A TIRED OLD WORKHORSE
Eight-year-old Raymond “Sonny” Downs Jr. was disappointed by the drab gray freighter called Heredia looming above him at a port in Costa Rica. Sonny had steamed from the United States to South America 11 months earlier aboard a cruise liner with all the comforts of a five-star hotel. Now, on May 12, 1942, his return trip to the States would be aboard the Heredia. She was an old ship that primarily transported produce rather than pampered passengers. The big difference, however, between his earlier voyage and the one he was about to embark on was the risk. The United States had entered World War II five months earlier, and Germany had sent its U-boats toward the Americas for what they considered easy “hunting.”
Sonny was aware that war had broken out, but at this moment he was more intrigued by the giant cargo nets full of bananas that were being loaded onto the Heredia. He and his 11-year-old sister, Betty Lucille, who preferred the name Lucille over Betty, ran up the gangplank to the ship’s deck. From this vantage point they had a better view of the stevedores, the workers who loaded the vessel, stowing the cargo below.
Brown-eyed Lucille, who had a dimpled chin and stood a full head taller than Sonny, hadn’t known there were this many bananas in all of Costa Rica and Colombia, where they had been living the past few months. Other workers were loading heavy sacks onto the ship. Sonny, never shy, asked a senior crew member of the Heredia what was in the sacks.
“Coffee, young man,” said the sailor. “All bound for the U.S.”
“We thought so,” said Lucille. “We thought we could smell coffee.”
“Well, you’re too young for coffee, but would you two like a Coke?”
“You bet!” exclaimed Sonny.
“Okay, follow me to the galley.”
Lucille shouted down the gangplank, telling their parents they were going to the galley, where meals were prepared and served. The two kids skipped away, Sonny barefoot. Maybe this trip is going to be a good one, thought Sonny. It doesn’t matter how old the ship is if the crew is nice.
Sonny was correct: It wasn’t every day that children were on board the freighter, and the crew was more than accommodating. In fact, only six of the 62 people aboard the ship were civilian passengers. Six others were members of the navy, assigned to man the guns mounted on the highest deck. The rest of the people on board were crew members. And, yes, the 4,700-ton Heredia had steamed many a mile since she’d been built 34 years before, in 1908. Powered by an oil-burning engine that turned a massive propeller, the steel ship was 378 feet long and had a large funnel that belched black smoke from the burned fuel.
Although the vessel was originally a passenger ship named the General Pershing, it had been converted to a freighter by the United Fruit Company and renamed Heredia. Most of its former elegance had been worn away by time and rust, and now it was a tired old workhorse. But as Sonny and Lucille Downs bounded after the crewman toward the galley, they couldn’t wait to get underway and explore every inch of the freighter. The journey was expected to last seven days before they reached New Orleans, Louisiana.
* * *
The children’s father, Raymond Downs Sr., worked as a railway steam engine mechanic for the United Fruit Company in Colombia and Costa Rica, South America. He, too, looked forward to the voyage and a return to the States. When Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, Ray had decided it was time for him and his family to leave South America and return home. At 36 years old, he was hoping to join the U.S. Marines. Ray was certainly in good enough shape to fight. He was six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, with plenty of upper-body strength and unending stamina. His fit condition, coupled with his dexterity and quick fists, made Ray a formidable opponent should anyone underestimate him in a challenge.
Ray lived life in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner and taught his kids that if they worked hard, good things would come. That mindset had served Ray well, and his job with United Fruit in Colombia had paid handsomely. Now, however, he was anxious to get home and be a part of his country’s response to Japan’s sneak attack. Like many young men at the time, Ray had patriotism running high in his veins. He wanted to see his family secure in their hometown of San Antonio, Texas, before he joined the military.
Sonny had some of his dad’s characteristics, showing athletic promise even at a young age and sharing a competitive and determined nature. But while Ray, with his close-set eyes, had an intense, even threatening, look about him, Sonny usually wore a wide, welcoming smile. The boy would strike up a conversation with anyone nearby. He had tremendous respect for his father but recognized that his dad was set in his ways and often unyielding. Sonny knew better than to try to argue with him.
When Ray announced that the family was going to leave South America, Sonny hadn’t been happy, but he didn’t question his father’s decision. Instead, he told his mother, Ina, that he wanted to stay right where they were because he was having fun. Ina, however, was in complete agreement with her husband, although for a different reason.
Ina Downs was a beautiful woman who was every bit as strong-willed and opinionated as her husband. While she understood Ray’s desire to return home with a war underway, the 33-year-old mother’s primary concern was her children’s well-being. Besides Sonny and Lucille, she and Ray had a third child, 14-year-old Terry, who was living back in the United States with his grandparents. Terry had made the trip with the family to South America but had stayed only a couple of months before returning to Texas to continue his schooling.
Ina missed Terry terribly. She also felt out of place in South America, as she didn’t quite fit in with either the locals or the other Americans who worked for United Fruit. Even before the war broke out, she had broached the subject of returning home, especially after she observed a couple of wild parties hosted by other American workers. It bothered her that excessive drinking was happening all around them while she was trying to raise Sonny and Lucille with strong values.
Now, as Ina looked up at the towering gray hull of the ship that would take them home, she said a silent prayer that her family would be safe. Reliable news about the German U-boat threat had been hard to come by, but she knew of a couple of attacks in the Caribbean and off the east coast of Florida. She was unaware of any attacks in the Gulf of Mexico, through which the family would be traveling. Like most people, she assumed the Gulf was out of U-boat range.
Ina reflected on the months the family had spent in Colombia and Costa Rica, and despite her desire to leave, she did not regret the experiment of living abroad or her husband’s decision to take a job there. His position at the United Fruit Company had enabled them to save a considerable sum of money, which was sorely needed. That money, along with their furniture, personal belongings, and car—all their earthly possessions—was being loaded onto the Heredia. Prior to Ray’s job in South America, the family had struggled financially. But now they were returning home in good shape and might even be able to buy a house. When we came down, Ina thought, we barely had two nickels to rub together, so the grand adventure was worth it.
Ina let her mind drift back to the beginning of the journey …
Copyright © 2020 by Michael Tougias and Alison O’Leary