You’ve probably heard of the great battles fought in Europe and the Pacific during WWII, but did you know that part of WWII was fought just miles off the coast of the United States? And that the men taking part in these battles were civilians?
Well, my guest today has published a book about this oft-forgotten aspect of WWII history. His name is William Geroux and his book is The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-boats.
Today on the show, William and I discuss the U.S. Merchant Marine, their important role during WWII, and why they were targets for German U-boats off the coast of the United States. We also discuss why Mathews County Virginia produced so many merchant mariners during WWII, and how one family alone sent 15 men to serve.
- What the U.S. Merchant Marine is and their role during World War II
- Why the U.S. Merchant Marine was targeted by German U-Boats
- What life was like on a German U-boat (and how flushing a toilet incorrectly could sink it)
- How close German U-boats got to the U.S. coast
- Why it took so long for the U.S. to do anything about U-boats sinking merchant marine ships
- Why merchant mariners re-enlisted on another ship right after their boat got torpedoed
- The time a German U-boat officer had a conversation about the Brooklyn Dodgers with the merchant mariners he just torpedoed
- Why Mathews County, Virginia produced so many merchant mariners
- The family from Mathews County that produced 15 merchant mariners during WWII
- The high casualty rate of the U.S. Merchant Marine
- What happened to the merchant mariners after WWII
- The status of the U.S. Merchant Marine today
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- U.S. Merchant Marine
- U-Boat causality numbers
- Admiral Karl Dönitz
- Winston Churchill
- Map of the U-Boat war near America
- Sunken U-Boat 15 miles off the coast of North Carolina
- Operation Pastorius (U-boat that landed on American soil)
- Admiral Ernest King
- Merchant ships convoys
If you’re a WWII history junkie, or have ever wondered what the Merchant Marine was/is, The Mathews Men needs to be on your to-read list. It’s a great book about a fascinating and forgotten part of military and WWII history.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of “The Art of Manliness” podcast. You’re probably familiar with the battles of World War II fought in the European and Pacific theaters, thanks to shows like “Band of Brothers” or “Pacific” on HBO. What a lot of people don’t know is that there was a part of World War II that was fought just off the coast of the United States and the thing was, it was between civilians and the German U-boats.
My guest today on the podcast has written a book about this often forgotten part of World War II history. His name is William Geroux. He’s the author of the book “The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-boats”. It’s about the war fought between the US Merchant Marine and Hitler’s U-boats that often happened, like I said, right off the coast of the United States.
What a lot of people don’t know is that the merchant mariners … They were civilians. They weren’t actually soldiers, but they had some of the highest casualty rates during World War II as they were shipping supplies to soldiers across the war. They even got involved in the war before US were in the war as they were shipping supplies to Great Britain, our ally. A really fascinating podcast.
We also get into the title of the book “The Mathews Men” because as we’ll see, there was this county in Virginia that supplied a huge amount of the merchant mariners that took part in World War II. In fact, one family … There was eight members, male members of the family, that were merchant mariners.
We’ll discuss what life was like as a merchant mariner, what life was like as a U-boat – not very pleasant – and yeah, you’ll have a lot of cocktail party, campfire fodder after this show. Just to give you a heads up, my connection with my guest on Skype was a little spotty when I was doing the interview, so there is a little bumpy noise to the podcast.
We’ve done our best to edit it as possible, to clean it up, but just give you heads up about that. To let you know also, we’re about to release and about to be able to do recordings with a platform that I developed that’ll allow me to do remote recordings, remote interviews, while maintaining pristine audio quality.
I’m really excited about it and hopefully it will up the podcast up even more. Appreciate your support and your patience. When you’re done listening to the show, make sure to check out the show notes at aom.is/mathews and that’s one T, not two. William Geroux, welcome to the show.
