The genesis of journalist William Geroux’s new book about U.S. Navy Merchant Marine sailors and their families in World War II is almost as fascinating as the book itself. Geroux first came upon the idea 25 years ago, while covering a forum in which men shared memories of watching merchant ships—targets of German U-boat attacks—explode off the coast of Virginia.
Intrigued, the reporter began to research Mathews County, Virginia, which sent one of the largest concentrations of civilian merchant mariners into treacherous Atlantic waters during the war. The result is The Mathews Men, a gripping, nearly lost story of World War II (“Hurry,” the author was told, while gathering names of possible interviewees) and a moving portrayal of family and community.
Geroux brings a reporter’s keen eye for detail and natural flair for storytelling to his account, which was informed by interviews with surviving members of the Hodges family, which sent seven sons to the Merchant Marine. We meet Captain Jesse Hodges and his wife, Henny, who somehow managed to bear 14 children and run a 60-acre farm while Jesse was absent for long stretches at sea.
After Pearl Harbor, conducting “unrestricted submarine warfare” meant that Japanese shipping was a major target for U.S. submarines in the Pacific. Likewise, American merchant ships carrying critical war supplies were fair game for German U-boat captains in the Atlantic. Geroux brings readers onto ships and into lifeboats to experience U-boat attacks and harrowing survival stories. In his appendix, he lists the 43 ships sunk or damaged by the Germans. Along with the participants, readers experience both the terror at sea and the agonizing tension of families who waited for loved ones to return.
The 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor will occur in December, a reminder that the last survivors of the Greatest Generation will not be with us much longer. Thankfully, Geroux’s dedication and curiosity came in time to bring readers the story of the courageous seamen from Mathews County.