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An American family’s encounter with a German U-boat

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November 8th, 2016
(Counterclockwise, from the top) The Downs family, Ray Sr., Sonny, Ina, and Lucille, reunited after their ordeal in May 1942.

(Counterclockwise, from the top) The Downs family, Ray Sr., Sonny, Ina, and Lucille, reunited after their ordeal in May 1942.

Michael Tougias is no stranger to stories of the sea. He’s written well over a dozen books, many of them dealing with nautical disasters and struggles to survive. 

But his most recent book stands out from the rest. So Close to Home (Pegasus Books, 2016) is a rare tale about an American family’s fight for survival after a German U-boat sinks their ship just 50 miles from New Orleans. 

Tougias spoke with the Tribune about the book and what he did to bring this story to life.

Tribune: How did you first hear about the Downs family’s experience? 

Tougias: Several years ago, I was giving a talk at the John Hancock Company in Boston about what I’ve learned from the survivors I’ve written about in the past. And the company’s lead attorney said that he knew a gentleman named Ray “Sonny” Downs, who had survived a U-boat attack in 1942. 

Well, I kind of rolled my eyes because people exaggerate all the time. But one thing led to another, and I finally did meet Sonny.

I liked him immediately and was utterly fascinated by his experience. 

Tribune: What was it about this story that captivated you as a writer?

Tougias: The same things that I hope will captivate people as readers. There are so many compelling elements to this story. You have the Downs family going home to the United States from South America, where the father had recently completed a job. 

At the time, the Second World War was in full swing. They were sailing on the steamship Heredia for New Orleans so that their father could enlist in the armed forces and serve his country. 

But in the middle of the night, two German U-boat torpedoes hit their ship when it was just 50 miles from its destination.

As it sank, the Downs and their children, eight-year-old Sonny and his 11-year-old sister Lucille, were separated. This book is about their struggle to survive.

Tribune: Describe your first meeting with Sonny.

Tougias: He’s a wonderful guy. During our dinner together, he proceeded to give me the general outline of his fantastic story. 

Afterward, I went off with his account fresh in my mind and started researching it to see if there was, in fact, enough material to write a book. And as it turned out, it was an amazing saga with loads of material. 

Tribune: What did the book’s research entail?

Tougias: My coauthor Alison O’Leary and I began with the family materials that Sonny had passed along to us, including his mother’s letters. We also combed The Times-Picayune for period news coverage of the U-boat attack. 

But we really got lucky when we found U-boat expert Jerry Mason, who runs the website uboatarchive.net. He helped us secure a lot of very helpful information, both historical and technical.

Also, Alison made a hugely significant find. She uncovered the diary of Erich Wurdemann, the U-boat commander who sank the Downs family’s ship; it was at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. 

So our research took us to a lot of different places.

Tribune: Was there a learning curve with this book?

Tougias: There was a steep learning curve, especially when it came to U-boats. Again, Jerry Mason was a big help in pointing out source material that gave us a good sense of what life was like aboard these vessels. Wurdemann’s diary was also very useful in that regard.

Tribune: How did this book differ from your earlier ones?

Tougias: This one was especially labor intensive. With most of my previous books, I was able to talk to the key participants myself. In this case, Sonny is the only eyewitness still living, so we had to rely on other primary sources like Wurdemann’s diary to tell this story. 

Though, I should note that we were fortunate to find an audiotape of Sonny’s mother Ina giving her account of the ship’s sinking.

Tribune: What do you want readers to get out of the book?

Tougias: This is a story of survival, so perhaps it will inspire them. I also hope the book reveals a fresh angle of the Second World War. 

The incredible thing here is that this attack occurred only 50 miles off the coast of New Orleans. Most Americans don’t realize how close the Germans actually came to the United States during the war.

When you read Wurdemann’s diary, he talks about going right into the mouth of the Mississippi as commander of U-506. And he wasn’t the only U-boat captain who managed this. 

Other boats had plenty of success sinking ships a short distance from the American coast and within the Gulf of Mexico. 

This was a war that came to us as much as we went to it, and the story of Sonny and his family is a testament to that.

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