Their sacrifices are almost completely forgotten in the generations since, but the mostly untold and heroic story of the merchant marines during World War II did not escape the observation of America’s and the Allies’ top general in the European theater.
Their contribution to the war effort, after all, was essential. For the course of the war, actually for years before the U.S. entry, all the food, fuel and munitions in the Allied effort in Europe were transported not by the U.S. Navy but by merchant ships.
“Every man in this Allied command is quick to express his admiration for the loyalty, courage and fortitude of the officers and men of the merchant marine,” said Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. “We count upon their efficiency and their utter devotion to duty as we do our own. They have never failed us yet and, in all the struggles yet to come, we know that they will never be deterred by any danger, hardship or privation.
“When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the merchant marine.”
So, as author William Geroux notes in his new appreciation of the commercial sailors of a small town in Virginia, there was surprise but certainly no shock when in the summer of 1942 two Cuban fishermen found the remains of Capt. Dewey Hodges inside the guts of a hulking shark, a ring with his initials revealing his identity.
Hodges was one of more than 9,300 merchant marines who lost their lives to German torpedoes seeking to disrupt Allied supply lines in the Gulf of Mexico, the north and south Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and even the Arctic.
In those theaters, hardscrabble men who hailed from the small outpost on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, Mathews County, Va., manned the merchant ships carrying essential supplies.
Capt. Dewey Hodges, his brother Capt. Leslie Hodges and 21 others from Mathews County are the focus of Geroux’s captivating tome, The Mathews Men, the heroic story of the hundreds of men who risked their lives in service to country while their families sacrificed at home.
The story focuses on the Hodges family — Capt. Jesse Hodges and his seven sons — but also relates for the reader the experiences of three other families whose men were the primary, undefended targets of German U-boats.
Those who fought and survived the torpedo explosions, oil slicks on fire, terrible storms and shark attacks shipped out time and again because if they weren’t working, they weren’t being paid. Perhaps no one in the war had a more personal stake in its outcome.
Almost all of the men of Mathews County never saw high school, having quit their studies to support their families.
That was done primarily in the water.
For more than 250 years, Mathews was a “portal to the world,” a hub of tobacco and steamships. For its men, the chief profession of the town had been sailing merchant ships.
The book required years of research, though the inspiration, Geroux notes, was found in 1991 while the author was a newspaper reporter.
It was at a forum that “old men recalled watching merchant ships explode into flames right off the beach in my home city of Virginia Beach. I was astonished and began reading everything I could find about the U-boat war on America.”
His topic being so near to current times, Geroux’s sources were close to actual characters of the story. Interviews for the book included several members of the Hodges family, including Dewey Hodges’ daughter and others who were able to relay firsthand knowledge of Jesse and Henny Hodges.
It was through their assistance that Geroux was able to carry out one of Franklin Roosevelt’s final wishes:
“The operators [of the merchant marine] in this war have written one of its most brilliant chapters. They have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous transportation job ever undertaken. As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding of our merchant fleet’s record during this war.”
The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-boats
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
- By William Geroux
- Viking, $28
- Audio: Penguin Audio, $45; read by veteran audiobook narrator Arthur Morey.