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One witness’ Account of the SS Leopoldville Disaster

June 4, 2014

Reprinted with permission of the author.

By Randolph Bradham

It was a usual day, December 23, 1944, up at 5:00 a.m., cleaning of barracks and grounds, breakfast and off to duties and training activities. The three regiments of the 66th Infantry Division, the 262nd, 263rd and the 264th were in separate locations where they had been for three to four weeks since arriving in England. The soldiers were well aware they would soon be moving across the English Channel to France and likely be deployed to Belgium to support the war in the “Battle of the Bulge,” which was presently at its peak with a high percentage of casualties. They had enjoyed the stay in Dorchester but were ready to join the war as most had friends and kinfolks already engaged. The 66th Black Panther Division had a very good esprit de corps.

Christmas was two days away, and the company cooks had received the rations for the much-anticipated Christmas dinner. However, that was not to be. At noon that day, the company command post received an urgent alert for E Company of the 262nd Regiment to be packed and ready to leave for Southampton by trucks in two hours. This order created a stir of activity. Soldiers in town had to be rounded up. Training programs were halted and soldiers returned to camp. The Red Cross in London would try to find soldiers of the 66th Division and instruct them to return to camp.

It was the Army’s same old modus operandi, “hurry up and wait.” The soldiers collected at the truck pick-up site but had to wait for five hours for their arrival. A long uncomfortable ride to Southampton without supper took another five hours. The soldiers were beginning to wonder about the lack of organization and efficiency of this trip. After arriving at Southampton and going to the dock leading to the ships, they were halted. By error, one of the two ships was loaded with 2000 paratroopers, and they had to be removed before boarding could begin. This really gave cause for concern. A recording of the comments by the G.I.s would be interesting.

Finally, at around 2:00 a.m., December 24, 1944 (Christmas Eve), boarding began. It was a fiasco. What had already happened paled in comparison to the boarding process. The soldiers were very tired, but fatigue was no stranger. There was a corporal with a clipboard (a badge of authority in the service) who asked each group which company they were in. With no plan to keep a company unified, he would indiscriminately assign a group to one of the two ships, the SS Leopoldville or the SS Cheshire. This divided companies and platoons and separated officers from their commands. This destroyed the chain of command, which is so important in the military. This was not protocol, and it made the soldiers insecure. In some cases, soldiers from the two different regiments were mixed in the same compartment, which later created a problem of determining the identity of missing soldiers.

In times of stress, the soldier wants to be with his buddies, non-coms and officers. Soldiers were directed to various compartments, which were cargo holds converted to sleeping quarters of hammocks, stacked four high with narrow isles between each row. The steps to the upper deck were wooden and not too sturdy. Both ships were dirty. Each was packed with approximately 2000 soldiers. The officers were assigned four men to a small room on an upper deck. The holds were overcrowded and ventilation was poor.

Both ships were passenger ships prior to the war. The Leopoldville had made 24 crossings of the English Channel, carrying 120,000 soldiers from England to France. The members of the crew were from the Belgian Congo who spoke no English, and the gunners were British. Both ships were under the Belgian flag. The ships left Southampton at 9:00 a.m. It was Christmas Eve, 1944.

A small convoy formed shortly after the ships left the harbor. Captain John Pringle, as commander of both the Brilliant and of the convoy, ordered the ships to form a diamond formation and designated each ship’s position. The Cheshire followed the Leopoldville, separated by approximately 100-200 yards. A few small subchasers followed. The ships involved, other than those mentioned were HMS Anthony, HMS Hotham and the Free French frigate Croix de Lorraine. (The cross of Lorrainne was the adopted symbol of the French Resistance).

The Channel was very choppy and immediately after leaving the harbor, soldiers became sea sick. The latrines malfunctioned. Many of the soldiers stayed in their hammock. The morning and afternoon meals were essentially undesirable. The loudspeaker did not work well and all messages were in French. The atmosphere in the two ships became similar to the tales about the old slave ships coming from Africa. No training was given to the troops about the use of life vests or how to prepare for entering the water if necessary. No assignments were made for group stations on deck in case of ship damage by mines or torpedoes.

At 2:30 p.m., the Brilliant reported an ASDIC contact. The crews were ordered to action stations. The destroyers moved out to drop depth charges. The alert was called off shortly thereafter and the ships resumed a diamond formation. The Cheshire resumed its position behind the Leopoldville. Zig-zagging continued. Already there had been many errors committed during this transfer of approximately 4000 young well-trained soldiers from England to France.

The strike

Author’s Note: The interior of the Cheshire became unbearable. Orders had been issued for the troops to remain inside and not go out to the open deck because of the stormy weather. Another soldier and I slipped outside and climbed up to the top of a stack of lifeboats and hunkered down in the top one where we could not be seen. We were watching the Leopoldville roll from side to side and buck the waves. It was approximately 100 yards ahead of us. The port was six miles from our position. The lights of Cherbourg could be seen. Suddenly, there was a terrific explosion at the Leopoldville and a column of dark smoke rose above the ship. When the smoke cleared, it was obvious the ship was listing. We automatically looked into the water and saw the bubble trail of the torpedo. This sighting was later confirmed by the crewman in the crow’s nest. He had also seen another one, which had missed both ships. The troops on the Cheshire were ordered to the deck. They came up in an orderly fashion and waited for further orders. The Cheshire made a circle around the Leopoldville and then headed into Cherbourg on a zig-zag course. The troops stayed on the boat that night. We, of course, knew nothing of the massive damage to the Leopoldville or of the loss of life, which was huge. (End of author’s note)

The strike on the Leopoldville was committed by German U-boat 486, which was launched in February, 1944. She had previously sunk her first ship, the British Silverlaurel. U-boat 486 left Kiel for Norway on November 6, 1944, commanded by Gerhard Meyer. There was a crew of 35 on board. She moved to the English Channel where she waited for a target near Cherbourg. Meyer reported the hit but could not confirm the sinking. Later, she sunk the HMS Affleck and HMS Capel. In April, 1945, she was sunk with all hands by the British Tapir.

There was a lot more submarine activity in the area of Cherbourg and Le Havre at Christmas time, 1944.The Slemish and the Dunfries were sunk by U-772 close by on the same night. On December 28, 1944, U-772 torpedoed and sunk Empire Javelin between Southampton and Le Havre carrying 1448 United States infantry soldiers. Fortunately only seven lives were lost.

Aftermath

The torpedo struck the Leopoldville on the starboard side aft and exploded in number four hold. Compartments E-4, F-4 and G-4 were flooded and the wooden stairways were blown away. These compartments were occupied by F and H Companies and the weapons platoon of E Company of the 262nd Regiment. F and H companies were almost completely decimated and the weapons platoon of E Company lost two thirds of its soldiers. Very few soldiers were able to escape from these compartments. Many were killed by the blast. Others drowned. There was a tremendous effort by the soldiers who made it to the top deck to rescue those below, risking their lives to do so.

The soldiers on the deck of the Leopoldville remained orderly. This was already a fiasco, but it would become much worse because of multiple unacceptable events. First of all, the loudspeaker did not work well and messages were in French. They were told that a tugboat was underway to tow them in; that soldiers would be transferred to other boats; and that the ship is not sinking. None of this was true!

Captain Charles Limbor (Belgian) ordered his crew to abandon ship. When the crew was lowering the lifeboats, the soldiers began clapping. They thought the boats were for them but the crew got in the boats and left. The soldiers, used to receiving and carrying out orders had no one helping them except for a few junior officers who had received no information.

