On May 19, 1942, Ray Downs and his family were aboard the freighter Heredia, about 40 miles from New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico.
Then came the German U-boat attack.
Downs, now 82, vividly remembers his last night aboard the big gray merchant ship. He was 8 years old. For him and his 11-year-old sister, Lucille, that last night promised to be a great adventure.
Courtesy the Downs family and the Times Picayune
“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.’”
Downs’ family had been in South and Central 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 a 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 6:30 in the morning, you’ll be in New Orleans,’” Downs recalls.
In the middle of the night, while Downs was fast asleep, Heredia was hit by two torpedoes.
“When the first explosion hit — dreaming, I thought the ship was banging against the pier in New Orleans,” he 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,” Downs explains. “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. Downs, 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,” Downs 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. “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 followed this one, according to Michael Tougias, the co-author, with Alison O’Leary, of a new book about the Downs family, “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, about 50 ships were sunk in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942. The commander who sank the Heredia submerged nine others during that one patrol, Tougias says.
Downs escaped from the sinking Heredia clinging to a small balsa wood raft covered in canvas. For 18 hours, Downs, his father, another passenger and the ship’s captain all drifted on the tiny raft. They endured a blistering sun, circling sharks, hypothermia, hunger and thirst. 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 smelled so good,” Downs says.
The same shrimp boat later found Downs’ mother, Ina. She was all alone, floating in the water, and covered in oil from the sunken ship. Decades afterward, she made a recording about her experience in which she said that it was her prayers that had saved her.
It was the ship’s second mate who saved Downs’ sister, Lucille. Floating in the Gulf for hours, Lucille kept their spirits up by singing her mother’s favorite hymn, "Nearer My God To Thee."
There were 62 people aboard the Heredia and 35 of them died. The Downs family lost everything they owned on the ship, but made it out alive.
Correction: An earlier version had an incorrect age for Ray Downs. He is 82.