) Charles Butler McVay, the Captain of the USS Indianapolis, survived the shipwreck. He was later court martialed and found guilty for hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag (a technique ships used to avoid submarines). Even though the Navy made the unprecedented decision to bring the commander of the I-58 submarine that sank the ship as witness for the prosecution. The commander stated in his testimony that the zigzag maneuver would not have prevented his sinking of the Indianapolis. Captain McVay was found guilty, the only Naval officer in World War II to be court martialed for losing his ship in combat.
Obviously, they are old men now. All of them, these crewman of the USS Indianapolis, admit that they treat each day like a precious gift. Some of them are stooped and walk with a cane. Or a hand placed gently on the arm of a doting family member. Some resort to wheelchairs when the day grows long and the legs tired. They say that Father Time is the only enemy that is undefeated. If that is true, these men have already given him a poke in the eye and are now putting him through the fight of his life. Father Time never met men like these.
You see it when you shake their hands and look in their eyes. There you find steel. As you walk among the memorials of their fallen shipmates and see the photos and letters placed their by their families. It is easy to imagine them frozen in time as the young men they once were. They had dreams and aspirations. And they willingly put them aside to defend a nation.
I had the great fortune to meet these men, a group of survivors of the crew of the USS Indianapolis. I’d written a book called Into the Killing Seas. A middle grade novel based on the true events of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the worst disaster at sea in US Naval history. The novel features two young boys who stow away aboard the ship and find themselves thrust into the middle of this horrific disaster. The granddaughter of one of the survivors discovered the book, read it, and facilitated an invitation to the reunion. I could not have refused.
Each year those survivors still able to travel, gather at a hotel in Indianapolis and remember. They reminisce and tell stories. They bring their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. These are more than survivors of the worst disaster at sea in US Naval history. They would never admit it, but I will say it for them. They are giants among men. They remain modest, even deferential. And to a man they don’t consider themselves heroes. The heroes, they say, ‘are the 879 men who didn’t make it back.’
It was a cloudy, overcast night on 30 July 1945. Hot, with unrelenting humidity. The Indy, as she was called, was headed toward Leyte Gulf. They were near the equator, and to escape the heat, dozens of crewmen moved their bedrolls to the deck to sleep with some hope of finding a breeze or cooler air. Little did they know this simple act might have saved their lives. At fourteen minutes past midnight, two Japanese torpedoes rent the Indianapolis nearly in half. The damage was so severe the ship sank in twelve minutes.
Three hundred of the crew perished in the explosion and went down with the ship. The remaining nine hundred men abandoned ship. For nearly five days they floated in the running seas of the South Pacific. Covered in diesel fuel, they had little to no water or food. Some didn’t even have life jackets. They suffered horribly form dehydration, salt water ulcers, sunburn and exposure. And worst of all, endured what scientists have called the ‘worst human shark encounter in recorded history.’
By luck and happenstance, on the fifth day they were spotted in the water by a plane on routine anti-submarine patrol. Rescue planes and ships were summoned. By the time the remaining crew was pulled from the water, only 317 still survived. One of the men at the reunion recalled ‘they took us aboard the ship and gave us chicken broth and cigarettes. I sure did like those cigarettes.’ If you believe in luck or fate or destiny or just weird coincidences, then you will find it interesting that 317 men survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. 3-1-7 is also the area code for the city of Indianapolis.
It is one of the most amazing survival stories of modern times. In researching Into the Killing Seas, I learned a great deal about the ship, it’s Captain and crew and the aftermath of the shipwreck. But I quickly realized that my book, nor any book, could measure up to the real story of the courage, determination, and perseverance of these men. Words can’t convey what they possess. And the amazing thing is, despite all they’ve been through, they retain a sense of humility and grace that is at once both charming and confounding. How could ordinary men who survived something so mentally, emotionally, physically and psychologically taxing be so at peace and self-assured? If I were to hazard a guess, I would think that if you defied death to such a degree, everyday life must be a breeze.
