The Family That Survived A U-Boat Attack

Many people fantasize about the excitement, the challenge and the adrenalin rush of high adventure. They envy those who parachute from burning planes, flee from gun-toting gangsters, raft over the edge of dangerous waterfalls, or escape from sinking ships – always fairly easily done and of course – without harm!

The reality of such an ‘adventure’ is something quite different. It is totally and terrifyingly real – physically and emotionally – particularly if one is an eight-year-old boy who lands right in the middle of just such a horrifying situation.

Raymond Downs Jnr. (8yrs) nicknamed Sonny, in May 1942, was sailing back to the USA from South America with his parents (Ina & Ray) and his 11-year-old sister, Lucille. It was to be their last night aboard the Heredia, a freighter transporting coffee beans and bananas. They were packed and ready for docking at New Orleans the following morning and were looking forward settling in San Antonio with family and friends.

At about 1am on the 19th May 1942, a torpedo hit the Heredia with a tremendous explosion which woke Sonny, who in a confused state, he thought the ship had hit the Pier at New Orleans. A second torpedo hit and Sonny was almost thrown off his bunk. His father grabbed him, told him to put on his life-jacket and to wait while he fetched Sonny’s mother and sister from the adjoining cabin.

Disoriented and very afraid, Sonny watched his father slosh through ankle-deep water, and became even more frightened as he heard shouting from the hallway and watched yet more water pouring into the cabin. Just as he was about to panic, his father rushed back, bringing Lucille and his mother.

The family held hands tightly and made their way up the passage where they were directed by a sailor holding a flashlight, to take the stairs to the deck. It was heavy-going climbing and it seemed to take so long to escape the water. As they neared the top the ship suddenly lurched to starboard. A wall of water hit them; loosened Sonny’s grasp, tore him from his father’s arms and tumbled him over and over under the water.

Everything seemed black and Sonny was not sure which way was ‘up!’ Someone grabbed at his legs, but he was so terrified that he kicked and thrashed wildly frantically trying to get away from the water. After about ten seconds, which probably felt like an eternity, he surfaced gasping and choking and desperately looking for his family. He found instead – that he was alone in the ocean with a sinking ship.

Suddenly the powerful searchlight of the surfaced U-506 lit up the scene. Sonny heard voices and looked up to see the deck above the Heredia’s bridge, barely above the water. He, most, fortunately, was near to a ladder leading to the upper deck. He tried to climb it, but the angle was so steep that he fell, landing on top of George Conyea, another passenger, who helped him to the top.

George told him to hold on to the rail while he and the Heredia’s Captain, Erwin Colburn, struggled to free the life raft from its brackets. Thankful for the continued light from the submarine and desperately scouring the sea for signs of his family, Sonny noticed movement on a section of the ship. A man broke through the water, swam toward their deck and climbed on – it was his father! Ray helped to drag the raft free, put Sonny on it and warned him to hold on tightly while it was being slid down the slanting deck into the water.

Not a lot of people were aware that U-boats were attacking shipping in the Gulf of Mexico during WWII. The U-506 was commanded by Erich Wurdemann, who had positioned his sub south west of New Orleans. At approximately 1 a.m. on the 19th May, he noted the shadow of the Heredia. Surfacing, (with little risk of detection at night,) he got close to the ship and fired the two torpedoes.

He watched as the Heredia sank quickly, stern first. Within three minutes, the entire ship had disappeared, leaving only the survivors. The searchlight darkened, and U-506 sank quietly below the waves and continued on its way.

Sonny, with the three men, Ray, George and Erwin, spent 18 hours in the Gulf, floating on the raft, with no food, no water, no protection from the heat of the sun, nor from the cold of the night and their raft was often encircled by sharks. They had no way of knowing where the rest of their family was or who was alive or who dead – this was neither a comfortable nor a happy adventure.

Their raft was spotted by a search plane and a shrimp boat was directed to their location to pick them up. Meanwhile, Lucille and Ina had been separated. Ina had floated, all alone, with eyes burning from oil, into the next night before she was rescued, also by a shrimp boat.

Lucille was more fortunate in that she was aided by Roy Sorli, who received the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal, for having saved her life. Of the 62 people onboard the Heredia on that May night of 1942, thirty-six people died in the attack: 30 crewmen, five of the Navy gun crew, and one passenger.

The four members of the Downs family were finally reunited in a Louisiana hospital. Everything they owned had gone down with the Heredia, but they were survivors. Ray Snr. continued working, moving the family to Florida then Texas before finally realising their dream of returning to their hometown of San Antonio.

Ray Down Jr. married Betty Gayle Lowther of San Antonio and had two sons. Ray, now 82, lives in Quincy.

They were survivors!

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE