Survivors Remember 60-Year-Old Tragedy
By Dennis Ryan
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 21, 2004 Sixty years ago last month, members of the 66th Infantry Division boarded the USS George Washington and sailed through New York Harbor on their way to the war in Europe. The men went to England and prepared to cross the channel to engage in fierce fighting in Belgium's Ardennes Forest.
German tanks and troops attacked a quiet section of the front on Dec. 16, 1944, and the Army found itself in the largest battle of its long history -- the Battle of the Bulge. Replacements were desperately needed.
The 2,235 men of the 66th Division sailed from Southampton Harbor, England, bound for Cherbourg, France, on Christmas Eve 1944. The Belgian ship SS Leopoldville, on its 25th crossing of the channel as a troop transport, was within sight of the lights of Cherbourg -- only five and a half miles from safe harbor -- when disaster in the form of a German U-boat struck.
For at least 763 of the U.S. soldiers, this was as close as they would ever get to the Battle of the Bulge. Pierced by a torpedo, the Leopoldville sank in little over two hours. The bodies of nearly 500 of the victims were never recovered.
Survivors and family members of those who perished visited Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia, and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns there Nov. 15 before holding a luncheon under the auspices of the White House Commission on Remembrance at nearby Fort Myer's Spates Hall.
Carmella LaSpada, executive director of the commission, told the audience her organization got involved when she met a woman at a charity function in Philadelphia two years ago and was asked when she was going to do something about the Leopoldville disaster. The woman put LaSpada in touch with Allan Andrade, who had written a book on the disaster.
Even though the sinking was a disaster of monumental proportions, it had received no news coverage. Families hadn't even been told how their husbands, fathers or brothers died. Many were listed as missing in action, even though some were buried in a cemetery at Normandy, France. Details of the incident weren't declassified until 1959.
Andrade, a former New York City lieutenant of detectives, helped to unravel the mystery in his 1997 book, "The SS Leopoldville Disaster Dec. 24, 1944." The former internal affairs investigator had seen references to the Leopoldville while researching another matter.
"I used my police background to track down hundreds of people all over the United States," Andrade said. "I tried to put faces on the statistics. It was classified; Murphy's Law; there was so much that went wrong. The fellows that didn't drown either froze or were crushed while jumping to rescue ships. A lot of the families were told nothing. Some mothers went to their graves thinking their sons were wandering around Europe."
Chuck Mathison was only 2 when his dad set sail on the Leopoldville. He didn't find out his father was buried at Omaha Beach, in France, until 45 years later.
"[Mother] heard he was missing in action," Mathison said. "It was several months before she was told he was dead."
Gerald Howard, 83, of Sikeston, Mo., spoke about his experiences on board and after. "I was on the ship until it went down," Howard said. "It pulled me down, and when I came up I saw a life raft. They said 'You can't get on.' I said, 'Like hell I can't.' I woke up at midnight in a hospital in Cherbourg, France. It was quite a deal. I was a squad leader of a rifle company. I lost several men. We were headed to the Battle of the Bulge. I don't know how they kept it a secret."
Ross Saunders, 80, of the Pittsburgh area brought 17 members of his clan to the reunion event. He had just turned 20 when the torpedo struck the compartment adjacent to his. "I went down and got an armful of life preservers," Howard said. "I was one of the last ones off. It seemed forever. I slid down the side of the ship. I paddled off."
Howard told how he pulled another soldier's head from the water and held him for a while, before losing contact. "A small American harbor craft threw me a rope," he said. "My fingers were frozen. They told me to tie it around my arm."
Howard and most of the surviving members of his unit were later sent to the area around St. Nazaire, France, where 50,000 Germans were isolated. They conducted patrols and some small attacks, but were saved the carnage of the Battle of the Bulge and the conquest of Germany.
Howard, a retired Bell Telephone employee and father of eight, still has trouble understanding why the sinking was kept secret for so long. "I can understand during the war, after the war no one told me to keep a secret," Howard said.
Brig. Gen. James Miles represented Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker at the remembrance event.
"The fact was, you were on that ship, trained to reinforce the Battle of the Bulge," Miles said to the survivors. "You did not know what history had in store for you. All of us who wear this uniform have a duty never to forget that night on the Leopoldville."
(Dennis Ryan is a staff writer for the Pentagram newspaper, Fort Myer, Va.)