On May 19, 1942, Lucille Downs was 11 years old and her brother was 8 when the ship they were sailing on was intercepted by a German U-boat near the mouth of the Mississippi River and sunk with three torpedoes.
Friday marks the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the Heredia, a merchant ship carrying bananas, coffee and civilians from Guatemala to New Orleans. It was only the second German U-boat attack in the Gulf and the worst one to that point, killing 36 of the 62 people aboard, according to reports in The Times-Picayune at the time.
The Downs family of San Antonio, Raymond F. Downs Sr., wife Ina and their two children, Lucille and Raymond Jr., were among the 26 survivors.
The 2 a.m. attack wakened the Downs family, who put on life preservers and climbed a stairway to the ship’s deck, unaware they had only about 3 minutes before the ship would sink to the bottom of the Gulf.
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The family became separated before they could abandon the ship together, and when Downs heard his wife calling to Lucille, he left his son in the care of fellow passenger George B. Conyea, whom Downs credited with saving the boy’s life.
Downs went back to look for his wife and daughter but could not find them and nearly drowned before getting aboard a small raft with his son, Conyea, and some other passengers.
The ship’s second mate, Roy Sorli, spotted Lucille and jumped about 18 feet from the top of the bridge to grab her and carry her overboard. While in the water, Sorli placed the girl atop a hatch cover and was eventually joined by seven others who helped improvise a raft. The men beat off sharks that got so close they “tickled the girl’s feet,” the Times-Picayune reported at the time.
Ina Downs climbed through a window and slid down the hull of the ship and into a pool of hot oil. She grabbed a wooden board and floated alone into the late afternoon. She, too, had to beat away sharks.
“Those sharks were nearly 4 feet long and terrified me worse than anything else,” she said.
The family was separated for nearly 15 hours until a plane spotted the survivors and directed nearby shrimp trawlers to scoop them out of the water.
Raymond Jr., now in his 80s, recounts the story of the Heredia’s sinking and his family’s survival in the nonfiction book, “So Close to Home.” The book, released in 2016, was written by Michael Tougias and Alison O’Leary. It also chronicles Nazi Germany’s U-boat campaign in the Gulf.