Recently, New York Times bestselling author Michael J. Tougias spoke with WSKG History about his new book, “So Close to Home: A True Story of an American Family’s Fight for Survival During World War II" (2016). Co-written with journalist Alison O’Leary, “So Close to Home” chronicles a U-boat attack in the Gulf of Mexico, a family’s resilience, and the daring patrol of the submarine commander.
Michael J. Tougias is the author and co-author of over 20 books, including “The Finest Hours” (2009) which was adapted into a major motion picture starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck in 2016. Many of his books have a predominant theme of true survival-at-sea adventures. He has also written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, USA Today, and many other publications.
Listen to the interview:
(The partial transcript below has been edited for clarity.)
On the war in the Atlantic
When the U.S. entered the war with Germany, the first thing the Germans did was launch Operation Drumbeat. They sent over U-boats here before we could become proficient at defending against them, and it was like a turkey shoot.
They were sinking ships left and right, and that surprised me in my research. I knew they came here, but I had no idea the magnitude of how many ships they sunk and how close they would come to the shoreline...
On the freighter Heredia and the Downs family
The ship was called the Heredia… and it was coming from South America to New Orleans, bringing primarily bananas and coffee. It had the merchant seaman onboard but also [the Downs] family onboard, because they had just completed a job down in Costa Rica… They were from San Antonio, Texas and they're coming back home....
The family consisted of an 8-year-old boy named Sonny, his sister, 11-year-old Lucille, and 36-year-old Ray the father, and 33-year-old Ina the mother.
At the time when they left, nobody really knew if U-boats could even reach the Gulf of Mexico, let alone if they were there. So it was just rumor. Could U-boats come in there or not? But this week-long voyage was the exact time that two U-boats entered the Gulf and started their patrol.
On the U-Boat commander's war diary
The big key for me in writing "So Close to Home" was finding the war diary of the German commander [Erich Wuerdemann] who sank the family, and when I got his diary that opened my eyes….
What I found in the war diaries was this commander, he's only 28 years old, he's not a Nazi, he’s just serving his country and his orders were to sink as many ships as he could… When you read someone’s diary and their thoughts and feelings and how hard the conditions were you can't help but put yourself in their shoes and so I did try to give the book balance…
It's not your typical rah-rah, we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys - you see it from both perspectives.
On the complacency towards the U-boats
[Wuerdemann] couldn't believe that all the lights are on along the coast, navigational buoys were light up, ships were not zigzagging… He wrote back to his headquarters that “we're sinking ships left and right,” and the Heredia is coming right towards them.
On the Merchant Marines as unsung heroes of World War II
Without [the Merchant Marines] we could have never won the war. They kept the goods moving; the fuel, the ammunition, the people, the troops. Over four thousand of them died in World War II, and they really are unsung...
Even though the [Downs] family has an incredible survival story most of the Merchant Marines died.
On the Heroism of Second Mate Roy Sorli
[Roy Sorli] found eleven-year-old Lucille in the water after the ship had been torpedoed, and he devotes really the next 18 hours to trying to save her... He finds some debris and he says, "You lie on top of this, and I'll stay in the water."
He takes a beating in the ocean because he's stung by jellyfish this whole time, and he's trying to protect little Lucille. Then later, as the hypothermia is getting to him, [Lucille] goes "Mister Sorli quit tickling my feet." What she doesn’t know is, he’s not tickling her feet, it’s big sharks rubbing against her feet.
Not to panic her, [Roy] says, "Well I'll tickle them every hour just to make sure you're awake. It's important we stay awake if rescue comes." He was quite a guy, she would not have survived without him.
On the importance of telling this story today
It almost seems to me that the whole U-boat onslaught against the U.S. was swept under the rug. In high school you’d read a little bit about World War II… and there’d be no mention of this. So if you didn't do some digging on your own you'd never know just how successful the Germans were against us and how ill-prepared we were.
And then the courage of some people like the Downs family, their resilience, not just the survival in the ocean, but their survival later. Because they lost everything they owned, every last cent, when the ship went down. So I love these untold stories and [it's] a nice microcosm of a little-known World War II event.
All photographs courtesy of Michael J. Tougias.
Shane Johnson is a producer for WSKG’s History & Heritage team. Before arriving at WSKG, Shane earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Cinema and History, Master’s Degree in History, as well as his Master’s of Arts in Teaching in Social Studies Adolescence Education from Binghamton University. He has a personal interest in 19th Century American history, especially the Civil War, and as a young lad, he dreamed of becoming a railroad engineer.