Historical Facts & Resources
Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves
Louisa June’s story is about many things: WWII on our home front, civilian courage and resolve, plus sudden loss, grief, mental health and their effect on family. While she and her family are fictitious, the wartime events that anchor this novel are fact.
For more about the 1942 attacks of Hitler’s U-boats along our East Coast, our Merchant Marine, and the “Winnie Welders” making Liberty Boats, please see their separate sections on this page. Also, my powerpoint bookchat focusing on the attacks in Virginia, the plot linchpins of LOUISA JUNE.
For more WWII resources: Usborne, publisher of the British editions of my other WWII books, posted wonderfully comprehensive resources for Across a War-Tossed Sea (renamed for them as Across Enemy Seas) also set in WWII Tidewater VA, and Under a War-Torn Sky.
Wartime Civilian Mobilization
The “Hooligan Navy”
In addition to the merchant marines, young and old, who bravely took to the sea despite U-boat attacks on them, there were many commercial fishermen and private yachtsmen who also showed extraordinary grit and determination to help the war effort. They joined what was officially called the Coastal Picket Force or Corsair Fleet, but fondly nicknamed the Hooligan Navy. Trawlers and fishing boats whose captains were deemed trustworthy in terms of their discretion were outfitted with secure radios to report anything suspicious to the Naval Operating Base in Norfolk.
In terms of actually patrolling the coastline, large sailing yachts capable of cruising 150 miles offshore—in fair or rough weather—were preferred. Under sail, they ran silently, without motors that submerged U-boats could hear from below. These 70-foot-plus schooners were repainted battleship gray, armed with a single 30-caliber WWI-era machine gun, a few service rifles, and, if large enough, four depth charges. Their real mission, though, was to spot, track, and radio for backup. Many proved critically important in search-and-rescue as well, using boat hooks and flashlights to locate and pull injured, drowning merchant sailors from the ocean.
In Virginia, picket boats operated out of Little Creek near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The owners served as captains and took on volunteer crews of college students, boy scouts, even former bootleggers and rumrunners. In the rush to get observers out to sea as quickly as possible in 1942, the crews received next-to-no training, the assumption being they were already experienced, expert sailors. Boats were sent on five-day patrols of designated fifteen-square nautical miles, even in winter when the crew fought to keep their rigging from icing over. Some, to maintain radio silence, brought along carrier pigeons trained to fly back to Virginia Beach’s Fort Story.
The dangers for them were very real. One sailboat reported grazing a submerged mine as it raced through the Bay’s opening to the safety of port to escape a quickly gathering hurricane. Another spotted a U-boat running on the surface to recharge its batteries. The Nazi sub dove and then resurfaced directly underneath the small schooner, like a vengeful Moby Dick, lifting the Americans out of the water and scraping the sailboat’s bottom as it cruised away. On the other hand, one German U-boat captain in concern for the sailboat crew, using “excellent Americanese,” shouted at them: “Get the hell out of here, you guys! Do you want to get hurt? Now scram!”
Confidential Observation Corps
On shore, Americans walked beaches at dawn, looking for footprints and indications of German saboteurs being landed, or joined Confidential Observation Corps like the Ground Observers of the Aircraft Warning Service—as does Louisa June’s friend, Emmett (If you’re interested in learning more about teenage plane-watchers, you might enjoy Across a War-Tossed Sea, my home front companion novel to Under a War-Torn Sky. In it, characters also encounter German POWs and the top-secret, decoy airfield of plywood planes built just outside Richmond, meant to lure the Luftwaffe away from the state’s capital city if Nazi invasion came).
Virginians felt particularly vulnerable to attack after four ships entering the Chesapeake Bay exploded in plain sight of Virginia Beach sunbathers in June 1942, as described in the final chapters of this novel. Their paranoia escalated when locals realized that if a Nazi sub had managed to leave a string of lethal magnetic mines in the Bay—totally undetected—it either had maps to the channel to avoid running aground in shallows or it had followed an unsuspecting American ship in and out. Turns out, U-701 had followed a patrolling trawler as well as navigating by the Cape Henry and Cape Charles lighthouses that still sent its beams out along the Atlantic, welcoming voyagers to the Chesapeake.
With Newport News shipyards and docks in overdrive to build and launch ships, the war was rarely far from residents’ minds. That was particularly true for anyone living near Plum Island, where residents heard the boom of bombs exploding as aircrews training at Langley ran their practice dives over its marshes. Now a wildlife preserve, some of the island has remained closed to the public ever since the war because of the worry of unexploded WWII ordinances remaining half-buried in its sands and mud.
WWII is filled with stories of extraordinary courage and kindness in the most dire and dangerous situations, many having to do with civilians saving one another after a cruel event. Louisa June reads about one in Chapter Eight: the U.S.S. Roper “lifeboat baby.” After a U-boat had torpedoed their cargo-passenger liner, a young mother, eight months pregnant and struggling to carry her toddler, had fallen on deck, and badly bruised herself. A young sailor gave her his life jacket and helped her onto a lifeboat. The ship doctor followed. He clambered down a rope, but lost his grip and fell hard, cracking two of his ribs against the rail, as the lifeboat dropped into a deep swell between waves. In pain himself, he tended the mother as she struggled to give birth, in a storm and 20-foot seas, for thirteen long hours. Twenty other passengers crowded the boat, comforting her two-year-old, covering the mother with a sail to shield her against the pelting rain. A day and a half later they were found and rescued.
Virginia During WWII
For more links related to the home front during WWII, please go to my page for Across a War-Tossed Sea: https://www.lmelliott.com/book_landing_page_historical/across-war-tossed-sea/links-learning-more-across-war-torn-sea