William Geroux: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: All right, so your book is called “The Mathews Men”. It’s about the US Merchant Marine during World War II and this war that they had with German U-boats that happened really close to the United States. It’s something that a lot of people don’t know about. Before we get into that, let’s talk about the Merchant Marine itself. I think … A lot of people have heard of it, the Merchant Marine, but don’t know exactly what they did or what they do. What is the US Merchant Marine and why do we not really know … Why does the public not know much about it?
William Geroux: Probably because they don’t know much about it. Part of the reason is the Merchant Marine is really now … Just a shadow of what it once was. It’s not very much in the public eye anymore. The Merchant Marine … The name, it’s confusing. It sounds like a branch of the military, but it’s not … It’s really sort of a loosely organized group of civilians, private citizens, mariners, who sailed ships normally for commercial purposes like cargo from port to port.
In World War II and really in any times of war throughout the history of the United States, the Merchant Marine really started to become sort of an adjunct to the military. It hauls war supplies. It was the supply line. In World War II, that was very important … They hauled everything that the Allied troops needed to survive and fight in foreign battlefields. I mean, everything from fuel to guns and ammunition, planes, tanks, Jeeps, trucks, food, bug repellent, medical supplies, everything. They were the supply line.
Brett McKay: This is why they were such big targets for the Germans during World War II.
William Geroux: Yes. The U-boats, their mission was to try to cut that supply line because the Germans knew that if America could project its industrial power across the ocean, the Germans were doomed … Their Reich was not going to survive it … The U-boats were their way … That was really the most effective part of the German Navy was the U-boats. That was their mission, to cut the supply line if they could.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah. That was another interesting thing … I mean, I’ve heard of German U-boats, but I didn’t really know much about them except that they were sort of submarines, but … I mean, what exactly is a U-boat? It can go underwater, but it’s technically not a submarine.
William Geroux: Correct. It’s not a submarine the way we think of submarines today, the nuclear subs, the big ones that can stay underwater for months at a time without even communicating with the outside world. U-boats … They were diving vessels. They performed much better on the surface, but they were able to submerge for brief periods of time to conduct attacks or to try to escape pursuers … There’s sort of a mystique about U-boats that they were these … The ultimate weapons.
One of the things I try to do in the book is to show that they really had a lot of weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They were slower than … Most of the warships that hunted them. If they got driven underwater, they were located by sonar or radar and driven underwater to try to escape, they were pretty helpless. They were dependent on the wiles, the trickery, of the U-boat commander to try to outwit their pursuers and figure out a way to get away from them. If they didn’t … The U-boat would be destroyed often by depth charges and sent to the bottom, often with all hands.
Brett McKay: Right … You mentioned in the book that the U-boats had some of the highest casualties during the war.
William Geroux: Yes. Once the Allies figured out or got the technology and the tactics and the experience to deal with them and really were able to go after them, the predators, the U-boats, quickly became the prey. By the end of the war, it was a suicide mission basically to go out in a U-boat. They were hunted … Their effectiveness was completely gone so much so that the head of the U-boat command, Admiral Karl Dönitz, considered at one point just pulling them out of the war zones because they were just getting slaughtered.
They ultimately decided, he ultimately decided, that if they did that … The Allies were running a great deal of people and weaponry to control them. If they were gone, the Allies could apply that weaponry elsewhere. They kept them in the field basically to occupy the enemy and at enormous losses to themselves.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you describe life on a U-boat. It sounded absolutely horrible. I don’t know why anyone would want to sign up to be a member on a U-boat.
William Geroux: It was brutal. I mean, the air was foul, the food was often rancid. The U-boat was so cramped that the men literally slept on torpedoes that were stored under their bunks. All the U-boats’ operating systems were so exacting, so demanding, that everything had to be done through a certain way. Any deviation from that … Could doom the U-boat and that even extended to U-boat’s toilets … There’s at least one example that I describe in the book where an improperly flushed toilet ended up sinking a U-boat.