The mission of the reunion has changed now. It is no longer just a gathering. It is about preserving and maintaining a legacy. About never forgetting. Never letting their story slip beneath the waves of the passage of time. It is no exaggeration when I say that attending this event and meeting these men changed my life.
My father was a World War II veteran. I grew up in a very small town, so it probably exaggerated the effect, but every able-bodied man in town my father’s age was a veteran. My dad seldom talked about the war. But being at the reunion, talking to these men, who before 30 July 1945, considered themselves just ‘regular Joe’s’ changed something in me. My dad never considered himself anything special, and neither do the the men of the USS Indianapolis. Millions of men just like them served. Hundreds of thousands paid the ultimate sacrifice. But meeting them somehow helped me understand that sacrifice on a much deeper level.
Some of the stories I heard were astonishing. I met a young man, currently serving on a Navy submarine. His grandfather was an Indy survivor. When he passed away he was cremated. The Navy had his ashes shipped to his grandson aboard the sub. Then they traveled to the exact coordinates where the Indianapolis sank. The grandson returned his grandfather’s ashes to the sea. So that he could finally rest with his shipmates.
Another son of a survivor tearfully told me how his father came to every reunion until he could no longer travel. So his son dutifully went in his place. He passed away a couple of years ago while the reunion was in progress. They sent the flag used at the event and his father was buried with it. His son still comes each year.
I heard about one of the survivors whose esophagus was so damaged by the fuel he swallowed, that after the rescue he was sent to the Great Lakes Naval hospital to recover. There he met a nurse who cared for him. They fell in love and were married nearly fifty years.
In the lobby of the Hyatt was a ten-foot replica of the USS Indianapolis. One of the crewmen pointed to a spot amidships and told me ‘here is where I got off the ship.’ Only he said it the same way you and I might say ‘I’m running out to the store for a gallon of milk.’ Who possesses that kind of courage?
Time passes. A few weeks ago, the keel was layed for a new USS Indianapolis, being built at a shipyard in Northern Michigan. One of the survivors of the original ship attended the ceremony. It was the passing of the torch. In a few years there will be a shiny new ship, with a new crew of honorable young men and women full of hopes and dreams.
And willing to put them aside for a while to defend a nation. That is the legacy of the survivors.
And it will live on.
I would like to ask your help in preserving the story of the USS Indianapolis and it’s crew. Many of the survivors and their families were delighted that Into the Killing Seas tells their story for a younger generation. Rightfully their legacy should live on. I was more than happy to attend the reunion and sign books and donate all the proceeds from book sales to the Survivors organization. Now I’d like your help to keep the story of these men and their sacrifice alive. First, please share a link to this blog post with your friends. Next I’d like your help in getting this book in the hands of young readers. If you buy a copy of Into the Killing Seas and donate it to a school or library, send me a photo of your receipt. I will match your donation to another school or library and any royalties I make off purchases for this campaign will be donated to the Survivors organization. Please help me spread this story. Or visit USSIndyReunion.com to make a donation. Please don’t let their legacy slip beneath the waves. Thank you in advance for your generosity.
Writers are asked all the time ‘what inspired you to write this book?’ Into the Killing Seas, my newest novel, is told through the eyes of a young boy who, along with his brother, stows away about the USS Indianapolis. Almost two days out of port, the ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine.
Two torpedoes tore the ship nearly in half. It sank so quickly only 900 of the 1200 man crew were able to abandon ship. Most of them were burned and wounded. They floated in the ocean nearly five days before they were spotted and rescued. They survived exposure, dehydration, starvation, and relentless heat and rolling seas. And they had the great misfortune to sink in some of the most heavily shark infested waters on earth.
Scientists have called it the worst human-shark encounter in history. Of the 900 men who made it off the ship, only 317 were pulled from the water. It was the worse disaster at seas in US Naval history. It was, by any definition, a horrific event.
