Have You Read??? Reader’s Blog no. 4

This story is about cold, numbing cold, cold from the abyss…but it starts on a blazing hot day on the west bank of the Chesapeake Bay. We had dropped off friends at Kilmarnock in the late afternoon and anchored nearby on the Piankatank River, a walk back in time. The next morning promised the blazing July sun of a Bermuda high, and we decided to move early to find a store. Around the corner was Gwynn’s island, barely attached to the mainland of Mathews County, and shortly we anchored and dinghied over to the boat ramp. We scrambled up to the road, started walking, and soon were in a sweat. When a car rumbled by and the driver stopped and said: Wanna ride?, we were ready. It was a fairly young woman with two kids and she said she was headed to the only store a mile or so away.

     At the store, we bought popsicles for the kids, and thanked the woman, who quickly completed her shopping. When we finished our shopping and hefted our bag, we went outside and were surprised to see the woman in her car waiting to take us back. Extraordinary behavior, to modern city folks. On the way, the woman explained that she was from Richmond and made the 70-mile jaunt every summer to a family cabin on the island. When she asked what we knew about Gwynn’s Island, we replied “Nothing.”

     We were all ears as she went on talking after she stopped the car, regaling us with stories about the fabled mariners of Gwynn’s Island and Mathews County, and how they saved us in two world wars by manning the merchant marine and keeping our trade lanes open in the face of German U-Boats who dominated the scene. Ever fascinated, we swore to find out a lot more. And, finally (40 years later), here we are.

     The book is called The Mathews Men, by William Geroux, and it really doesn’t have a plot. It’s a compendium of individual stories laying out, family by family, the story of a small group of people who punched well above their weight. Sink their ships, and if they survived, they pulled out their foul weather gear and signed on for the next hitch. It was what they knew and their home in Mathews was just a portal to the sea.

     Farming, fishing or go to sea. The soil was poor and the fishing uncertain. The men went to sea, and the women kept the home fires burning and raised the next brood to send to sea. The men came home three or four times a year to assist. Captain Jesse Hodges contributed 14 children between 1895 and 1920. Of nine sons, six would become sea captains. Once, he employed five sons on one of his tugs. Also two grandsons went to sea and three daughters married Mathews men.

     In 1941, prior to the U.S. entering the war, the German U-Boats held the upper hand. New warships were coming out of the yards, but existing ships were largely in the Pacific, lining up at Pearl Harbor. The U.S. had given 50 WWI destroyers to Great Britain in a lend-lease program.

     In 1941, steamboats still stopped at Mathews on the way to Baltimore or Norfolk, and a young man eager to explore and with nothing to lose, could pack some clothes into a seabag, present himself to a ship’s captain on the dock, and change his life forever.

     The aim was to become a Captain, and earn $350 a month. An able bodied seaman made $32.50. The way forward for the Mathews lads was “up the hawsepipe,” mastering all the seagoing disciplines and taking exams.

     Gwynn’s, three miles long and a mile wide, connected to the mainland by a steel drawbridge. In 1941, it listed 24 captains of merchant ships. If you thought sinking would be a deterrent, you would have thought wrong. Mariners would be off the clock when swimming for their lives, fending off sharks and shivering in lifeboats, but after a voyage had 30 days to sign on for another voyage or face the draft. The only benefits were death benefits—a $5,000 check for the next of kin.

     One mariner had a total of 10 ships sunk from beneath him in two world wars. Another survivor of seven sinkings said he had tried driving a taxi and a streetcar but found life “too short for such uninteresting professions.”

     The U.S. merchant marine got off to a rocky start in WWII, as the Germans ruled the Atlantic and practically knocked on coastal doors. Navy Admiral Ernest King, with a lot on his plate, provided no preference for protecting U.S. tonnage. Early on, he opposed convoys guarded by Navy destroyers. Efforts to black out U.S. coastal cities were opposed, though German U-Boats could easily lie offshore and identify a target ship by noting its profile against a backdrop of a seaboard city at night.

