In the early years of American involvement in World War II, only the Marine Corps suffered a higher fatality rate than the United States Merchant Marine. The Merchant Marine delivered critical military supplies from around the world to besieged Britain and the Soviet Union. Without the courage of its mariners, the war with Germany would surely have been lost.
To say that these men were courageous does not do justice to their ordeals, sacrifices, and achievements. Early in the the war their vessels sailed in isolation, making them vulnerable targets for German U-boats. Even after the development of the convoy system, U-boat wolfpacks slipped undetected into convoys and wreaked destruction. When men survived the torpedoing of their ships, chances of staying alive in a lifeboat in the frigid North Atlantic were slim. In warmer climates, sharks attacked those in the water awaiting rescue.
Only with the development of sophisticated radar and sonar, the breaking of German communication codes, the deployment with convoys of destroyer escorts and aircraft carriers, and improved ranges for Allied sub-hunting air patrols did the threat of death lessen. Even after the fall of France and Germany’s loss of its sub pens along the French coast, remaining U-boats were sent to Norway and continued to harass convoys on their way through the Barents Sea to deliver war materiel to the the Soviet port at Murmansk.
In The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-Boats, William Geroux provides a riveting history of the United States Merchant Marine’s war efforts. The story is told primarily through the experience of Mathews County, Virginia, a rural and remote area on the Chesapeake Bay. With a population of 7,500, the county lost 23 mariners out of the numerous fathers, husbands, and sons who served. Many were forced to abandon torpedoed ships, some more than once.
The author gives special attention to the sea-faring Hodges family and their courage, devotion to duty, and heart-breaking sacrifices. Along the way, readers learn about U-Boat tactics, and the experiences of the men aboard them.
The book’s back cover contains this quote from General Dwight D. Eisenhower: “When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.” After reading this fine book, I can well believe it.