German U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico and the family that survived them

“Their theory, as I understand it, was to sink enough ships close to the mouth of Mississippi to slow down the activity of the New Orleans port. They got us 44 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi.”

The Downs family — father Raymond, mother Ina, and children Sonny and Betty Lucille — smile for a news photographer’s camera from their hospital room in Morgan City after being plucked from the Gulf of Mexico in May 1942. (Image via The Times-Picayune archives)

By Mike Scott

In August 1992, a massive oil slick unexpectedly appeared on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, bubbling up from the murky depths. For days, it slowly expanded, creeping over a patch of water measuring 10 miles across and located some 35 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The big question: Where the devil was it coming from?

After a couple of days, Coast Guard officials decided to send a dive team to investigate. It was then, in the dark, cold water some 80 feet below the surface, that they found the source of the oil. At the same time, they also found the ghost of a largely unknown chapter in World War II history.

They should have just asked Raymond Downs about it.

Downs knows all about the New Orleans-bound Heredia, a 380-foot vessel owned by United Fruit Co. that was torpedoed three times and sunk by a German U-boat that had adopted the Gulf waters as its hunting grounds in the spring of 1942. That’s because, as an 8-year-old, he was aboard it with his family when it went down, one of 36 survivors of a long-forgotten maritime tragedy.

“It’s very vivid in my mind,” Downs, now 82, said of that night, calling recently from his home in Massachusetts to talk about his family’s remarkable tale of survival. That story is recounted in the new nonfiction book “So Close to Home” (Pegasus Books, $27.95), written by Michael Tougias and Alison O’Leary, which also provides an in-depth chronicling of the Nazi Germany’s little-known U-boat campaign in the Gulf.

“(Tougias) writes the story just as I tell it,” Downs said. “He tells how when the torpedoes hit and how we tried to get off the boat and how we were all separated.”

It also goes on to tell how Downs and his father, Raymond Downs Sr., found each other amid the chaos on the sinking ship, awash in a spotlight from U-boat 506 as its crew watched the aftermath of their handwork following the 2 a.m. attack. It tells how father and son then found themselves clinging to a tiny balsa wood life raft with two other survivors, including Heredia Capt. Erwin Colburn, as the ship slipped beneath the surface of the water.

It tells how Downs’ sister, Betty Lucille, just 11 at the time, was rescued by a sailor, Roy Sorli, with whom she floated with seven others for hours on cobbled-together wreckage from the boat, sharks tickling her feet as they brushed by.

And it tells how his mother, Ina Downs, floated alone in her life preserver and overcoat, her eyes swollen shut by oil from the wreck, thrashing her arms and legs to fend off the circling predators.

Most remarkably, it tells how all four were plucked from the Gulf waters by Louisiana fishing vessels after being spotted some 15 hours later — and on the verge of nightfall — by a search plane.

Some thirty-six others — more than half of the 62 people on board the Heredia at the time of its sinking — wouldn’t be so lucky. The dead included four New Orleanians: seaman Daniel J. Robert of Royal Street, radio operator Roger Fontana of Gen. Taylor Street, crewman Albert Eiffert of Clouet Street, and mess hall worker Clifton Sayas of North Rocheblave Street.

Of the four, only Robert’s body was ever recovered, found in the Atchafalaya River. The others are presumed entombed with the 32 other dead in the hulking wreck of the Heredia, victims of a war in which they weren’t even combatants.

An adventure cut short

For young Ray Downs — known as “Sonny” by his family — it was all supposed to be one great, big adventure. For a year, it was.

His father had been hired by United Fruit to work in Colombia and later in Costa Rica as part of its operations there, so the family packed up what little they owned and drove to New Orleans. From there, they would board a United Fruit vessel and embark on a year of living abroad — and a year of saving their money in the hopes of building a new life upon their return.

The United Fruit Co. steamer the Heredia was one of a number of vessels sunk by German U-boats operating off the coast of Louisiana in May 1942. In their nonfiction book ‘So Close to Home: A True Story of an American Family’s Fight for Survival During World War II’ (Pegasus Books, $27.95), authors Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary chronicle Nazi Germany’s U-boat campaign in the Gulf of Mexico in the run-up to U.S. involvement in World War II. (Image via Michael J. Tougias)

Finally, in spring 1942, the time for that return trip had come. For 8-year-old Sonny and 11-year-old Betty Lucille, shipboard life was a thrill unto itself. They set about befriending the sailors, they explored the ship, they dreamed of what was beyond the horizon.

