The true story of a family caught in a WWII U-boat attack
One 1942 night, the freighter carrying 8-year-old Sonny Downs was nearly home. But a German sub waited in the dark.
EIGHT-YEAR-OLD RAYMOND “SONNY” DOWNS JR. and his 11-year-old sister, Lucille, had wanted to sleep on the deck of the freighter Heredia, which was transporting tons of coffee and bananas from South America. This would be the children’s last night on the ship, and on prior evenings they had enjoyed falling asleep under the stars. But their parents, Ina and Ray, thought it best to spend the night in their cabins and have their bags packed for the morning arrival at port in New Orleans. Sonny asked if he could at least sleep in the cabin with his father and Lucille in the adjoining berth with her mother. This time, his parents agreed.
The Downs family had just spent a year in Colombia, where Ray had worked as a master mechanic for the United Fruit Co. Now they were finally heading back to the United States, hoping to leave that hardscrabble life behind. Ray had saved some money, and they were looking forward to buying their first house in San Antonio, where they could be back among family and friends.
The Downses were the only family among the 62 people onboard the Heredia on the night of May 18, 1942. Most of the others were merchant mariners, though they were also joined by a Navy gun crew of six men. Just months earlier, when German submarines began stalking the East Coast of the United States, the Heredia had been outfitted with the means to defend itself: a 3-inch artillery cannon and two .30-caliber machine guns.
That night, Heredia Captain Erwin Colburn, a Somerville native, ordered the vessel to operate without lights and under radio silence. He had six lookouts scanning the sea for attackers but did not see the need to take an evasive zigzag pattern of travel. Instead, the Heredia steamed in a straight line, its captain intent on reaching port as scheduled. This would soon prove to be a grave mistake.
AFTER GERMANY DECLARED WAR on the United States in 1941, Adolf Hitler and Admiral Karl Donitz sent dozens of U-boats (short for Unterseeboot) to the North American coast, where they sunk some 170 ships in a matter of months. As US surveillance improved, Donitz simply diverted some of his subs to the Caribbean, Central America, and the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the Nazi subs that prowled the gulf in May 1942 was U-506, commanded by Erich Wurdemann, a 28-year-old with slicked black hair and thick eyebrows shading penetrating eyes. Wurdemann’s patrol in the gulf first took him to the waters just off the mouth of the Mississippi River, where he noted in his war diary that the water was “dirty yellow.”
Unlike some U-boat commanders, Wurdemann was cautious, attacking mostly under cover of darkness. Even at night, he displayed concern that stirring up glowing marine microorganisms could betray his position. “I can only run on an attack course at low speed due to heavy marine phosphorescence,” he wrote. His caution, however, did not hinder his success: Over time, Wurdemann sent torpedoes into five ships near the Mississippi, sinking three and severely damaging two.
On the evening of May 18, the young commander positioned his sub a bit farther out into the gulf than usual, prowling the waters 40 miles southwest of New Orleans. At approximately 1 a.m. on May 19, Wurdemann noted in his war diary that a shadow could be seen bearing 260 degrees. That shadow was the Heredia.
The commander ordered U-506 to change course slightly, so that he could get ahead of the ship. His confidence was sky-high; he knew that at night he could wait on the surface without risk of detection and get so close to the ship that his torpedoes were almost guaranteed to find their mark.
THE FIRST TORPEDO tore into the Heredia with a tremendous explosion, killing five of the Navy gun crew and sending the sixth man overboard. The ship shuddered.
In his dark cabin, Sonny struggled to sit up in the top bunk. Did we hit the pier in New Orleans?
The second torpedo rocked the boat so hard, Sonny almost fell to the floor.
His father turned on the cabin light, and it flickered, casting an eerie glow on Ray’s ashen face. He grabbed Sonny by the shoulders. “Put on your life preserver,” Ray barked. “Tie it tight and stay right here.”
Disoriented and afraid, Sonny could see water eddying around his father’s ankles as his dad opened the door to his mother’s adjoining cabin and disappeared.
