The Downs family needed a break. Both parents were working hard to cobble togther a good life for their family during the lean post-Depression years in San Antonio, Texas. When Ray was offered a job in his chosen field, they all willingly -- and with a great sense of adventure -- pulled up stakes and moved to South America.
They didn't know much about the beginnings of Germany's unrest, occupying France and stretching its tentacles toward Great Britain, nor about the powerful U-boats that began to prowl and prey on ships in the Atlantic and North Sea.
When the Downses boarded the coffee- and banana-laden ship Heredia to return home after a year in Colombia and Costa Rica, the country was at war. Isolationist policies resulted in terrible losses of ships and lives to U-boats stalking along the Atlantic coast -- but no one was saying much about it.
So Close to Home:
The True Story of an American Family's
Fight for Survival During WWII
"They don't come any better than Michael J. Tougias. His latest - So Close to Home - is a truly gripping, deeply affecting saga of undersea warfare and an extraordinary American family caught in the crosshairs of history."
- Alex Kershaw,
New York Times best-selling author of
"The Longest Winter" and "The Few"
Meticulously-researched, Tougias and O'Leary take you where few historians dare, into the dark sea with an American family floundering to stay alive and onto the steel planked deck of the U-boat Commander who put them there. This is priceless history, a fresh story in a modern era, two-hundred fast-paced pages of “you-are-there.”
New York Times bestselling author of
"A Higher Call"
The United Fruit Company's ship Heredia
The mastermind behind the U-boat offensive was Admiral Karl Donitz, who struggled to make the Fuhrer understand the importance of striking first. Hitler had faith in ground campaigns and viewed the Navy as a primarily defensive force. Did they know how close they were to decimating US-British supply lines in 1942?
"The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril." -- Winston Churchill
Meanwhile, German sailors gladly tolerated horrible conditions aboard U-boats rather than suffering on the Eastern Front, working and living cheek-by-jowl with 50 men and the stench of insufficient sanitary facilities, rotting food and little fresh air for weeks or months at a time. At least they had great success and camaradarie that came from picking off defenseless ships, one after the other.
Using the U-boat captains' own words from their War Diaries, So Close to Home follows the paths of two succesful predators in the waters off Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico, including the mouth of the Mississippi River.
As ruthless as the U-boats were, the book also discusses the unusual circumstances and actions taken when the same U-boat captains who terrorized shipping in U.S. waters helped to save hundreds of British officers, soldiers and civilians after the sinking of the Laconia in the South Atlantic.
U-boat commanders Schacht, Wurdemann and Kreigsmarine Admiral Donitz (greeting Hitler).
Worlds collide: May 19, 1942
When the first torpedo hit the merchant ship Heredia, Captain Erwin Colburn likely reacted with horror and disbelief: it was the last night of the voyage, and they were steaming toward the Ship Shoal Buoy off the southern tip of Louisiana. The ship was to touch the dock in New Orleans in fewer than eight hours.
Alongside Colburn on the bridge was Second Mate Roy Sorli, a 34-year-old Norwegian sailor also from the Boston area who looked to the captain for his next order: change course to evade additional torpedoes? Scuttle the ship’s papers which included Navy codes? Assist the few passengers into lifeboats? Colburn undoubtedly bellowed into the communications tube orders for an S.O.S.to be broadcast.
As the two officers assessed the damage with reports from the engine room, the ship slowed abruptly, seeming to pull backward as water poured in the gaping hole the torpedo created. Sailors scrambled out of their bunks, tumbling into the passageways. Outside, a bright searchlight snapped on, bathing one side of the crippled ship in a blinding light.
Suddenly, a second explosion rocked the ship sideways, knocking the men off balance. The vessel began to shudder, the stern sinking quickly, making the deck tip. “Abandon ship! To the lifeboats!” Colburn yelled.
Second Mate Roy Sorli stepped outside the ship’s bridge and was about to head to the lifeboats when he heard a hysterical, high-pitched scream, a child begging for her mother. There were only two children aboard the passenger/freighter so it had to be 11-year-old Lucille Downs, he knew, but wondered where her brother could be.
The Downses had lived in South America a year when a collision of factors prompted them to leave: World War II broke out, plant disease and shipping losses caused a decline in the banana business her father worked for, and her mother disliked the freewheeling lifestyles of the expatriates around them.
“I’m coming to get you Lucille,” he yelled into the darkness.
Sorli, a father of two girls, immediately jumped into a flooded portion of the ship from the deck he was on. He realized they would have to climb back onto the ship and jump from the hull in a different direction to avoid it rolling onto them and taking he and the girl under.
“Come with me,” he said. “We can’t stay in here; we need to get outside the ship.”
“But my mother and dad, I need to find them, and Sonny,” she pleaded.
“Yes, we will,” he answered. “First we need to climb back up there where I was and jump off the other side into the ocean. We need to get away from the ship; it’s going to sink. I’m sure your parents are outside in one of the life rafts, and they must be looking for you.”
Hereia's Second Mate, Roy Sorli, who was awarded the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal for his actions after the torpedoing.
Click on video to hear a portion of Ray "Sonny" Downs' survival story.
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