Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler's U-Boats, by William Geroux

Viking, 2016
400 pp

advance reader copy, my thanks to the publisher!

If you'll pardon the expression, WWII history involving U-boats and battles at sea just isn't in my wheelhouse, but this book is a bit different. First of all, it focuses on the Merchant Marine and its involvement in the war, which I knew nothing about and second, the people highlighted in this book are rather unique  -- . they're all from one small, isolated county in Virginia on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.  It was a place where, as one man who grew up there noted, "You farmed, you fished the Bay, or you went to sea. Those were your only options."  Mathews men had been on the oceans since colonial times, and were sought out by a number of shipping companies for their seagoing prowess. This small, remote county was also a place where, during World War II, pretty much every family could claim a personal connection to the U-boats that prowled the seas.  In The Mathews Men, Mr. Geroux focuses largely on one single, seafaring family, the Hodges,  of which  seven sons spent much of the war trying to avoid becoming casualties of the U-boats. They  were all there on the high seas during World War II doing their best to keep the war effort going, sometimes at great personal cost. 

I'm going to be very honest here. While I love history, I'm not a huge fan of stories about actual battles and military engagements, and there is quite a lot of that sort of thing in this book. However, life at sea isn't everything that's covered here: the author goes into Mathews County history, into what life was like for those living there before the war, and then what went on with those left behind in Mathews County and how they coped while their  men were serving during the war.  One of the most interesting ongoing stories in this book is that of Henny Hodges, who kept the home fires burning while tending the 60-acre family farm.  Her husband, Captain Jesse, was at sea for most of their life together; Henny was a strong woman who managed "forty acres of crops, a barn full of horses and cows, a hog pen and smokehouse, a chicken house and two docks."  She had raised her own children (all 14 of them) and "several" of her grandchildren (27), pretty much on her own.  The author revisits Henny and other women in Mathews County periodically while telling of the men's exploits at sea, and he is also able to vividly describe the U-boat operations from the points of view of the captains using valuable firsthand accounts.   There is a LOT of interesting stuff here: the U-boats approaching the east coast of the US with very little resistance; the lack of military support for the Merchant Marine that in some cases resulted in unnecessary deaths, and the fact that although the men of the Merchant Marine were engaged in the war effort, they had no status or benefits as veterans once the war was over. 

Since I have an advanced reader copy, I'm not sure if there are photos in the finished product, but if there are not, the lack of photos is a huge drawback. There are excellent maps provided,  but since I got so invested in the lives of these people, I would have also loved to have been able to connect names with faces.  However, even if, like myself, a reader is not all about battles at sea, there is so much more to this book than simply U-boats vs. ships, certainly enough to keep pages turning.  I'd definitely recommend it to maritime history buffs, or to those who are interested in World War II, but I'd also say it's of great interest to anyone interested in Virginia's history or the history of what was happening on the home front.  

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