Snatching his life jacket from the peg next to his bunk, Sonny fumbled with the straps. Its bulk pushed against his ears as he pulled the ties tight across his chest. Is Dad coming back? Sonny wondered, his fear growing as more water swirled into the cabin. The ship must be sinking!
Sonny could hear shouting in the hallway, and he considered hopping off the bunk and running for the life rafts as he had been taught in the drills.
Just as he was about to holler for his father, Ray burst back into the room, followed by Lucille and his mom, Ina. His sister’s life jacket was secured over her nightclothes, while Ina, her face stricken, had grabbed a coat to put over her nightgown and strapped on a life vest.
Ray lifted Sonny off the top bunk and tugged at his son’s life jacket to be sure it was secure. “You did a good job. Now hold my hand and don’t let go!”
The family left the cabin and entered the corridor. Pale blue lights lining the passageway flickered. They could hear more shouting up ahead. Toward the stern of the ship, a sailor swung two flashlights in wide arcs, and the family sloshed that way, the water now up to Sonny’s thighs.
“Don’t come down here! Take the stairs to the deck!” the sailor shouted.
With his father half dragging him up the steps, Sonny saw a sliver of light from the deck above. It seemed to take forever to climb the stairs and escape the rushing water.
Just as the family reached the last couple of steps, the ship suddenly lurched to starboard. The four were slammed by an avalanche of churning water. Sonny was torn from his father’s grasp. The boy felt himself tumbling underwater as if inside a washing machine, not sure which way the surface was. He opened his eyes to blackness. Someone grabbed one of his legs, and, terrified, he instinctively kicked away. His lungs screamed for air as he thrashed wildly. He clawed at the water, panicked that the ocean would never let him go.
Ten seconds later, Sonny came up gasping for air, then coughing up seawater. He swiveled around, desperately looking for his parents and sister. They were gone. He was alone in the ocean with the sinking ship, terrified.
It was suddenly as bright as daylight. Am I dead? Is this a nightmare? The 8-year-old had no way of knowing that they were in the sights of the powerful searchlight on the conning tower of U-506.
Sonny tried to make sense of what he could see. He knew he was in the ocean — could see the swells rising and falling — but he also heard voices coming from somewhere above him. He looked toward the sound and saw what he thought was the Heredia’s uppermost deck, above the bridge. It was barely above water.
Sonny had surfaced just a few feet from a short steel ladder leading to the upper deck. He tried to climb it, but the angle was too steep, and he fell off, landing on top of another passenger, a thin, balding man named George Conyea.
“We gotta get up there!” Conyea shouted. “You try again, and I’ll be right behind you!”
This time the boy made it to the top, with Conyea following.
“You stand by the wire rail,” Conyea shouted, “and hold onto it!” He pointed to the wire cable supported by stanchions that encircled the upper deck. There was another man standing on the top deck, someone Sonny had gotten to know quite well on the voyage, Heredia Captain Erwin Colburn. The captain, binoculars dangling from his neck, cursed as he struggled to free a life raft from its brackets.
“Where’s my family?” Sonny shouted. Silence. Neither Conyea nor the captain answered. They didn’t even meet Sonny’s eyes. The boy choked back a sob, thinking his mother, father, and sister had all been swallowed by the ocean.
Conyea and the captain both tried freeing the raft, kicking at the brackets that held it in place.
Sonny looked out at the black 5-foot swells and found the source of the light that illuminated the ship. About 200 yards away, the searchlight from the sub cut through the darkness, seeming to point directly at Sonny. He wasn’t sure what the sub might do next, but he was thankful for light that let him continue scanning the ocean’s surface for any signs of his family.
Sonny watched Conyea and Colburn move to the same side of the raft and pull together, still without result. The raft was small, just a simple 4-by-4-foot balsa-wood frame. Gray canvas was wrapped around the wood but did not cover the middle. It reminded Sonny of a sandbox with no bottom.
