So Close to Home: A True Story of an American Family's Fight for Survival During World War II
Michael J. Tougias, Alison O'Leary
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A true story of men and women pitted against the sea during World War II―and an unforgettable portrait of the determination of the human spirit.
On May 19, 1942, a U-boat in the Gulf of Mexico stalked its prey fifty miles from New Orleans. Captained by twenty nine-year-old Iron Cross and King's Cross recipient Erich Wu¨rdemann, the submarine set its sights on the freighter Heredia with sixty-two souls on board.
Most aboard were merchant seamen, but there were also a handful of civilians, including the Downs family: Ray and Ina, and their two children, eight-year-old Sonny and eleven-year-old Lucille. Fast asleep in their berths, the Downs family had no idea that two torpedoes were heading their way. When the ship exploded, chaos ensued―and each family member had to find their own path to survival.
Including original, unpublished material from Commander Wu¨rdemann’s war diary, the story provides balance and perspective by chronicling the daring mission of the U-boat―and its commander’s decision-making―in the Gulf of Mexico.
An inspiring historical narrative, So Close to Home tells the story of the Downs family as they struggle against sharks, hypothermia, drowning, and dehydration in their effort to survive the aftermath of this deadly attack off the American coast.
eyes. Ina laughed and shook her head. “Once is enough. You’ve got quite a story to tell Terry when you get home.” By the next day, the storm had long since moved to the east and the air became still and sticky. Around noon, a crew member reported seeing something unusual in the ocean, far off the stern. This caused quite a commotion, and the passengers and crew alike all scanned the seas, wondering if the sighting could have been a U-boat. The men of the Naval Armed Guards did the same, using
blimps’ real value was in deterring submarines from surfacing. Catalina flying boats (the Consolidated PBY Catalina) were also used successfully as “protecting eyes” over merchant ships. Because they could land and take off from the water, they were especially useful in search and rescue. These various resources became increasingly effective in the second half of 1942. But now, in May 1942, when the Heredia was almost at safe port in New Orleans, effective defensive measures were few and far
distance in the pitch black of night. More time went by. The sun had set, but the survivors could still differentiate between the horizon and the ocean in the twilight. Sonny had forgotten all about the sharks, but Ray hadn’t. Ray still scanned the dark ocean around the raft for any sign of a fin. He wondered what to do if a shark appeared and thought that should one come, he could use the strong light from a flare to scare it off. But with only two flares. . . . The prospect of another night
rubbed her and Ray the wrong way. They were hardworking Christians with a family, and they felt the other employees spent too much time imbibing. Ina poured out her frustration in a letter to her parents: “The people here are mostly English. They are rather hard to understand and I find some are snobs. They are all very, very friendly in a distant sort of way. They give you the feeling you are on the outside looking in and you are classed according to your husband’s job: rather like a caste
Both Ray and Terry took note of Sonny’s new-found talent, and wondered just how far it might take him. When Lucille graduated from high school she received a heartfelt letter from Roy Sorli and his wife, Heddy, congratulating her and reminding her that she had been a brave young lady. “The best of luck and may God’s blessing be with you as it was that night,” he wrote. In fact, Ina stayed in touch with the Sorlis for many years following the Heredia torpedoing. Lucille did not attend college