One of the last unheralded heroic stories of World War II: the U-Boat assault off the American coast against the Merchant Marines who were supplying the European war, and one community’s monumental contribution to that effort.
Mathews County, Virginia, is a bleak strip of land along the Chesapeake with almost nothing to offer–but it sent one of the largest concentrations of sea captains and merchant mariners of any community in America to fight in World War II. The Mathews Men tells that heroic story through the experiences one extraordinary family whose seven sons (and their neighbors), merchant marines all, suddenly found themselves squarely in the cross-hairs of the first fleet of U-Boats bearing down on the coastal United States in 1942.
From the late 30s to 1945, virtually all the fuel, food and munitions that sustained the Allies in Europe traveled not via the Navy but in merchant ships. After Pearl Harbor, those unprotected ships instantly became the U-boats’ prime targets. And they were easy targets–the Navy refused to arm or defend them until the beginning of 1943, and then still came to convoy duty most reluctantly. The Uboat assault was especially vicious, as Hitler was determined to sink every American ship they could find, sometimes within sight of tourist beaches, and to kill as many mariners as possible, in order to frighten their shipmates into staying ashore.
As the war progressed, men from Mathews sailed the North and South Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and even the icy Barents Sea in the Arctic Circle, where they braved the dreaded Murmansk Run. Through their experiences we have eyewitnesses to every danger zone, in every kind of ship. Some died horrific deaths. Others fought to survive torpedo explosions, flaming oil slicks, storms, shark attacks, mine blasts, and harrowing lifeboat odysseys–only to ship out again on the next boat as soon as they’d returned to safety.
The Mathews Men shows us the war far beyond traditional battlefields–much of it just off the US coast–but also takes us to the landing beaches at D Day and to the Pacific. “When final victory is ours,” Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had predicted, “there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.” Here, finally, is the heroic story of those sailors, recast as the human story of the men from Mathews.