Brett McKay: Yeah … I mean, it was funny in a sad, sad way … The U-boats, part of the mission … Early on in the war, even before America was officially in the war, the US Merchant Marine started engaging with these U-boats. What was the US Merchant Marine’s role in World War II even before the United States had actually officially declared war?
William Geroux: Well, the British … They were suffering terrible losses from the U-boat. Of course, Britain is a island nation and they depend on shipping to basically [go 00:09:50] supply everything. The U-boats were really hurting them. They were sinking British merchant ships and killing British mariners faster than they could be replaced. Winston Churchill asked President Franklin Roosevelt for help.
Roosevelt found different ways, short of being in a war, to help them. One of those ways was … Mobilizing the Merchant Marine, the US Merchant Marine, to deliver goods to the British. At the beginning of the war, Hitler, when he was first approaching the war, he wasn’t in that big of a hurry for us to join the war. He had invaded Russia … He really … Had all the enemies … More enemies really than he could use at that point … Even though it was clear to everybody and particularly the U-boat commanders.
I mean, they had to look through their periscopes at these American ships and see them delivering … Basically breaking their blockade and not be able to do anything about it for political reasons. Hitler said … “Do not sink American ships yet … We’ll suffer the consequences of letting them deliver supplies.” This went on for quite some time.
America got more and more into it and pretty soon, our warships were helping to escort the big convoys across the Atlantic. The U-boats started sinking some of our ships … Our destroyer and … A number of merchant ships. At first, Hitler would apologize. He’d say, “Oh, it was a mistake.” After awhile … He just quit bothering to apologize and we were just slowly getting further into the war before we were actually in it.
For some people … People that lived on the East Coast, it was a surprise that we got into the war because of something that happened in the Pacific rather what was going on in the Atlantic. It was clear that we were moving ever close to it. The merchant mariners were on the front lines of the European war for months before we had troops in the fields against the Germans. They were the front lines for a lot of 1942.
Brett McKay: Again, they weren’t actually members of the military. They were civilians, right?
William Geroux: Yes.
Brett McKay: They were facing the brunt of this unofficial war the US had entered against Germany by being an ally of Great Britain.
William Geroux: Yes. They were … Really the tip of the spear, although they really didn’t have much of a spear … Or really any. Most of these merchant ships … A lot of them in the beginning … They were old. They’d been built during World War I. They were slow, they were ploddingly slow … A lot of them were overloaded with stuff that they were never designed to carry and they were pretty much unprotected.
They were sent out on the hopes that they would get where they were going without encountering a U-boat. If they did, they were sitting ducks … This went on for quite some time. Some of the ships were armed … The Navy would install gun [tops 00:13:14] on these merchant ships.
They were Navy gun crews on there to man them, but through no fault of these gun crews, putting a gun top on a merchant ship was not a good way to protect it from U-boats. A lot of these Navy gunners died right alongside the merchant mariners when the ships were torpedoed. There’s no record of a Navy gun crew ever sinking a U-boat.
Brett McKay: At what point did the Germans start sending U-boats … Into US waters? This was the thing that was really surprising to me. We often think, “Oh, the war really didn’t come to America. It was fought in the Pacific and Europe.” The German U-boats … They got really, really close to America during World War II. At what point did the Germans start swarming U-boats near American coasts?
William Geroux: The first ones came here in early January, like the second week in January. Five of them came here … Dönitz … The head of German U-boat ran, wanted to send a lot more, but … Hitler and some of his superiors in the German Navy didn’t want to send that many … The Germans didn’t have nearly as many U-boats as they wanted. Hitler thought they should be deployed here and there.
It sort of frustrated Dönitz because … His great gift was to constantly be shifting the U-boats around into … Whatever the weakest point in the Allied supply line was. He kept close track of this. He monitored it. Right after America got into the war, the weakest point by far was the coast of the United States. He wanted to put a lot more here.
Anyway, they came here in early January and just were ran roughshod. I mean, they were sinking a ship a day. They could only stay for so long. They could only stay for a couple of weeks and they’d run out of fuel, run out of torpedoes. He would send another wave of them. He kept really just sending waves of U-boats.
