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The Mathews Men: Seven Bothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-Boats, by William Geroux, Viking Books, New York, N.Y., 2016, $28

In spite of the fact the U.S. Merchant Marine has participated in every war fought by the nation from 1775 to present, and that it suffered a higher casualty rate than the military services during World War II, the civilian service always goes unmentioned in Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations. Merchant mariners have suffered worse fates, however, than simple disregard. During World War II the seafarers who voluntarily risked their lives to supply the military forces of the United States and its Allies were frequently derided as draft dodgers, war profiteers and political undesirables.

Author Geroux was surprised to learn that by 1942 German submarines were regularly sinking ships along the Eastern Seaboard and in the Gulf Coast, and that more American seamen lost their lives off the coast during the first six months of the war than military personnel were killed at Pearl Harbor. That discovery led him to research the wartime activities of the Merchant Marine, which in turn led him to the story of a unique community.

Mathews County, Va., is a small, remote municipality on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay with a present-day population around 9,000. It is surrounded on three sides by the bay and connected to the Virginia mainland by roads of such poor quality that most residents prefer to travel by boat. As one resident summed up life there: “There was nothing in Mathews but the water. You farmed, you fished the bay, or you went to sea.” Therein lay the core of Geroux’s narrative, the story of a handful of families from a little-known backwater that, incredibly, during World War II produced more shipmasters than any other American community.

The Mathews Men follows the numerous mariners who hailed from the county, many of whom were related to one another, including no less than seven captains from the Hodges family and eight from the Callis family. During the course of the war the Mathews Men encountered danger around the world, from the coastal waters of the United States to northern Russia, Brazil to Antwerp, and the Mediterranean to Okinawa. To those hereditary mariners, whose families had been making their living at sea since before the American Revolution, war was simply one more danger added to the hazards they already faced each day as a matter of course.

—Robert Guttman