While the two siblings might not have been old enough to understand, there was a hint of what was in store for them. It was in the form of a six-man Navy gun crew that had been assigned to the Heredia — as was the case with many other merchant vessels during World War II — along with a 3-inch artillery cannon and two .30-caliber machine guns.

As it turns out, while the United States had only just entered the war, it had long been participating by sending materiel support to its European allies. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany was determined to put a stop to that.

And so Hitler and Adm. Karl Donitz dispatched dozens of German subs — called U-boats, short for unterseeboots — to the Eastern seaboard of the United States. Their orders: to torpedo any and all vessels they saw, thus distracting the Americans and, hopefully, cutting off U.S. aid to Britain.

“We, as a country, we just weren’t prepared for that,” said Downs, who has done extensive research on the German U-boat campaign in the years since his rescue.

It was a horrifyingly effective scheme, due both to the limitations of still-developing radar technology, as well as to the glacial U.S. response. Major cities, for example, failed to adhere to blackout requests, thus perfectly silhouetting ships and making them stand out during the U-boats’ nighttime hunts.

Additionally, air patrols, which would have hampered U-boat activity, was spotty at best, as was the use of convoying as a strategy for defending against attacks.

Merchant vessels such as the Heredia, which was carrying bananas and coffee when it was torpedoed, had been outfitted with small gun crews, and crewman were on constant lookout for signs of U-boat activity. But that offered only limited protection.

Consequently, it was like an extended turkey shoot for German submariners, who took to referring to that period in early 1942 as their “Second Happy Time” (the “First Happy Time” having come in 1940 on the other side of the Atlantic).

When defenses along the Atlantic coast were finally strengthened, Hitler’s Navy simply shifted its U-boat operation to the Gulf.

“The head of the German U-Boat situation, he thought it was a real plus,” Downs said. “He actually met with Hitler and tried to get him to let him send more subs to the Gulf, because before we got into the war, we were shipping a lot of stuff out of New Orleans to England.

“Their theory, as I understand it, was to sink enough ships close to the mouth of Mississippi to slow down the activity of the New Orleans port. They got us 44 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi.”

And so the turkey shoot continued, with well more than two dozen vessels — and perhaps as many as 50, according to various estimates — being sent to the Gulf floor by the U-boats sent to the region. Those U-boats included U-506, which was commanded by Erich Wurdemann — and which, by the time it entered the Gulf around May 3, was on a collision course with the Heredia.

In the dark

Colburn, the captain of the Heredia, knew of the U-boat threat along the Atlantic coast, as well as the possibility of a similar campaign in the Gulf. So did many of the adults on board, who had heard whisperings of it all.

In fact, on the way to New Orleans, a crewman aboard the Heredia spotted something suspicious in the water, prompting Colburn to make a detour to Corpus Christi, Texas — the nearest port — to get a feel for the situation. He was told to continue on to New Orleans.

For the most part, though, the general public knew little about the U-boat threat. That, it turns out, was by design, at the request of the federal government, which apparently didn’t want to trigger panic among the American populace.

It’s also why relatively few people know much about the attacks today.

“I lived several years in the middle of the country and I gave talks about this,” Downs said. “And people just couldn’t believe it, because the government wasn’t making an issue out of it. They felt it would be an alarming type thing to the general public, so they kind of kept it undercover pretty much.

“They didn’t want us publicizing this and talking about it: ‘Yeah, if someone asks you about this, that’s fine, but don’t elaborate or go into a lot of details about German U-boats in the Gulf and stuff like that.’”

That didn’t stop an enterprising reporter from showing up at the Downses’ Morgan City hospital room and interviewing them about their ordeal less than a week after the sinking of the Heredia. The resulting story — along with a picture of the smiling, reunited Downs family — appeared on the front page of The Times-Picayune on May 25, 1942.