     The problem also extended down to the Caribbean, where U-Boats regularly sank tankers and threatened the oil supply. The U.S. was well behind the British in technique for combatting the U-Boats. The Esso Baton Rouge was outfitted with fake guns and painted gray, but was torpedoed anyway. At one point, more than 700 mariners were in Trinidad awaiting transport back to the U.S. after sinkings.

     It became personal for Gwynn’s. Captain Dewey Hodges, brother of Jesse, was aboard the Onondoga when it was torpedoed off of Cuba. Some fisherman in the area caught a shark; when they cut it open they found a ring that was traceable to Dewey.

     After Pearl Harbor in late 1941, Germany and the U. S. were officially at war. In January, it was a mismatch. By March 1942, the tide had started to turn. By the end of 1942, the shoe was on the other foot and the hunter, still a crafty killer, was also among the hunted.

     For perspective, 9,300 merchant mariners lost their lives in WWII, a casualty rate that slghtlly exceeded that of the Marine Corps. Of 40,000 German U-Boat men in World War II, 30,000 did not return.

     So what about the other side? Or up from below. For that we have Das Boot, by Luthar Gunther Buchheim, an equally compelling story. Das Boot (The Boat) is a novel but not a work of fiction written by a German naval war correspondent who took several trips and provided an unforgettable feel of boredom, tension and terror of war beneath the surface. Blechkiller became a neurosis. It takes place in 1941.

     In Germany, U-Boat crews were the equivalent of rock stars among the populace, and, in fact, U-Boat ace Gunther Prien enjoyed such status that after his sub was lost, Germans for years reported his sightings, like Elvis Presley.

     The attraction of the actual submarine was another matter. The British had broken the German code, so that they could track the German subs when they called into headquarters at St. Nazaire, France, every day. Depth charges, sonar and Asdic became weapons in the hands of destroyers and airplanes, and convoys were developed into an art form to combat the Wolfpacks of U-Boats.

     The Murmansk run became a legend.

Buchheim’s account accentuates the role of the captain, the Old Man (he’s 30), a fascinating character upon whose cunning, strategic calculations, experience, courage, wisdom, and knowledge of his limitations the crew is dependent. Ride with the him as he takes his boat down past its design limits in an effort to avoid the depth charges from the destroyer above.

     “We’re defenseless in spite of the five torpedoes in our tubes. We can’t surface, we can’t come speeding from behind cover and throw ourselves on the enemy. We haven’t even the grim assurance to be had from simply holding a weapon in your hand. We can’t so much as shout at them. Just creep away. Keep going. How deep are we now. I can’t believe my eyes…” You will probably take if off your bucket list of things to do.

     War is a nasty business that can balance things out. Hence Das Boot in an earlier setting:

     “Suddenly, the stern of the tanker rises, looming up as if it were being thrust out of the water from underneath. For a while it stands, steep as a cliff, in the burning sea; when with two or three muffled explosions it plunges, roaring, out of sight.      In seconds the sea rises over the spot, sucking in the huge ship as though it had never existed. Of the swimmers there is nothing more to be seen. Our men who are below must now be able to hear the music of destruction, the terrifying groaning, cracking and tearing, the explosion of the oilers, the breaking up of the holds. How deep is the Atlantic? Sixteen thousand feet? Thirteen thousand at least.      The Commander orders us to turn away.      “There’s nothing for us to do here.”                                                                            __

     If you are still of a mind to observe pain and cold and fear, highly recommended is HMS Ulysses about a convoy to Murmansk by Alistair Maclean, who also wrote the Guns of Navarone. Read it in July and you can shiver into August. It was Maclean’s first try as an author, and reportedly he killed off all the characters before he finished his first draft and had to rewrite them back in. It’s a classic. In the same vein are, notably, The Cruel Sea by Nichlas Monseratt, also about the North Atlantic war, and Edward Beach’s Run Silent, Run Deep, about the Pacific. For a real sleeper, Ernest Hemingway offered up Islands in the Stream that covered U-Boats in the Caribbean. And a true story, In Harm’s Way, about the il-fated Indianapolis, which delivered the first atomic bomb to the Enola Gay and was torpedoed by a Japanese sub on the way back and met a gruesome fate.

Jim Hanscom Sunnyside May, 2021

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