42 pages 1 hour read

Pete Nelson

Left for Dead

Nonfiction | Book | YA | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


Left for Dead is a work of military nonfiction for young adults by Pete Nelson. It tells the true story of what happened to the men whose ship, the USS Indianapolis, sank during World War II in July 1945. Hunter Scott, who wrote an introduction for the book, studied the incident for a school history fair project and became determined to discover the truth about what happened. Dismayed by the miscarriage of justice surrounding the naval disaster, Hunter began a campaign to exonerate Captain Charles B. McVay and to have the bravery of the survivors recognized. Published by Random House in 2002, Left for Dead won the 2003 Christopher Award and was named in the 2003 American Library Association’s top ten list.

Content warning: This guide discusses suicide and violence.

Plot Summary

Left for Dead begins with a preface which provides context for the events to come. The USS Indianapolis is a cruiser in the United States Navy captained by Charles B. McVay III. The cruiser sets out from San Francisco in mid-July 1945 with components to complete the atomic bomb destined for Hiroshima. After dropping these components at Tinian, McVay and his crew continue onto Guam and then set sail for Leyte, in the Philippines.

However, on July 30th, 1945, two torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine hit the ship. The captain initially tries to save the ship but gives the order to abandon ship within a few minutes. It only takes 12 minutes for the USS Indianapolis to sink. Around 300 men go down with her, leaving around 800 in the water, many badly injured and burned. This is the beginning of four harrowing days during which men try to stay alive in shark-infested waters. Left for Dead features survivors’ accounts in some detail, while also exposing the US Navy’s attempts to make a scapegoat out of Captain McVay. The book describes Hunter’s efforts to exonerate the captain and uncover the whole truth of what happened to these men.

The first chapter describes two men, Dronet and Smith, trying to survive in the water after the initial impact. Dronet can’t swim. They swallow dangerous levels of oil as the ship sinks; men are dying everywhere, but worse than this, they identify sharks in the water around them. The next chapter describes Hunter’s encounter with a WWII veteran, Maurice Bell, who survived the incident. Bell remembers what it felt like to be in that water, watching sharks pull men down one by one. Bell describes the sharks circling and the screams as men are pulled under. He also remembers what happened to men who drank saltwater or suffered exposure. Bell tells Hunter of the injustice done to Captain McVay, who was court-martialed for his role in the sinking.

Captain McVay is blamed for failing to move the ship out of harm’s way and for his decisions upon impact. The reality, however, is that the US Navy failed to take proper precautions to keep the men safe, failing to provide Captain McVay with critical intelligence about possible submarine sightings and denying him an escort vessel armed with sonar and anti-submarine technology. Furthermore, the US Navy’s failure to report the vessel missing after it did not arrive at Leyte delays rescue efforts; survivors are spotted—by random luck—by a US pilot days after the sinking.

Ultimately, Hunter Scott and his team of survivors and senators convince the US navy, the House of Representatives, and the Senate, to pass resolutions exonerating Captain McVay. It takes 50 years for this injustice to be righted. The sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the loss of so many men could have been avoided. However, Hunter’s perseverance finally brings justice to a man and crew who spent all those years under a cloud of suspicion.