The headline: “Family Is Reunited After Torpedoing of Ship, Fighting to Beat Off Sharks in Gulf.”

“That reporter must have had a contact or something,” Downs said, “because they had what looked like CIA and FBI people there, interviewing my dad and my mom, trying to get information. They wouldn’t even let us make phone calls.”

But while the U-boat campaign in the Gulf inevitably made the occasional headline — including the one on the rescue of the Downs family, as well as one a day earlier about an injured seaman rescued in the Caribbean by the very U-boat that sank the vessel he was on — people either didn’t pay attention or they forgot.

As time passed and the war ended, Downs began to feel freer to tell his story. There was only one problem: Nobody would believe him.

“I used to carry that clipping in my wallet, and I’d pull it out and show it,” Downs said. “In college, guys would start talking about the war, and I would say, ‘Well, I was in the war.’ They’d say, ‘Oh, come on. Downs, what’s the matter with you? … I bet you weren’t.’ I’d said, ‘What do you want to bet?,’ and they’d say, ‘I’ll bet you five dollars.’ I’d say, ‘OK’ and pull out this clipping. Made a little spending money that way in college.”

‘Wow, this really did happen’

Tougias is the author of a number of nonfiction books chronicling high-seas survival stories. This year, his book “The Finest Hours” — about an odds-defying Coast Guard rescue in New England during a historic storm — became a movie distributed by Disney. Similarly, there’s been some interest into turning “So Close to Home” into a movie, although talks are in the early stages.

But as well-versed as he is on the topic, and on World War II, even he was stunned to learn of Downs’ story after the two were introduced by a mutual acquaintance.

“I was one of those people (who didn’t know of the U-boat campaign in the Gulf), and I consider myself a World War II history buff,” he said. “So when I met Sonny Downs, I was just shocked — ‘Wow, this really did happen.’ And then he showed me that front-page story of The Times-Picayune, and that’s all it took. I said, ‘OK.’”

The resulting book, “So Close to Home,” offers a brisk, absorbing chronicle of the Downs family’s story, based largely on interviews with Ray Downs and an audiotaped accounting left behind by his mother. Also, though, Tougias and O’Leary used the war journals of Wurdemann and U-507 Commander Harro Schacht — who also operated in the Gulf — as well as other sources, to tell the story from the German submariners’ point of view.

What they end up with is a fascinating and personalized peek inside of a little-known chapter of history, told partly through the eyes of an 8-year-old civilian and partly through the eyes of two U-boat commanders.

In addition to exploring themes of fortitude and tenacity, “So Close to Home” also holds its share of revelations.

“It will definitely surprise people about what they think they know about World War II,” Tougias said. “It definitely did me.”

Welcome to Louisiana

It was just before nightfall on May 19, 1942, when young Sonny Downs and his father were plucked from the Gulf waters, spotted first by a rescue plane, which then directed a local shrimp boat to their location.

It had been some 15 hours since U-506 had torpedoed the Heredia. In that time, the quartet of desperate survivors withered under the blazing sun, they sweated through a visit by a group of sharks, they fought off thirst, hunger and hopelessness.

Raymond ‘Sonny’ Downs, left, was just 8 years old and sister Betty Lucille was 11 when the boat they were on, the Heredia, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat just off the Louisiana coast in 1942. (Image via Michael J. Tougias)

After all that, the first thing Downs remembers upon being pulled aboard the shrimp boat that saved them was the smell of jambalaya cooking. It was the smell of salvation.

“I never will forget that,” Downs said. “It smelled so wonderful. … Any time I smell Creole or Cajun cooking, it flashes across my mind.”

Years later, after graduating from the University of Texas — where he still holds the basketball record for highest season scoring average, at 26.4 points a game — Downs returned to New Orleans, working for Mutual of New York life insurance out the Oil and Gas Building downtown, and living in Metairie, from 1962 to 1969.

Once while one a sales call during that time, he happened across a familiar site: the United Fruit Building on St. Charles Avenue, the same one his family had visited decades earlier.

“It was kind of a nostalgic and eerie feeling,” he said. “All of a sudden, I could remember standing there as a kid looking at that building at that time. It was quite an experience.”

This story was originally published in July 2016 by | The Times-Picayune.

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