Failed communications

One of the most unforgivable aspects of this troop movement was the total failure of communications. First, there was a complete failure of communications on the ship with the soldiers on board. Second, the Brilliant had to signal Portsmouth rather than Cherbourg. Third, U. S. forces in France were tuned to a different frequency than used by the British and could not read British code. Fourth, Portsmouth’s subsequent call to Cherbourg was delayed for nearly an hour for reasons that have not been explained.

Other causes include the failure of any ship of the convoy to reply to blinker signals from shore. The Americans at Fort L’Quest in Cherbourg noticed immediately the convoy had stopped and soon observed one vessel was drifting toward a minefield. Repeated attempts by Fort L’Quest to signal the Leopoldville and convoy with blinkers failed until 1825 hours when the Brilliant signaled: “Leopoldville hit, need assistance.” Fort L’Quest blinked back inquiring what kind of assistance was needed, but received no reply. Further cause of delay was Christmas itself. Cherbourg harbor had several hundred vessels, which could have served as rescue crafts but were lightly manned with cold engines. All posts were minimally staffed due to Christmas parties. A large flotilla of these small crafts could have saved many of the soldiers, as happened at Dunkirk in 1940, when a massive flotilla of small boats from England crossed the English Channel and rescued hundreds of British and French soldiers. This should have happened here as Cherbourg knew the convoy was coming and should have been prepared for such a U-boat strike.

The Brilliant approaches At 1825 hours Captain Pringle made the decision to attempt a risky rescue of soldiers on the decks of the Leopoldville as it was obvious the ship was slowly sinking. With much skill he brought the Brilliant to the port side of the Leopoldville. His crew began calling to the soldiers, ”Jump mates! Save yourselves!” The two ships were rising and falling alternately and banging against each other. The jump had to be timed just as the Brilliant began coming up and the Leopoldville was going down. Several tried the jump but did not time it right, fell between the two ships and were crushed to death. Several young officers quickly realized the problem and instructed the soldiers to line up on the rail in small groups and jump when they called out “Jump.” Some of the soldiers, having witnessed the death of those who were crushed when the two ships banged together, backed off and would not jump.

Each time a group jumped another group of nine or ten would line up and be ready for the next jump. Unfortunately, there continued to be missed jumps but were much in the minority and many soldiers were saved. When 500 soldiers were safe on the Brilliant, Captain Pringle knew he could take no more, so he finally, reluctantly, had to back off and head to Cherbourg harbor, which was only three and a half miles away. His ship had taken quite a beating. On the way in, he began passing small rescue craft coming out from Cherbourg. The other ships of the convoy were dispersed trying to find the submarine.

There was no one left with seamanship experience, and the soldiers were left without help. Captain Limbor walked around the ship telling the soldiers to abandon ship. Since he gave the orders in French, the soldiers did not understand. They had no tools with which to free the lifeboats and the rafts. There were enough rafts to take care of all of them and keep them afloat out of the cold water until help came. They just did not deserve this fate. Many would die.

Two explosions occurred in the ship between 2020 and 2040 hours, and she began to sink stern down. Some soldiers were thrown into the water and others merely stepped off the deck into the water. Rafts and equipment broke lose and were swept into the water.

In the water Hundreds of men were in 48-degree water. No one had given them any instructions about removing heavy clothing and headgear, boots, backpacks, ammunition belts and trench tools. Overcoats should have been removed before entering the water. Helmets with chin straps should have been removed before jumping into the water to prevent broken necks. In some cases the life jackets were not correctly fastened to the body.

Approximately 1,200 men were thrown, jumped or merely stepped into the water. The initial panic quieted as the crowd dispersed into smaller groups. Many men quickly drowned or succumbed to hypothermia. Some of the stronger and more determined ones who found a piece of debris or a raft to cling to managed to survive until help arrived. Some of those who survived reported the difficulties they encountered when other soldiers held on to them, desperately trying to keep their heads above water and the difficulty of disengaging from them in their own desperate effort to survive.