They would stay here a couple of weeks and sink a bunch of ships and then they’d go back and a new group would come. They ranged five to maybe a little over a dozen over the course of the first year of the war when they were really effective before we started protecting the mariners with convoys and started defending our coastline.
Brett McKay: I mean, what was surprising was how close they got. I mean, you describe how there would be members of the U-boat … They’d come to the surface and they’d get out. They could see the skyline of New York City or see the ferris wheel at Coney Island. I mean, they were that close.
William Geroux: Yeah, they were. I mean … There’s a sunken U-boat less than twenty miles off the coast … Closer to fifteen miles off the coast of Nags Head, North Carolina, on the outer banks of North Carolina, which is a big tourist community. The U-boats … They sank, they torpedoed ships right within sight of the beach.
At Jupiter Inlet in Florida, they torpedoed ships right near the mouth of the Mississippi River. In the summer of ’42, they even got close enough to the land teams of would-be saboteurs on the United States. They got close enough to send these guys in a raft to the beach and to go ashore with the idea that they were going to find a factory to destroy or something.
They were right here … Once it became clear that these U-boats were close, there was a lot of worry in some of these coastal communities and rumors that strange lights on the beach at night. There were stories, all of them bogus, about strange men’s bodies being found with German stuff in their pocket that identified them as U-boats … Most of those stories … They were just not true … There was sort of a paranoia right along in some of these isolated beach communities.
Brett McKay: You said that the Germans … Ran roughshod over American ships, the Merchant Marine ships. It happened for a long time. Why did it take so long for the US to really do anything about the U-boats that were sinking ships off American coasts?
William Geroux: Well, part of it was … It was unavoidable. The United States … Despite this buildup, we weren’t really prepared for the war when it came upon us. We didn’t have a lot of ships and planes to use to patrol our coasts … We were fighting the Japanese in the Pacific and we were helping these big convoys that would leave on a very regular basis from Maritime Canada to Britain. Those were still going on and they needed protection.
We did have some ships and planes, but the Admiral King, Admiral Ernest King, who had really operational control of the Navy … Was hesitant to deploy what we did have to protect the ships along the coast. He was just very reluctant to do this. One of the reasons, I mean, he did think about it, but … He got an idea that once we built enough new warships and planes that we could have these really powerful, effective convoys, a convoy being … Basically a ring of warships and a air cover of planes, protecting these helpless merchant ships.
Once we had enough of those that we could run convoys, then … Yeah, we’d run a really good convoy system and eventually we did. Before that, he was reluctant to run a weak convoy system. He didn’t want to send a convoy out, just a few ships that weren’t well armed, because his thinking was if we did that, we’re just making the U-boats job easier. We’re just assembling all the targets for them in one place and then we can’t protect them, but that really wasn’t true.
The British had already learned this. The British had learned that any protection at all was better than nothing. In particular in the United States, the only reason the Germans were sending U-boats three thousand miles across the ocean … U-boats were precious. They needed all they could get. The only reason they were willing to send them this far, the only reason it made sense, is that the kills over here were so easy …
If they were in an unprotected stretch of ocean, U-boats … They were ship-sinking machines. They could … Sink one ship after another. Anything we had done in those early months to make it even a little bit more difficult for them to sink merchant ships would have compelled the Germans to recalculate the cost and benefits of sending these U-boats all the way over here. This went on for quite a long time.
Finally, Admiral King … He was criticized during this time. The British were complaining … “Why are you letting all these ships be torpedoed?” A lot of the ships were ultimately on their way to Britain. The different people in the military, the US military … They were noticing this and they’re saying … “This can’t go on … You do something.” He kept saying, “We’re doing all we can. We’ll get to it.”
