The Mathews Men
A county goes to war
By Steven Martinovich
If there is any branch of the American military apparatus that was absolutely robbed of deserved appreciation for its role in the Second World War, it is very likely that the U.S. Merchant Marine tops that list. Not well known, the Merchant Marine – mostly comprised of civilian ships and crews that ferried supplies for the Allied war effort -- suffered causalities several times that of any American military branch – and accomplished many of its missions early in the war without any protection from the ferocious German U-boat wolfpacks that prowled the Atlantic Ocean. No community in the United States perhaps understood this better than the people of Matthews County, Virginia.
William Geroux’s The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler's U-boats boils down the epic story of the Merchant Marine by focusing on the Mathews Country mariners and their families. Few, if any, communities sent as large of a proportion of their men to sea than did Mathews County – seven brothers from the Hodges family alone -- and fewer still suffered as many losses. With few of those Merchant Marine men from the Greatest Generation left today, Geroux made it his mission to tell their story to a world that seems to have largely forgotten their sacrifice.
As Geroux reports, the sea-faring tradition of Mathews County stretched back over two centuries as the preferred occupation of any man born there. Whether a fishing boat, commercial ship or Navy ship of war, Mathews men could be found on ships and ports around the world. Although long a sea-faring nation with a navy whose history traced back to the Revolutionary War, the United States Navy entered the Second World War with significant issues, amongst them an inability to ship personnel and supplies to theatres of war. Enter the Merchant Marine who filled the gap with thousands of ships and tens of thousands of men, hundreds of them from the tiny Chesapeake Bay county.
The lack of concern by many of the US Navy brass for the Merchant Marine was immediately shown when German U-boats essentially had an unmolested opportunity to hunt ships from the U.S. shore to the Caribbean and all the way to Europe waters. Although Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke highly of the civilian mariners risking their lives for the war effort, the US Navy thought it a poor use of their assets to provide security and defense for the ships. Day after day the ships were torpedoed, often within sight of witnesses standing on American shores, leading to a horrific loss of life – including several men of Mathews County.
Eventually, however, as The Mathews Men relates, pressure from Roosevelt, European allies aghast at Navy intransigence from learning their hard-won lessons and public outrage, the US Navy instituted the convoy system. Although safer from the wolf packs, the life of a merchant mariner was still a dicey one as missions took them everywhere from northern Africa, Murmansk and unnamed islands across the Pacific. As the war progressed, the tide began to turn against the Kriegsmarine and the reputation for U-boat service to be a one-way ticket to watery grave began to become a reality for the German submariners. Thanks to the Merchant Marine, tens of millions of tonnes of supplies crossed the Atlantic in a never-ending conveyor belt that fed the Americans and their allies, and the battered peoples of Europe both during and after the war.
A story as expansive as the Merchant Marine’s could have very easily overwhelmed a single book but Geroux’s decision to frame its story by using the men of Mathews County as the paint for the canvas took the story from global history to a personal and intimate story. The reader shares the terror of sudden attack, the relief of surviving or the sadness of families back home when a husband or son joins the countless number of sailors before them who disappear into the water’s depths for eternity. Geroux takes a sprawling cast of characters and gives us time to learn who each of them are and the lives of danger they lived in the effort to feed the enormous machine that battled fascism. By the end of The Mathews Men, despite the fact that many of the principals are no longer with us, the reader likely feels that they know the families as well as their neighbours did.
It is remarkable that even after seven decades that there are still so many stories left to tell from the Second World War, more amazing still that they are stories that belong not to obscure units or ostensibly inconsequential battles. The US Merchant Machine numbered over 200,000 sailors with nearly 10,000 killed, 12,000 wounded and many ships lost. Part of that is due to the American military’s efforts to keep the deadly reality a secret in order to continue attracting sailors to the effort, part of it also due to the apparent lack of romance that ferrying cargo and troops has. Geroux’s The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler's U-boats deserves thanks for performing the valuable service of reminding us that service didn’t just mean a uniform, but also brave men who left small fishing villages for little more than love of country. We may have forgotten their story but hopefully Geroux’s effort brought their story to a wider audience.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.