Monday, December 11, 2017

Book review: "So Close to Home" by Michael J. Tougias and Alison O'Leary

Michael Tougias is my favorite author. I've read three of his books -- "A Storm Too Soon," "Overboard," and "Fatal Forecast" -- and loved them all. In each, Tougias tells a riveting story of survival at sea.

So when I saw a new book by Tougias, "So Close to Home," I grabbed it.

In some ways, I was disappointed with this book, which is co-written by Alison O'Leary. There is less page-turning survival drama than in Tougias' past books.

On the other hand, there's a lot of good history, and that almost makes up for the lack of near-death moments.

In "So Close to Home," Tougias and O'Leary describe how German U-boats hunted and sank scores of ships in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. This was a revelation to me -- I had no idea Nazi submarines were prowling right off the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"So Close to Home" tells its story mostly from three perspectives. First, there is 8-year-year Sonny Downs, who is traveling in 1942 with his parents and sister aboard a ship through the Gulf of Mexico as they return from a year in Central America. Sonny's father had worked as a mechanic at a banana plantation in Panama and Colombia.

Then there are two German submarine captains Harro Schacht and Erich Wurdemann, young Nazi sailors who are eager to sink as many American and Allied ships as they can.  It is Wurdemann's U-boat that sinks the ship carrying the Downs'.

The Downs story is a good one, and through them the authors manage to capture a lot of elements of this period. Sonny's parents knew that U-boats were prowling the area, and were frustrated that they were not allowed to get off the ship at an earlier stop. The dialog, though certainly recreated by Tougias and O'Leary, is believable.

For me, one of the most interesting -- and occasionally disturbing --aspects of the book was the authors' sympathetic portrayal of the Nazis. We see the U-boat captains from the perspective of the German side. When their torpedoes miss, it seems as if Tougias and O'Leary feel sorry for them, even though the failed attack meant that innocent people are not killed.

At one point, after Wurdermann's sub attempts to attack a convoy of ships, the defenders fight back and "the crew of U-506 had to endure an agonizing hour of being depth-charged." They had to "endure" being attacked? Oh, I'm sorry, are we disturbing you while you're trying to kill people?

That said, Tougias and O'Leary shed light on one astonishing episode where a U-boat sunk the British ship Laconia, and then spent days trying to help the survivors. Even as the Nazis were helping, Allied planes were attacking the submarines, forcing the Germans to submerge and abort rescue efforts.

It's a bizarre picture: Yes, the German showed much compassion toward the victims of the sinking -- but keep in mind that they were only victims because the Nazis has torpedoed the ship.

In the interesting Author's Notes section at the end of the book, O'Leary acknowledges being conflicted about portraying the Germans. "Can one both admire and despise the actions of the sub crew, or mourn for the dead and their fractured families while at the same time acknowledging that the sinking of ships is a common and accepted part of being at war?"

If you like this type of book, there are others that I would recommend. "All Brave Sailors" tells the amazing story of British sailors who survived a World War II attack by a German ship. "The Wolf"  recounts the little-known exploits of a German "commerce raider" ship during World War I.

And certainly, I would recommend any of these Michael Tougias books: "A Storm Too Soon," "Overboard," and "Fatal Forecast."


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)