Finally in about maybe August of 1942, the convoy system started to take shape. The torpedoers and merchant ships just throbbed immediately. I mean, the numbers just plummeted. It took a little while for the convoy. There was still a few bugs in it, or a lot of bugs in the system, and areas that weren’t covered. After August of 1942, things got better and better. By the spring of 1943, the Allies … They had figured out … They had what they needed to really defeat the U-boats. That was really when the tide turned in the U-boat world.
Brett McKay: I guess they developed new technology, microwave sonar or was it microwave …
William Geroux: Microwave radar that could be carried in planes. Prior to that, a U-boat … On the surface … At night, a U-boat commander could surface and they’d recharge the U-boat’s batteries. In cloudy weather, they didn’t have to worry about being spotted by a plane. Once the planes had radar, they could just appear without warning out of the clouds in the middle of the night and strike a U-boat on the surface.
The U-boats … Were not able to detect the planes quickly enough to avoid them … That was when the U-boats started to become sitting ducks. We also had different ships. We had destroyer escorts … American shipyards were just cranking these things out. They were ideal for hunting U-boats. We had little escort carriers, little miniature aircraft carriers … They had enough planes that they could be like floating airfields and just sail in the middle of convoys and provide air cover as the convoy moved through the ocean.
That was a great advantage because the U-boats … It made it very difficult for the U-boats to do anything … Any time a plane came by, they had to dive … It took them awhile to crash dive. The plane was faster. They had hunter killer groups. They had groups that were specifically designed … Their only job was to sink U-boats.
It was those groups, it was an escort carrier and a group of destroyers. When they found a U-boat, they could simply sit over it and drop depth charges until they sank it. There was no escaping. U-boat commanders had a hard time outwitting those guys because … Their killer groups … That was their only job was to sink U-boats and they sank a lot of them.
Brett McKay: You mentioned that the U-boats would torpedo these Merchant Marine ships. Of course, there were casualties, but there were typically survivors. People were able to get off the boat before it sank. What happened to the mariners … These surviving mariners, after they were torpedoed?
William Geroux: Well, they would go home and make it home. They would go right back out, many of them would go right back out, on other ships. They had thirty days basically at the end of a voyage to sign on with another merchant ship. If they didn’t do that, they became eligible for the draft. Some of these guys, they simply didn’t want to be in the infantry. They didn’t want to be in the Army or in foxholes. For other men, they were patriotic. They wanted to serve their country and they were mariners. That’s what they did. That was their life …
The nation needed these guys. It needed them badly, so they would sign on again even though they knew … I don’t think when … They were starting out that they realized how dangerous it would be. Certainly by a few months in, everybody that signed on to a ship knew that it was a very dangerous business. A lot of these guys just went out there again and again. There’s this one guy that got torpedoed ten times over the course of the two world wars because it’s even less known that the Germans sent U-boats to American shores in World War I as well.
Brett McKay: Wow … Yeah. I mean, they were able to get back because I guess they would … Get on survival rafts or lifeboats … What I thought was interesting is that the U-boats would often … They’d come to the surface and they would talk to the Merchant Marine very, “Oh, you know, it’s war … No hard feelings against you, but this is war. You understand.” They’d hand off … “Do you need any cigarettes? Do you need any whiskey? Do you need any food?” I mean, I thought … It was interesting that they’d have these conversations with the Germans after they got their ship sunk.
William Geroux: It was. To me, I think that was really one of the most surprising things that I discovered doing research on the book. There were numerous encounters like this … It depended on the character of the U-boat commander. Some of the U-boat commanders were utterly ruthless. They’d sink a ship and leave the guys out there to the mercy of the sea, which often was no mercy at all.
Other ones, if you look at the reports in the National Archives, you can track and you can see which commanders were not that way, which commanders … Their conscience bothered them. They didn’t want to leave these guys out there. Some of the U-boat commanders had been merchant mariners before the war. They were dedicated to sinking these guys’ ships. That’s what they were doing.
