Death From Below

The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-Boats

By William Geroux, Viking $28.95

In 1991, William Geroux met some watermen who were old enough to remember ships being torpedoed in the water off Virginia Beach 49 years earlier. A reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he knew a great story when he heard one.  

“I was astonished,” he says. “I had no idea U-boats had operated right off our shores. I began reading all I could find about the U-boat war on America. Some good books had chronicled parts of the story, but focused on the military (as does most of World War II history). I wanted to read one that told it from the merchant mariner’s perspective. I began thinking I could write such a book if I could find the right characters to tell the story.”

Twenty-five years have passed since that first encounter, but Geroux finally tracked down and interviewed the descendants of WWII Merchant Mariners from Mathews County and the few mariners themselves who were still alive. Now, he has penned an engrossing story of the home lives and naval exploits of these brave men.

The U.S. Merchant Marine has been around since our nation declared independence, transporting American goods to foreign ports as the U.S. grew into a superpower. In times of war, the ships are owned and operated by private companies, but the Department of Defense determines their cargo, routes and itineraries.

During WWII, the merchant ships transported military materiel, sailed into harm’s way, and played a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with German submarines. Even so, the mariners were treated as “America’s cross-eyed stepchild”—as chairman of the Maritime Commission Admiral Emory Land lamented—and provided with token protection until so many ships had been lost that the war effort was at risk. There was so little resistance that U-boats could rise to the surface and pick off freighters with their deck cannons. By March 1942, half the world’s sinkings were occurring in U.S. coastal waters. Throughout the war, merchant mariners bore higher casualty rates than any branch of service. With a high population of mariners, Mathews County especially suffered.

As Geroux writes, “In the nine months since the United States entered the war, 22 Mathews mariners had been killed. At least twice that many had been torpedoed. Seven Mathews men had been torpedoed at least twice. Mellin Respess was torpedoed three times on three different ships in a little over three months before he finally was killed. And the war was only starting.”

As long as they were sailing aboard a merchant vessel, mariners were considered to be in the employ of the U.S. Navy. But, unlike military service members, mariners were only paid while they were sailing. “They faced everything that could go wrong when a ship was torpedoed,” says Geroux. “Many of the Merchant Mariners’ ships were not designed for the heavy war cargo they carried, and they often sank quickly. Many on board had no time even to get out of the ship before it entombed them on the sea bottom. Those who made it to the main deck faced explosions, fires, flaming oil slicks, shark attacks, ferocious weather and icy seas. The men lucky enough to scramble into lifeboats or onto rafts faced long odysseys in open boats, often with little or no food or water. In many ways, those mariners suffered worst of all.”

In the book, Geroux details the harrowing experiences of those marooned in lifeboats on the open ocean. As men dehydrated, toxins multiplied in their bodies and they sometimes went insane. As for those unlucky enough not to make it to a lifeboat, they clung to rafts or wreckage until they were found by either another ship or a man-eating shark. In one famous incident, a Cuban fisherman cut open a shark he’d caught only to discover human remains inside. He also discovered two rings in the stomach, one a heavy gold signet ring inscribed with the initials of a Mathews mariner whose ship had been sunk. That was one of the rare stories to make national news. The War Department enforced a media blackout on the mariners’ incredible losses, keeping their story out of the public eye, a legacy that has endured until now.

At its heart, The Mathews Men is a story about duty, honor and sacrifice. Although the public didn’t know how dangerous the mariners’ lot was, the Mathews watermen did. But that never stopped them from delivering the precious cargo that the Brits and Russians needed to survive the Nazi onslaught. The Mathews Men gives credence to these WWII heroes who have been overlooked for far too long.

More picks for your summer reading list: 

Factory Man, by Beth Macy
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Monticello, by Sally Cabot Gunning
Richmond Noir, by A. Blossom and others
A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger
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