Still clutching the wire cable, Sonny noticed movement where the ocean covered the submerged part of the ship on the starboard side. A man burst from the water and swam toward the gun deck where Sonny stood transfixed. It was his father!
Ray climbed to the deck and, catching his breath, watched the captain and Conyea struggling to free the raft.
“Get outta the way, you jackasses!” Ray shouted.
He pushed the captain from the raft and heaved it free. He told Sonny to get on and hang on tight, indicating that he would send the raft down the sloping deck to the water.
“I need to be on it when you slide it off!” Sonny later recalled the captain shouting. “I can’t swim.”
Ray jabbed a fist into Colburn’s chest. “Well, you’re going to learn real quick, because my son goes first!”
Sonny, watching this exchange, was as stunned as Colburn. There was a clear shift in who was in charge, and he briefly wondered how the captain and his father would coexist on the tiny life raft. Then his mind shifted to his mother and Lucille, and he choked back a sob. Where were they?
COMMANDER ERICH WURDEMANN stood on the bridge of U-506 and quietly watched the Heredia founder. He would have preferred it if his prey had been an oil tanker rather than a merchant vessel. It wasn’t human lives he was after, but ships and supplies. Having already used two torpedoes, he did not want to fire another. If necessary, he’d use his deck guns to punch holes near the waterline of the sinking vessel to speed it along. He didn’t need to.
The nearly 400-foot long Heredia sank quickly, its stern the first part to hit the ocean floor more than 100 feet down. Within three minutes, the entire ship had disappeared into the deep, leaving only survivors in life rafts and others clinging to flotsam.
Wurdemann ordered the searchlight darkened, and U-506 slipped back into the night.
FOR THE NEXT 18 HOURS, Sonny, Ray, Conyea, and the captain floated in the gulf without food, water, or protection from the sun. Their life raft was circled by sharks. Sonny suffered from hypothermia during the night and a searing sunburn during the day. A search plane finally spotted them and directed a shrimp boat to their location.
Lucille and her mother had been separated in the water, and each had to find the courage and resilience to survive. Lucille was assisted by Second Mate Roy Sorli, from Lynnfield, who was later awarded the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal for saving her life. Ina, alone, floated in the gulf well into the second night, her eyes burning with oil from the ship, before being rescued by the shrimp boat.
Thirty-six people died in the Heredia 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. They were survivors.
EVERYTHING THE FAMILY owned went down with the Heredia, but the experience only strengthened Ray Sr.’s resolve to serve his country. He joined the Coast Guard and moved the family to Florida. Although he was wracked by nightmares, discussion of the attack faded over time. They moved again, to West Texas, and later returned to their hometown of San Antonio.
Wurdemann, the U-boat commander, never returned home. The tide of the war turned sharply against the marauders: Submarine detection technology improved rapidly, and the hunters became the hunted. On July 12, 1943, an American warplane dropped depth charges on U-506 while it was patrolling off the coast of Spain, killing Wurdemann and most of his crew.
After graduating from high school, Ray Downs Jr. (who was only called Sonny by his family) went to the University of Texas at Austin on a basketball scholarship, racking up high points as a rare ambidextrous player. Among other records, he still holds the school’s highest single-season scoring average (26 points per game), despite being followed decades later by future NBA star Kevin Durant. After playing basketball for a year in the National Industrial Basketball League, Ray joined the Army.
While stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia, he began selling insurance policies to his fellow soldiers and former teammates. He eventually became a top producer, and in the 1980s was named Manager of the Year for the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. He married Betty Gayle Lowther of San Antonio and had two sons. Now 82, he lives in Quincy and remains a top salesman in his industry.
Over the years, Ray has told the story of the sinking of the Heredia to many business groups, but says he’s always met with disbelief and skepticism. He says few people realize that U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico during WWII. Then he shows them his family pictured on the front page of the May 25, 1942, New Orleans Times-Picayune.
He knows that the ordeal probably motivated him to live life to the fullest, but also that it changed him in ways that remain mysterious to this day.