Once you had men … Their ship was sunk, they were helpless, they were in a raft or in a lifeboat, some of these commanders, they just couldn’t bring themselves to leave them there to die without offering them somehow. That was directly against the orders of Hitler and the U-boat command. Hitler wanted to … Basically machine gun these guys in the lifeboats; kill them somehow. To him, it was not just a matter of sinking ships, but getting rid of these mariners and figure, “Well, if we kill enough of them, then they’ll stop sailing.”
Dönitz, the head of the U-boat command, was a little less coldblooded, but he told these guys over and over again, “Do not help castaways. Do not help these guys in the lifeboat. You don’t have to go out of your way to kill them, but don’t help them. Don’t give them food, don’t give them water. Let nature take its course.” A number of these guys … They were hundreds of miles and thousands of miles from Berlin and they were in command of their own U-boats … They would do what they thought was right.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought the most interesting exchange was between a U-boat officer … He lived in America before the war, lived in New York City. He was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. He asked the merchant marines like, “How are the Dodgers doing?”
William Geroux: Right … It’s just an extraordinary story. I also like the one … You read this too where one of the guys, one of the U-boat commanders, hands over a big ten-gallon jug of drinking water and along with some cigarettes and some … French cookies and everything. Before he gives him the jug of drinking water, he squeezes fresh limes into the water to introduce vitamin C into the water to fortify these castaways in the lifeboat against scurvy, a vitamin deficiency disease.
In any event, their lifeboat ends up having to be at sea for a long time. Some of the stories are just … Again, there are other guys who are just utterly ruthless. There was one guy who would sink ships. He would approach the men in the lifeboats and subject them to political tirades against President Roosevelt for getting the US involved in the war. He would say, “Don’t ask me for drinking water, ask Roosevelt. He’s the one that put you in this situation.” He wasn’t entirely wrong.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the title of your book “The Mathews Men”. The reason why you call it “The Mathews Men” is there was a county in Virginia called Mathews County that produced a ton of merchant mariners. A lot of them were involved in this war, this U-boat war. Why did this particular county in Virginia produce so many mariners and that went on to go fight or take part in World War II?
William Geroux: Well … Mathews County had been producing mariners … Been a cradle of sea captains and merchant mariners since before the American Revolution. Mathews is a beautiful place … It’s a tiny isolated community on the … Clean sort of the shore of the Chesapeake Bay … There’s very little in that because it’s not on the way to anywhere. There’s no big employers there and job opportunities have always been very scarce there.
You were either a fisherman, a waterman as we call them in that area, or you were a farmer or you went to sea … All of these men grew up around the water. They all knew how to handle boats since they were little kids, so they were natural mariners. They naturally gravitated toward the Merchant Marine because it was a business where you didn’t need a lot of formal education … If you worked hard and you knew your stuff, you could rise to the top of your profession. That was a tradition in Mathews.
In some families, that was it … Your birthright was to become a sea captain. Your father had been one, your grandfather, maybe your great-grandfather, so it was always part of the Mathews … Just part of what the community did. When World War II came, there were a lot of these guys that had been in the Merchant Marine for a long time. The war created such a demand for mariners that even the guys who were fishermen or were farmers … Suddenly there were all these opportunities.
The Merchant Marine needed men and anybody who knew a bow from a stern just about could get a job. There were some companies even that would go out of their way to hire Mathews men because they had a reputation as great seamen … One Mathews guy put it, he said, “We’ve been doing this for a long time. When the war came, we just kept doing it. The torpedoes just got in our way for awhile.”
Brett McKay: You mentioned that in some families in Mathews, it was like a birthright. That’s what you did … You follow several families throughout the book, but there’s one family, the Hodges family, that produced a ton, a lot of Merchant Marine. How many men served in the US Merchant Marine from the Hodges family during World War II?