What inspired me to write Into the Killing Seas? First, like any writer, my primary goal is to tell the best story I possibly can. And in the case of the Indianapolis disaster, to introduce young readers to an important historic event through historical fiction.
There is a lot of action and tragedy in Into the Killing Seas. Booklist called it “grim and vivid.” And it is very difficult to ‘sanitize’ a shark attack. Which brings me to the inspiration question. Why write about such a horrible event, a war, death and destruction? Especially in a book for children?
It’s my own opinion, but I believe young readers deserve honesty and truth, just as much as adult readers. Writing a book like Into the Killing Seas gives readers a glimpse of a true event that was beyond horrible. And the horribleness is the point. My goal in writing historical fiction for young readers is to try and give them an understanding that war and the things that go with are awful. It is not a movie or a video game. It is at times both the best and worst of humanity. There is no reset button. Sometimes men and women fight and die. And in my opinion, I think it’s important that young readers learn that reality.
And that’s my question. Does giving kids a glimpse of the reality of war, or the truth of history provide them with a valuable lesson? We have a tendency these days to want to protect our children from the harshness of life. But life is not always kind. Does opening their eyes to events like the Crusades or World War II make them better prepared to understand the world as they become adults? I’d love to know what you think about using historical fiction to introduce young readers to history.
This week is the annual Banned Books Week, sponsored by the Association of American Publishers, the American Library Association and many other organizations. As you may know, as a writer, I welcome all opinions and all incarnations of free speech. For our democracy to work, everyone has to have a voice. Even morons like racists, homophobes, religious fanatics and idiots who say that Alan Trammell doesn’t belong in the Baseball Hall-Of-Fame. It has to be this way. Either everyone has free speech and freedom of expression or no one does. Picking and choosing who gets to speak leads to totalitarianism. That’s bad. And that’s why I support the ALA in their efforts to stamp out censorship.
Generally, when I find some idiots like the Westboro Baptist Church or people who speak out in support of white chocolate and even advocating using it in recipes, my first rule is to ignore them. Moronic people are looking for an audience. More, they are looking to cause controversy. If they can get your dander up, they’ve won. Which is why I have a “Don’t listen to idiots policy.” White chocolate. Please. It’s not chocolate, it’s an abomination. But hey, whatever floats your mousse.
Yet as a writer, I’m torn. Except for a weird guy from Germany, many years ago, who sent me a 12,000 word screed on why the Knights Templar were the reason for every evil in the world, none of my books have ever been remotely challenged or banned. As far as I know. And while I would protest vigorously if anyone challenged or banned one of my books, I would kind of appreciate the attention. You know why. Because when something is deemed forbidden, it makes it a little more attractive to us. Especially young readers, which is most of my audience.
Believe me. Writing is hard. It takes time, practice and a lot of luck and perseverance to build an audience. Getting one of your books banned makes it a lot easier. Paraphrasing Mark Twain “the banning of one book will insure the sale of 100 of its mates.”
So you can see my dilemma.
For my own work, based on what I perceive to be the greatest benefit to me (and let’s face it, I look at most problems in the world through one prism: how is it going to effect me?) I need to be banned and censored. I’ve given it a lot of thought and decided it’s the right decision.
If you are a teacher, librarian or parent, I’m asking you to challenge one of my books and demand it be removed from your school or public library. Or both. You should protest in front of your local bookstore. In fact, you should go into said bookstore, buy all my books and burn them. Ask your friends and relatives to do the same in their town. Let’s start a movement.
To help get you started, I’ll even tell you why some of my books should be censored.
1. Blood Riders has illicit sex outside of marriage and lots of violence and carnage.
2. Pirate Haiku talks a lot about wenches and rum. Wenches and rum = bad.
3. Killer Species is all about genetic engineering. Need I go any further? Seriously?
4. Spy Goddess has a really mouthy heroine who steals a car and breaks rules.