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A story of survival during World War II

Authors bring history to life during Cape Region presentations
May 11, 2018

Traveling by ship in the Gulf of Mexico was dangerous in 1942, when German submarines attacked civilian vessels, trying to sink as many ships as possible.

But Ray Downs Sr., who worked for United Fruit in South America, wanted to enlist in the Marines and join the war effort. He, his wife and two young children boarded the ship Heredia headed for New Orleans. Little did they know what awaited them. Their story has become the subject of a book by bestselling authors Michael Tougias and Alison O'Leary, who did book tour stops April 22 at Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes and South Coastal Library in Ocean View.

Tougias offered a presentation in Fort Miles' Battery 519 on their book, "So Close to Home: A True Story of an American Family's Fight for Survival During World War II."

It's not only a story of survival, but one detailing the little-known history of U-boat patrols in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II.

Tougias said he seeks out stories that have been lost to history and tries to being them to light. This story came to him on a fishing trip when the boat owner told him he had a friend who survived a U-boat attack on in the Gulf Coast. "I didn't know U-boats were in the Gulf," Tougias said.

That sparked interest in Tougias who set up a visit with Ray "Sonny" Downs Jr., who was eight years old at the time of the attack. Now 82, Downs had vivid memories of the ordeal that his family faced when the United Fruit Co. freighter Heredia was sunk May 19, 1942, by German submarine U-506 about 50 miles off the coast of New Orleans.

He, his 11-year-old sister Lucille, father Ray and mother Ina were on the ship back to the States from South America where Ray Sr. worked for United Fruit Co. Ray Sr. wanted to support the war effort and enlist in the Marines.

The authors were also able to locate an audio tape of an interview given by Ina that provided valuable information as they did research.

"We knew this would be a great story and thought it would be a survival at sea story," Tougias said. "Then a U-boat expert gave us a tip that some U-boat commanders' diaries had been preserved at the National Archives."

They were able to locate U-boat 506 Capt. Erich Wurdemann's diary in the archives. "Now we could tell the story from his perspective as well," Tougias said.

When the ship exploded, the family members were separated. More than half the crew of 50 perished, but miraculously after 18 hours in the ocean, the family survived and was rescued.

The captain of the Heredia suspected U-boats may be in the vicinity and changed course to Corpus Christa, Texas, using a zig-zag evasive maneuver. However, no one was allowed to disembark and the ship sailed on toward New Orleans. Around 2 a.m., the ship was hit with two torpedoes from close range that tore the ship apart.

The four family members were separated as they jumped into the water. "It was terrible, but for an author now there were four different survival stories. How would the children make it?" he asked.

The family battled against dehydration, hypothermia and survived 18 hours in the water filled with sharks. They were eventually rescued by shrimp boats.

Tougias said the family lost everything they owned on the ship. Ray Sr., 36, was considered too old for the Marines so he enlisted in the Coast Guard and was stationed in Florida assigned to U-boat patrol.

Tougias said Sonny became a basketball star at the University of Texas in the 1960s as the school's all-time leading scorer. The 6' 4" Downs was drafted in the NBA but quit in training camp because he said he could make more money selling insurance. "He's still working. The real joy of this was meeting him; the book is dedicated to him," Tougias said.

Tougias has written more than 25 books, including "The Finest Hours: A True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue," which was made into a movie.

U-boat survival rate abysmal

Tougias said U-boats typically did two-week patrols traveling across the Atlantic Ocean from a base on the coast of occupied France.

The more than 50 men crowded into the U-boats were forced to endure temperatures well above 100 degrees. "Their only relief was when they were able to surface at night," Tougias said.

He said the commanders were ordered to sink as many ships as possible, but to seek out oil tankers in an effort to disrupt American supply lines.

In the early days of the war, Americans were ill prepared to locate and sink U-boats in the Gulf and along the Atlantic coast. On his first mission, Wurdemann sunk 10 ships in the Gulf and the Atlantic.

"When these crews returned, they were treated as heroes with special trains to transport them to Germany for rest and relaxation," he said.

In July 1943, a U.S. Liberator plane spotted U-506 in the waters off the coast of Spain and sank it. In his presentation, Tougias showed a photograph of the explosion.

Wurdemann managed to get to the surface but was injured and eventually drowned. However, his diary was saved by two survivors who were rescued by a British ship. He said 80 percent of U-boat crews never returned back to port.

U-boat connection to coastal area

Fort Miles is a perfect venue for a talk on U-boats. At the end of World War II, the crew of U-boat 858 surrendered at Fort Miles. That event is reenacted each spring during the fort's living history weekend, which occurs Saturday, April 28.

During the presentation, Bill Manthorpe, retired Naval intelligence officer, local historian and author of "A Century of Service: The U.S. Navy on Cape Henlopen, Lewes, Delaware: 1898-1996," said nine U-boats patrolled the waters off the New Jersey-Delaware coast. They sank 16 ships and 52 survivors were brought to Lewes, many who were treated for injuries at Beebe Hospital, he said.

He said the last ship was sunk was in June 1942 off the coast of Rehoboth Beach. "You could see the smoke in the distance from the Boardwalk," he said.

Bob Jones of Philadelphia, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1944 and 1945, said he witnessed a German submarine getting sunk on Christmas Day in 1944 less than one mile off the coast. "We were afraid of sabotage and moved all of the planes off the base," he said.

He attended the presentation with this daughter, Barbara Baker, of Lewes.