William Geroux: Well, there were … Let’s see … Six of the seven brothers were on ships during December. There was the father, Captain Jesse, he was the patriarch of the family. He was a captain of an ocean-going tug. All seven of his sons went to sea. One of them got hurt and had to go ashore, but … Several of the seven brothers’ sons also went to sea. I guess … Maybe a dozen Hodges. The Hodges’ daughters would marry mariners, so maybe fifteen members of the Hodges family … At least, were on merchant ships during World War II.
Brett McKay: Did any of them die at the hands of a U-boat?
William Geroux: Yes. Two of them were torpedoed within the space of eleven days. A couple of the others had very close calls and they were out there the whole time. They were on special missions and … One of them went to the most notorious run of the trip to Northern Russia. Others … They were in the Med … One of them went to … It was a very dangerous mission to supply, to send supplies, to the island of Malta … The Hodges were all over the place during the war, many of them in the Caribbean.
Brett McKay: Are there any descendants of the Hodges family that are still mariners or did that sort of dry up that family tradition?
William Geroux: There are descendants now who are in the … It’s interesting because the Merchant Marine as far as cargo ships is greatly reduced, but there is still a number of merchant mariners who are in tugboats. There are several members of the Hodges family who are tugboat captains or tugboat officers. They’re well-known in the tugboat community now, so they sort of moved on from cargo ships to tugs. I guess their situation’s changed. Yeah … The tradition is still alive. I interviewed … A couple of the tugboat guys.
Brett McKay: How many merchant mariners died during World War II? I think you mentioned … It had one of the highest casualty rates, correct?
William Geroux: Yes. There were roughly ninety three hundred of them. That was a casualty rate that the only branch of the military that was even comparable was the US Marines. Most of those deaths occurred in 1942 before the convoys were instituted here on the coast. They were very much concentrated, but it was still dangerous to sail a cargo ship even after the convoys were in place. The U-boats didn’t quit attacking. Once they got into the wrong territory the German bombers would attack them. A lot of the Mathews men were killed by bombers.
Brett McKay: What happened to the merchant mariners after the war? I mean … They’re sort of in an interesting position. They weren’t officially sailors or soldiers in the Navy or whatever, but yet they were still taking part in the war … On the front lines. Did they enjoy any of the veterans benefits or that happened after World War II or were they sort of left to their own devices?
William Geroux: They were kind of left out … Yeah, the mariners … They didn’t enjoy it. They weren’t welcomed home as heroes. They weren’t really welcomed home at all. They didn’t come home … When the war ended, they were still on their ships. They were bringing troops home … After that, they were hauling materials over to Europe, and people over to Europe, to rebuild the cities that had been shattered by the war.
Ultimately, they even brought home the American dead … Whose families wanted them reinterred in the US soil. They were basically still out there. They weren’t there for the ticker tape parades down the main boulevards of the United States … They didn’t have a lot of powerful friends in Congress. Franklin Roosevelt had been a big proponent of theirs, but he died before the war ended. He had asked Congress to provide for these guys, do something for them, but Congress did not.
They were left out of the GI Bill, left out of really all … Most of the benefits … That veterans had. They got some decades later, but by then, a lot of them … Had died or were pretty far along in age. There’s efforts, been efforts from time to time. There are some now in Congress to recognize what they did and either give them some honorary recognition or give them some money … That legislation never really seems to go anywhere, which I think is a shame.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it is … I think you mentioned that they finally were able to go to the veterans hospitals. This was by the time … These guys were in their eighties or nineties.
William Geroux: Yeah. I mean … A little earlier, they got to do that … That was help to some of them, but it was a big difference to that versus when you’re a young man to come home and have opportunities … It was pretty late in the game. Now they are. Now most of these guys are in their late eighties and early nineties … If somebody did give them some money, it’s not like they’re going to buy sports cars or get scammed on the internet.
They might fix the roof or start a college fund for their grandchildren or something … Most of these guys, at least the Mathews men, gave up long ago expecting the government to come back and say, “Hey … We should have done better by you. We’re sorry. Here’s something.” I don’t even know if they even think that … Some of the guys I’ve talked to said that … One thing they would like is for just people in general to know what they did.
