One night in July 1942, a fisherman hauled a big shark out of the Nicholas Channel off the northern coast of Cuba and gutted it, slicing open its belly with a knife. Out into the humid air spilled a mass of human remains containing two rings. One of the rings bore the initials of Capt. George Dewey Hodges, a merchant sea captain from Mathews County, Virginia, whose ship had recently been torpedoed by a U-boat in the same waters. The grim discovery was only the latest in a series of horrors inflicted by U-boats upon the tiny seafaring community of Mathews.
My book, The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-boats, tells the story of the forgotten sacrifices of the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II, through the adventures of merchant mariners from the tiny, rural outpost of Mathews County.
Mathews, as many readers of The House and Home Magazine know, is a peninsula spreading out into the Chesapeake Bay from about midway up the Bay’s western shore. Mathews is not on the way to anywhere, nor does it possess any major industries or tourist attractions other than beautiful scenery. As the locals like to say, “One never goes to Mathews unless going to Mathews.” The county has always been more a part of the water than of the land, and generations of Mathews men grew up handling boats almost since they were old enough to walk. Because Mathews offered few other job opportunities, many of its natural-born seaman turned to the Merchant Marine for their livelihoods. Mathews had been a cradle of merchant mariners since before the American Revolution. As World War II pressed closer to America in 1941, hundreds of Mathews men were scattered on merchant ships all over the world’s oceans.
The Merchant Marine, for those unfamiliar with it, is not a branch of the military but a loosely organized group of civilians employed by privately-owned shipping companies to sail cargo vessels from port to port for profit. In wartime, the Merchant Marine has always been pressed into service to haul vital military cargo. Never were their services more in demand than during World War II. And never were the mariners’ lives at such risk.
Virtually all the fuel, arms, ammunition, food and supplies that enabled the Allied armies to fight in Europe and Africa traveled across the sea in the cargo holds of merchant ships. The Merchant Marine was the Allies’ supply line. And the Germans — the masters of submarine warfare in the mid-20th century – were determined to sever that line. Hitler and his advisors believed that if U-boats could sink enough Allied merchant ships, they could strangle the Allies and win the war.
The U.S. military was unprepared for America’s sudden entry into the war, and especially unprepared for the specialized warfare required to combat U-boats. American merchant ships became prime targets wherever they sailed in the European theater of the war. The Mathews men and their shipmates were attacked in the Arctic while hauling supplies to Murmansk for our Russian allies. They were attacked in the South Atlantic, off Brazil and South Africa. They were torpedoed in the Mediterranean, in the Caribbean, and all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States.
The closeness of the U-boats to America’s shores was particularly shocking. One U-boat got close enough to Long Island that the commander recalled seeing the Ferris wheel at the Coney Island amusement park. The subs used the lights of New York, Virginia Beach, Miami and other American coastal cities to silhouette Allied merchant ships for torpedo strikes, like ducks in a shooting gallery. U-boats sank freighters and tankers within sight of tourists on the beaches in Virginia and Florida, and at the mouth of the Mississippi River. For much of America’s first year in the war, merchant ships were sent through America’s coastal waters alone, unarmed and unprotected, hoping the sea was vast enough to hide them from the enemy. But the U-boats knew where the shipping lanes were and had no trouble finding targets. For much of 1942, U-boats sank an average of more than one merchant ship a day, killing thousands of merchant mariners and sending countless tons of vital war supplies to the sea bottom.
Hitler wanted his U-boats not only to sink every American merchant ship they could find, but to kill as many mariners as possible, machine-gunning castaways in lifeboats if necessary, to frighten other mariners into staying ashore. But most U-boat commanders refused to engage in such slaughter, and some even took pains to try to help the men in lifeboats by giving them food, water, medical attention and the course to the nearest land. One U-boat commander astonished the men in a lifeboat by asking them how the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was doing that year. (The commander had lived in New York as a child and had become a Dodgers fan.) But despite such instances of mercy and odd humor, the U-boat war on the merchant fleet was brutal. Even U-boat commanders who sympathized with the survivors of torpedoed ships often had no choice but to leave them in lifeboats in mid-ocean to die of hunger, thirst or exposure. And some U-boat commanders were as cold as the ocean in which they hunted.
The Mathews men sailed through every danger zone, in every kind of vessel. Some died horrific deaths. Others struggled to survive torpedo explosions, flaming oil slicks, storms, shark attacks, mine blasts, and harrowing lifeboat odysseys. The Mathews Men is full of such stories, many of which have never been told before, for the simple reason that they did not take place during famous naval battles, but during lonely encounters in the deep ocean.
The book’s main characters are the members of the extraordinary Hodges family, whose tough, uncompromising, patriarch, Capt. Jesse Hodges, and his wife Henrietta reared six merchant sea captains among their 14 children (a seventh son, Spencer, was forced by a back injury to quit the sea; he went on to become sheriff of Mathews and a recruiter of Mathews mariners for his brothers’ ships). The Hodges captains included the dashing Raymond, the gregarious Dewey, the brooding Leslie, the jovial Willie and the young jokesters Coleman and David.
But the Hodges family was only one of many Mathews families with a huge stake in the Merchant Marine. The Callis family boasted nearly a dozen mariners, including three sea-captain brothers. The Hammond family sent three sons to sea – to be torpedoed a total of four times on four different ships in the space of only a few months. There were more members of the Hudgins family on merchant ships than anyone in Mathews could keep track of. One sea captain from Gwynn’s Island in Mathews, Mellin Respess, was torpedoed three times. Another captain from the island, L.F. Borum, was torpedoed in both World War I and World War II.
Despite the appalling losses, Mathews mariners returned to sea again and again, forsaking safer, draft-exempt jobs ashore. They were seafaring men who wanted to serve their country doing what they did best. And their country needed mariners. Brothers and children and friends of the dead stepped up to take their places. Back home, Mathews had been reduced largely to a community of women and children, waiting anxiously for word of their loved ones’ latest voyages, and banding together against the loneliness, the uncertainty, and the rumors of sinkings and deaths that raced through Mathews with the speed of marsh fires.
The Mathews men kept sailing as the tide of the U-boat war turned – as the Allies finally deployed convoys to protect the merchant ships and developed new tactics and technology to turn the U-boats from predators into prey. By war’s end, the U-boat force would suffer a casualty rate of almost 70 percent – the highest of any military service in modern warfare. Meanwhile, the Merchant Marine, reinforced by thousands of new ships and planes, was transformed into a huge, seagoing conveyor belt supplying the great Allied amphibious invasions that liberated Europe from the Nazis. The mariners and their ships were no less than indispensable to the Allied war effort. “When final victory is ours,” Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had predicted, “there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.”
But on that point, Eisenhower was sadly mistaken. At war’s end, as the ticker tape snowed down on victory parades for returning American troops, the merchant mariners were essentially forgotten, consigned to obscurity in the postwar world. They were left out of the G.I. Bill and other government benefits. They also have been largely left out of the history books, unfairly excluded from the American narrative of how we won the war. In telling the story of the Mathews men, I’ve tried to help right that wrong.
The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-boats is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It is now on sale nationwide, both through brick-and-mortar bookstores and online outlets.
Two small museums in Mathews offer exhibits on the role of local men and their families in the U-boat war and in World War II in general. The Mathews Maritime Foundation Museum exhibit will continue at least through the summer. The museum, at 482 Main Street in Mathews, is open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and by special request. Call 804-725-4444 for more information. The Gwynn’s Island Museum on Route 33 on the island has a permanent exhibit on the U-boat war and WWII and is open from 1-5 p.m. from April through October. For more information, call 804-725-7949 or 804-725-9611.