On May 19, 1942, Ray Downs and his family were aboard a ship approximately forty miles away from New Orleans, in the Gulf of Mexico, when it was attacked by a German U-boat.

Ray remembers his last night aboard the big old gray merchant ship, Heredia, as if it were yesterday. Ray was eight-years-old and for him and his eleven-year-old sister, Lucille, it was a great adventure.

“My sister and I asked our parents if we could sleep out on the deck, because it was quite humid and we had done that on other nights, and it was very nice. The breeze was out there,” he says. “Since it was our last night on the ship, they said, ‘no we’re going to sleep in our cabins.’ ”
Ray’s family had been down in South America. His father had been working as a mechanic with the United Fruit Company in Colombia and Costa Rica. The idea had been to make, and save, as much money as possible in year. Now, the family was heading home.

“Just as we were going down to our cabins, the captain came up and he put his hand in my hair and shuffled my hair and said, ‘Well, sonny boy, by about 6:30am in the morning, you’ll be in New Orleans,’ ” Ray explains.

In the middle of the night, while Ray was fast asleep, the unthinkable happened: Heredia was hit by two torpedoes.

“When the first explosion hit – dreaming, I thought the ship was banging against the pier in New Orleans,” Ray says.

“When the second torpedo hit, it woke me and the next thing my dad was standing there, and he said, ‘Put on your life preserver.’ You had a little peg that it hung [on] right by your bunk,” he says. “I looked down on the deck, and he was already standing in water about a calf high.”  

Heredia had been attacked by German submarine U- 506. Ray’s family was the only family on the freighter. Ray, his father, mother and sister all held hands and headed up the stairwell to the main deck.

“Just as we were stepping onto the main deck, the ship rolled and it washed us all apart,” Ray says.  “It washed my dad back down, it washed my sister around the other side of the ship and it pinned my mother up against a stairwell.”

“I went under water and I didn’t think I was ever going to come up,” he says. “Anyway, when I finally came up, I realized that it was so light and that’s how I realized that the sub had surfaced and put floodlights on the sinking ship.”

Many more attacks in the Gulf would follow this one, according to Michael Tougias, the co-author, with Alison O’Leary, of a new book about the Downs family, called “So Close to Home.”

“The Germans actually had a name for this time,” Tougias explains. “They called it the “second happy time.” The first happy time was all the sinkings they did of British ships, when the war first started, and here they are doing it again in American waters.”

According to Tougias, approximately fifty ships were sunk in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942, and he says the commander who sank the Heredia sank nine other vessels during his one patrol.

Ray escaped from the sinking Heredia, clinging to a small bottomless balsa wood raft and, for the next eighteen hours, Ray, his father, another passenger and the ship’s captain, who was from Somerville, Massachusetts, all drifted on the tiny raft, in the endless ocean. Together, they fought a blistering sun, sharks, hypothermia, hunger and thirst, but eventually a search plane found them and sent a signal to a nearby shrimp boat.

“I never will forget this. We came on board and they were cooking shrimp jambalaya, and it smelt so good,” Ray says.

The same shrimp boat later found Ray’s mother, Ina. She was all alone, floating in the water, and covered in oil from the sunken ship. Decades afterwards, Ina made a recording about her experience in which she said that it was her prayers that had saved her.

“I said, dear Lord please take care of me, and I could hear him just as a plain: ‘I will not leave thee nor forsake thee, only believe,’ and I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t go through another night.”

Scroll through the slideshow of images:

0 of 0

Ina also prayed for her children, including Lucille. The ship’s Second Mate, who just happened to be from Lynnfield, Massachusetts, saved Lucille. Floating in the Gulf for hours, Lucille kept her spirits up by singing her mother’s favorite hymn: Nearer, My God, To Thee.

There were 62 people onboard Heredia and 35 of them died. Ray’s family lost everything they owned on the ship, but they never lost their will to survive.