In May 2016 Pegasus Books will publish my 25th book, So Close to Home: The True Story of an American Family’s Fight for Survival During WWII, co-authored by Alison O’Leary.
We’ve created an entire page on my website for photos and a synopsis of the story, along with a video clip of survivor Ray “Sonny” Downs telling part of his story. It’s a heart-wrenching story about a hard-working Texas family that tried desperately to get a break in the hardscrabble post-Depression years — only to have their ship shot out from under them by a German U-boat in the Gulf of Mexico!
We used the German U-boat captains’ war diaries to track their movements (including to the mouth of the Mississippi River!) and to tell their side of the story, while also using letters and audio recordings from the Downs family — to May 19, 1942 when the two worlds intersect with a torpedo shot into the hull of the merchant ship Heredia.
Here’s a taste of the action:
The first torpedo tore into the Heredia with a tremendous explosion, causing the old ship to shudder. Sonny struggled to sit up in the top bunk of the cramped, dark cabin. Did we hit the pier
in New Orleans?
Then, BOOM! The second torpedo rocked the boat so hard, he almost fell to the floor.
Ray turned on the cabin light, and it flickered, casting an eerie glow on the father’s ashen face. He was now standing next to the bunk bed. Sonny felt his father’s hands on his shoulders.
“Put on your life preserver,” Ray barked. “Tie it tight and stay right here.”
Disoriented and afraid, Sonny could see water eddying around his father’s ankles as his dad opened the door to his mother’s adjoining cabin and disappeared.
Snatching his life jacket from the peg next to his bunk, Sonny fumbled with the straps. The life jacket’s bulk pushed awkwardly against his ears as he pulled the ties together across his chest. Is Dad coming back? Sonny wondered, his fear growing as more water swirled into the cabin. The ship must be sinking! He could hear shouting outside in the hallway, and he considered hopping off the bunk and running for the lifeboats like he had done in the drills.
He was about to holler for his father when Ray burst back into the room, followed by Ina and Lucille. Lucille’s life vest was secured over her nightclothes, while Ina, her face stricken, had grabbed a coat to put over her night gown and put a life vest over it.
Ray lifted Sonny off the top bunk and tugged at his son’s life jacket to be sure it was secure. “You did a good job. Now hold my hand and don’t let go!”
The family, hand in hand, left the cabin and entered the corridor. Pale blue lights lining the passageway flickered, and they briefly saw Mr. Beach standing up ahead just outside his cabin door, heading back inside rather than going to the lifeboat station.
Ray shouted, “What are you doing? Head up on deck! We’ve been torpedoed!”
“Got to get my suitcases!” shouted Mr. Beach.
Just as he ducked back inside his cabin, the lights went out for good.
Sonny felt like everything was in slow motion. His father gripped his small fingers so tightly it hurt, but it gave the boy a measure of comfort knowing his dad was right next to him. At the end of the corridor, toward the stern of the ship, a sailor swung two flashlights in wide arcs, and the family sloshed that way, the water now up to Sonny’s thighs.
“Don’t come down here! Take the stairs to the deck!” the sailor shouted. “We’ve been torpedoed!”
Sonny was confused: this was not the usual route to their lifeboat station. And how did the ship get torpedoed with all those guards standing watch? But he had all he could do to keep up with his dad’s long strides.
With his father half dragging him up the steps, Sonny looked up and saw that there was a bit of light coming from the deck above. It seemed to take forever to climb those stairs and escape the rushing water below. People were shouting up on deck, and Sonny wondered if the Heredia
might be on fire.
Just as the family reached the last couple of steps, disaster struck.
The ship suddenly lurched to starboard, and the entire family was slammed by an avalanche of churning water. So much water rushed by Sonny that he was torn from his father’s grasp. The boy felt himself tumbling underwater as if inside a washing machine, not sure which way the surface was. He opened his eyes but saw only blackness, adding to his disorientation and fear. Someone grabbed one of his legs, and, terrified, he instinctively kicked away. His lungs screamed for air as he thrashed wildly.
Using what little strength he had left, he clawed at the water, panicked by the sense that the ocean would never let him go. Ten seconds later, his head broke the surface and Sonny came up gasping for air, then coughing up seawater. He swiveled around, desperately looking for his parents and sister.
They were gone. He was alone in the ocean alongside the ship, terrified.
Sonny tried to scream, but a wave slapped him in the face and he ingested more seawater. Now he wondered if he was dreaming, because it was so bright around him that he thought it was daylight. Am I dead? Is this a nightmare? The eight-year-old had no way of knowing that the brilliant light was from the powerful searchlight on the conning tower of U-506.
Sonny tried to make sense of what he could see. He knew he was in the ocean—could see the swells rising and falling—but he also heard voices coming from somewhere above him. He looked toward the sound and saw what he thought was the center of the Heredia, the uppermost deck above the bridge, where the machine guns were mounted. But everything was at a crazy angle, and it took him a moment to process it. Then he understood: the ship was listing badly to starboard and the entire stern was underwater, causing the rest of the ship to stick out of the ocean at a forty-five-degree angle.
To get the first available autographed copy of So Close to Home, preorder from my website using this link.