Tag Archives: U-boat

“So Close to Home: A True Story of an American Family’s Fight for Survival During World War II”

By Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary. Pegasus Books. 256 pp. Hardcover $27.95.

A lightly fictionalized, little-known tale of disaster at sea

A thrilling story of courage and eventual good fortune, this historical narrative recounts one Texas family’s near-disaster at sea within a larger, relatively unknown bit of World War II history.

To improve their fortunes, Ray and Ina Downs move their family of three children to Colombia and then to Costa Rica for Ray’s lucrative temporary job with the United Fruit Company. The oldest child, 14-year-old Terry, soon returns to the U.S. Lucille, then 11, and Sonny, 8, stay with their parents until the end of Ray’s contract.

While sailing home on their return trip from Costa Rica, just miles off the coast of New Orleans, their ship, the Heredia — an old freighter originally built as a luxury passenger ship; the Downs family is among the small number of civilians aboard — is attacked by a German U-boat. It is May of 1942, and America is still recovering from the Pearl Harbor bombing that led to a declaration of war against Japan’s ally, Germany, on December 11, 1941.

The ship sinks quickly and violently. Ray and Sonny end up on a tattered raft with two other men. At first, the whereabouts of Ina and Lucille are unknown.

The authors’ genius is in timing the shifts of focus, thereby heightening suspense. While most chapters follow the fortunes of the desperate Downs family, these are alternated with chapters that focus on the U-boat enterprise. Readers receive well-rounded portraits of Admiral Dönitz, overlord of the German “Grey Wolves” (as these submarines were named), and of the commanders of the two subs that unexpectedly and programmatically destroyed many ships nearing the southeastern U.S.: “The U-507 and U-506 were the perfect vessels to send into the Gulf because they were of the larger, long-range class called Type IXC, both built in 1939 in Hamburg.”

These U-boats had enormous range, and they usually carried 22 torpedoes along with other weapons, including anti-aircraft guns that were mounted on deck. They also had skilled, committed commanders whose training was exceptional: “Those on U-boats sent to American were the best of the best, on a new mission that might decide the outcome of the war.”

Commander Harro Schacht controlled U-507, the first U-boat to enter the Gulf of Mexico. Tougias and O’Leary develop a vivid personality sketch of this capable leader and record his many successes sinking ships in Gulf waters.

Erich Würdermann, the commander of U-506, receives similar treatment. Clearly, the authors are impressed by these two dynamic individuals who found themselves in an unusual competition. Was it the number of ships destroyed or the tonnage of cargo rendered useless that would be the measure of superiority?

The other side of the story, of course, is the dismal preparation and performance of U.S. forces. Why were they unavailable or unable to protect these commercial vessels, whose cargo was important to the war effort? How well was the U-boat threat recognized? On many of the freighters in the region, the lives of U.S. citizens were in jeopardy. Citizens like Ray Downs, his wife, and his children. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: So Close to Home | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Matt Royal mystery series hits another high note

Found, by H. Terrell Griffin. Oceanview Publishing. 357 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

Mr. Griffin’s eighth Matt Royal Mystery refines all of the pleasures his fans have come to expect. These include carefully shaded tough-guy investigators, brutal villains, witty banter among friends, robust romance, nonstop (it seems) eating and drinking in Sarasota area establishments, dogged investigation, constant threat, and the enchantments of the SW Florida coastal setting.



Throw in some World War II history (shaped to the ends of the present day plot) and you’ve got a complex web of questions that won’t give up their answers without a fight.

Mystery number one: Matt’s girlfriend J. D. Duncan, detective in the Longboat Key Police Department, receives a text message from a friend who had supposedly died over a year ago. It contains the woman’s photo and the name Jed, Katie Fredrickson’s private nickname for J. D. Is this a prank, or a call for help? Katie had disappeared when her husband was killed.

Mystery number two: a man in a stolen Jaguar pulls up to a condo complex, shoots an elderly man named Ken Goodlow point blank, then drives onto a bridge that is opening and plunges with the Jaguar to his death.  Witnesses reveal that Goodlow had served in WWII, moved to the nearby fishing community of Cortez soon after, and had been president of the Cortez Historical Society.

He had come to the condo building to show a friend of his some old photographs taken shortly after the war. Matt and J. D. soon interview Bud Jamison, another friend of Goodlow, who identifies the two of them as “the last of the young men who came back from the war and went to work on the boats,” fishing for a living. It soon becomes clear that whatever led to Goodlow’s murder has Jamison spooked. For he feels he might be next. But why?


Matt and J. D. along with the assistance of Jock, Matt’s deep cover government operative, pursue the two mysteries through the tried and true drudgery of questioning witness, relatives of victims, and people with any connection to the deceased Jaguar driver.

About a third of the way into the novel, Mr. Griffin introduces another time line that he elaborates over several chapters interspersed among those developing the present day timeline. This thread gives us a sense of the Sarasota area (Cortez in particular) in 1942 and details the happenings on a German U-boat patrolling the Gulf of Mexico with a clearly defined mission. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the January 15, 2014 Fort Myers Florida Weeky and the January 16 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, click here  Florida Weekly – Found 1 and here Florida Weekly – Found 2.

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