Mathews County is located in Virginia, and in order to find it, you have to want to go there. Farmers still leave trucks full of produce out on the side of the road where you can pay for fresh vegetables and fruits on the honor system. There is just a two lane road that runs through the central part of the city, where the courthouse and other administrative buildings lay. It hasn’t changed much since the 1940’s, where the majority of men from Mathew’s County men were mariners who worked on ships run by the Merchant Marines. And in these few details lies a story that is inextricably linked to the greatest conflict the world has ever known and how a family from this backwoods place worked to fight against the evil Nazi regime.
One of the most overlooked details of World War II was the Atlantic war where ships carrying supplies to Europe from America were systematically gunned down in the Atlantic Ocean. America was neutral until 1942 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but under Roosevelt, they supported the Allies in the East by shipping weapons, supplies, and ammunition to England and France. Obviously, Hitler couldn’t stand for this and while angering the Americans might lead to them declaring war on Germany, Hitler thought this inevitable; therefore, he waged a fierce war for the German U-boats (the precursor to the submarine) to take down ships of the Merchant Marine’s on their trek to Europe.
At the beginning of this engagement, German U-boats were tasked with destroying ships around Europe. But soon, their focus spread to the American mainland. As early as 1942 when Hitler declared war on America, U-boats were routinely seen off the coast of North and South Carolina, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. The Merchant Marine ships were not equipped with any sort of defensive capabilities and were pretty much sitting ducks. Hundreds of ships were lost in 1942 to U-boat attacks.
This book follows seven brothers (as the title suggests) from Mathew’s County as they risked their lives to continue the supply chain to Europe. What emerges is a story of heroism and courage in the face of imminent danger. Most of the young men joined the Merchant Marines when they came of age. And although they were dodging bullets from downrange, their sacrifice is not to be overlooked. The dangerous waters of the Atlantic produced a ship graveyard that is still being studied today.
In 1943, the Navy began assigning groups of ships to protect the assets crossing the sea. While I don’t have the exact statistic, ship casualties went from around 800 in 1942 to around 300 in 1943 as the government began to deal with the growing crisis. After the European war ended, ships were diverted to the Pacific to carry supplies for the war against the Japanese, and while the dangers of U-boats passed, the Merchant Marines never stopped.
A quote I recently read is from Alexander the Great, where he is purported to have said, “My logisticians are a humorless lot… they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay.” Alexander understood the importance of logistics in the war effort. So too we have to recognize that the Merchant Marines played an integral part of the American military machine in World War II, no matter how un-sexy it is. It’s much more interesting to read about Easy Company in the European theater or the Marines on the island hopping campaign. But without the critical supplies from people like the Mathew’s men, there would be little success on the battlefield. So tip your hats and kiss a logistician the next time you see them and thank them for making things work.