Much has been written about U-Boat warfare in the Atlantic during WWII and the convoys of ships that kept Britain supplied, but The Mathews Men is the first book I’ve encountered that tells the story of the U.S. Merchant Mariners who sailed the ships that carried the supplies that kept the Allied war effort in Europe going and weathered the wrath of the German U-Boat force assigned to stop them.
The book focuses not on a seafaring family named Mathews, as the subtitle might be read to imply, but on the residents of Mathews County, Virginia, a small county with a long history of supplying sailors, mates, and captains to U.S. merchant ships. It sets the stage in Mathews County by introducing the reader to the Hodges family, the source of the seven brothers featured in the book’s subtitle, then goes on to tell the tales of the Mathews men who sailed during WWII and the women they left behind.
The stories are as varied as the people featured in them. Some sailors survived being sunk by U-Boats multiple times. Others survived one sinking only to perish in the next. In telling these tales, author William Geroux also chronicles German tactics and the growth of the U.S. Navy from a force utterly incapable of providing adequate protection to U.S. merchant ships to a fleet so effective it forced Admiral Doenitz to rein in his U-Boats.
Throughout, Geroux gives the mariners full credit for their courage and devotion to their country, as they volunteered to sail voyage after voyage, some despite having already survived U-Boat attacks, and despite the fact that during the early stages of the war the Navy lacked the ships to provide adequate protection from the Germans. He also chronicles the families who watched them sail time after time, and he includes an extensive set of notes on his sources for those who wish to learn more.
Geroux closes the book with a description of how the Merchant Mariners fared after the war. Theirs is a tale too seldom told, and one that should not be forgotten. Their quiet service despite the danger was critical to Allied success in WWII, and the memory of their deeds should be treasured accordingly.