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In 1942 the Downs family, together with 8-year-old Sonny and 11-year-old Lucille, were aboard a freighter ship returning from South America when they sailed into the crosshairs of a German submarine lying in wait in the Gulf of Mexico. What ensues is a story of survival and perseverance, both for the family and the German sailors.

"This exciting, highly readable story of survival deserves a place on most library shelves. Perfect for young history buffs and older fans of the 'I Survived' series." -- School Library Journal

"Quotes from letters and diaries evoke the historical era. A well-researched account of one American family during a little-known episode of World War II." -- Kirkus Reviews

"After hours of dehydration, hypothermia, and shark threats, the survivors were sighted by plane and rescued by smaller craft . . . in this true survival story that judiciously carries forward beyond the relief of the rescue. The peril facing two children lost at sea is convincingly conveyed, and the lasting effect on their family life is equally sobering." -- The Bulletin for Children's Literature

Attacked At Sea

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Find out about bringing this program to your library or classroom (in person or virtually). Email Alison.

Click on video to hear Ray "Sonny" Downs tell part of his survival story.

book So Close to Home
So Close to Home

The Downs family needed a break. Both parents were working hard to cobble togther a good life for their family during the lean post-Depression years in San Antonio, Texas. When Ray was offered a job in his chosen field, they all willingly -- and with a great sense of adventure -- pulled up stakes and moved to South America.

        They didn't know much about the beginnings of Germany's unrest, occupying France and stretching its tentacles toward Great Britain, nor about the powerful U-boats that began to prowl and prey on ships in the Atlantic and North Sea.

        When the Downses boarded the coffee- and banana-laden ship Heredia to return home after a year in Colombia and Costa Rica, the country was at war. Isolationist policies resulted in  terrible losses of ships and lives to U-boats stalking along the Atlantic coast -- but no one was saying much about it.


        The mastermind behind the U-boat offensive was Admiral Karl Donitz, who struggled to make the Fuhrer understand the importance of striking first. Hitler had faith in ground campaigns and viewed the Navy as a primarily defensive force. Did they know how close they were to decimating US-British supply lines in 1942?


"The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril."

                                                        -- Winston Churchill


        Meanwhile, German sailors gladly tolerated horrible conditions aboard U-boats rather than suffering on the Eastern Front, working and living cheek-by-jowl with 50 men and the stench of insufficient sanitary facilities, rotting food and little fresh air for weeks or months at a time. At least they had great success and camaraderie that came from picking off defenseless ships, one after the other.

        Using the U-boat captains' own words from their War Diaries, So Close to Home follows the paths of two successful predators in the waters off Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico, including the mouth of the Mississippi River.

        At 2 a.m. on May 19, 1942 the Downs family learned the hard reality of the U-boat war when a torpedo ripped into the Heredia, sending them into the dark water of the Gulf ...

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Times Picayune front page 05.25.42
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Roy Sorli
Praise for So Close to Home

"They don't come any better than Michael J. Tougias. His latest - So Close to Home - is a truly gripping, deeply affecting saga of undersea warfare and an extraordinary American family caught in the crosshairs of history."   -Alex Kershaw, New York Times best-selling author of The Longest Winter and The Few


Meticulously-researched, Tougias and O'Leary take you where few historians dare, into the dark sea with an American family floundering to stay alive and onto the steel planked deck of the U-boat Commander who put them there. This is priceless history, a fresh story in a modern era, two-hundred fast-paced pages of “you-are-there.” -Adam Makos
New York Times bestselling author of "A Higher Call"

book Inns and Adventures
Inns and Adventures: A History and Explorer's Guide to New Hampshire, Vermont and the Berkshires

Have you ever wandered in the woods and wondered who'd been there before? This travelogue is designed to inspire the hesitant, educate the newcomer, and challenge the intrepid. Use it to find great hikes, explore off the grid, try new things and appreciate the diverse history of New England's past.


Whether you're an armchair traveler or avid explorer you'll find something new and interesting in these pages.

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