One of the guys told me, he said, “Maybe after your book comes out, maybe my grandkids will believe … My stories, will believe that I did something useful during the war.” The time for even that is growing very short … When I started working on this book in earnest in 2011, there were maybe twelve or fifteen old Mathews men who’d sailed against the U-boats living in and around Mathews. Today, there’s maybe five, five or six.
One of my favorite Mathews men, Bill Callas who’s in the book, he was just a real character … The last time I interviewed him, he told me … He said, “You want me to read this book you’re writing, you better hurry up and get it written.” A couple weeks later, I went to his funeral.
Brett McKay: Yeah … That’s one of the sad things is that we’re losing these World War II veterans and individuals who took part in the war every day. I mean … They’re shrinking.
William Geroux: We are really pretty much approaching the time where any stories about World War II will have to be told through documents rather than talking to the people.
Brett McKay: Yeah … That’s why I think it’s so important with what you’re doing and what other World War II historians are doing is getting these stories and talking to these men directly, so we can get them before they’re gone. I commend you for that. What’s the status of the Merchant Marine today? Does it still exist?
William Geroux: It does … It’s sort of a complicated issue. The Merchant Marine, the US Merchant Marine … I know this because I worked at Maersk … A US subsidiary of Maersk, which is one of the biggest shipping companies in the world … Today, the US Merchant Marine, it’s much more expensive to operate a ship flying a US flag and employing American mariners than it is to pay many ships from many foreign countries that the pay is higher, some of these mariners from third-world countries that work for just a fraction of what the Americans will.
The foreign flag ships, they don’t have the regulatory and the legal requirements that American ships do … In international trade today, the big freighters … Because it’s a business, it’s the shipping business, in order to compete, they have to be subsidized by the government … They have to be subsidized to keep these ships operating. They have to be guaranteed cargo by the government. There’s always a lot of debate in Congress about whether this is a good idea. “How much do we really need to do this?”
The best argument is that during war, the military relies on these guys … If it’s an American ship, these American ships … And the country needs them, they’ll drop whatever they’re doing and drop off whatever commercial cargo they’ve got at the nearest port and report wherever they’re told and start hauling war supplies if we needed to take wherever we needed to take it. They’ve been doing this really in all the conflicts we’ve had, even the most recent ones … The nation has an interest in maintaining a Merchant Marine that it can count on to do this. There’s a debate going on right now in Congress as to how much of this we should do.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s in a national security interest we should keep this going probably.
William Geroux: Yeah. If we didn’t have one, then … Right now, the question is … Even now, do we have enough American, US flag ships and American merchant mariners to do what we need to do to haul war cargo or military cargo for longer than a few months if we get into a conflict somewhere where we had to put large numbers of troops overseas?
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think you mentioned there’s like eleven thousand registered mariners in the country, but there’s only five thousand jobs available or something like that. It’s a competitive job field.
William Geroux: It is … They’re good jobs, but they’re getting more and more scarce … Again, the government, most of the cargo ships engaged in international trade now that are US flag because they’re subsidized by the US government for the reason that, as you say it, international security.
Brett McKay: Well, William, this has been a fascinating conversation. We really just scratched the surface of the book … There’s so much more our listeners could … If they want to dive deeper into this topic. Where can people learn more about your book?
William Geroux: On my website, which is williamgeroux.com is a good place to start.
Brett McKay: Excellent. Well, William Geroux, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
William Geroux: Well, I’ve enjoyed it. Thanks a lot.
Brett McKay: My guest today was William Geroux. He’s the author of the book “The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-boats”. You can find that on amazon.com and in book stores everywhere. Be sure to check out the show notes at aom.is/mathews and that’s mathews with one T.
Well, that wraps up another edition of “The Art of Manliness” podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy the show, I’d appreciate it if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. As always, I appreciate your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.