It was now approximately two and a half hours since the torpedo hit the Leopoldville, and due to the delay in communications and less people on duty in Cherbourg because of Christmas, rescue boats were just beginning to reach the scene. The men on the boats pulled many soldiers out of the water who had died by drowning or by hypothermia. Some were so weak they were hard to pull into the boats as they were dead weight without the strength to help. The darkness compounded the difficulty of rescue. The dead were taken back to Cherbourg and stacked on the dock awaiting burial in American military cemeteries on the outskirts of Cherbourg. Many associated with this tragedy felt the incident was buried with them.

Survivors were instructed not to write home about the sinking and wartime censorship was generally effective in enforcing the order. Investigative files were sealed. Relatives were given incomplete information. Death notices after heavy losses were spread out over months, some listed as missing in action and later presumed killed in action. This was considered a morale factor. An official British memo in 1946 stated: “The story of the Leopoldville does not reflect any great credit upon us, and I should be adverse to disclosing it unless the need is very strong. To issue anything publicly in America might only serve to revive a controversy that would be better allowed to die.” The bodies of approximately 493 soldiers were never found.

Survivors

Many of the survivors who had made the jump to the Brilliant had cuts, bad bruises and fractured bones requiring hospitalization. The incidence of hypothermia, pneumonia and frostbite was high in those who were in the water, and the majority were hospitalized. Those who had no significant injuries or illnesses were placed in a small tent city and served meals in one of the mess halls in Cherbourg. The members of a black port battalion gave up their Christmas meal to the survivors and sang Christmas carols to them while they were seated for the meal. Having looked forward to this meal for many days, this was quite a sacrifice. God bless them! Some survivors were able to rejoin the Division in about a week. The soldiers who were on the SS Cheshire were put on trains the next morning (Christmas Day) and taken to Rennes where they pitched their tents on Saint Jacques Airport, formerly used by the Germans. The 66th Division relieved the 94th Infantry Division on New Year’s Eve, 1944, to contain the Germans in the two U-boat bases at Lorient and St. Nazaire.

During this entire tragedy, where so many soldiers were lost who should not have been lost, there were many heroes who risked their lives to save a fellow soldier. One that comes to mind was William Thompson, a Clemson graduate and a good friend of mine from Marion, S. C. He was credited with saving numerous soldiers by leaving the raft he was holding onto and swimming out to a nearby soldier to bring him to the raft, although, he himself was very exhausted. He was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for valor. His son, Bill Thompson, and daughter, Jane Jilich, live in Charleston.

Ben Thrailkill, who helped the G.I.s make the jump, became a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, representing Greenville, S.C. He was instrumental in getting Resolution H-9517 passed April 19, 2000, by the House and concurred on by the South Carolina Senate in honor of the 15 South Carolina soldiers who lost their lives on the Leopoldville.

Stories by survivors

A few personal communications describe the difficulties some of the soldiers had in desperately trying to save their lives and those of others.

Ebner Nicholson, Jr., Tucson , Ariz.: “Our captain saved our lives from getting on the Leopoldville. They were going to load us on, but the captain said we were not to be loaded until his men had coffee and doughnuts (Red Cross). They loaded F Company instead, and F Company lost most of its men.”

“Bill” Everhard from Phoenix, Ariz.: “I was a 21-year-old second lieutenant of Company B, 264th Regiment of the 66th Infantry Division. I was assigned to a cabin, which I shared with three fellow officers. It was below the water line. I was in the cabin and had stripped and was trying to get some sleep when an explosion threw me out of my bunk. An alarm bell began ringing and the three cabin mates were scurrying to put on their clothes. Two left and headed topside. As I was leaving, there was a rumbling roar coming from within the ship. The floor pitched and I was thrown to the deck of the passageway. The cabin door shut behind me with the remaining occupant inside. Water began covering the deck and rose quickly. The cabin mate was inside and hollering and both of us were trying to pull the door open. It was jammed and all of the pushing and pounding were to no avail. The water rose to my armpits and the lights went out. I could do no more and pulled myself along the ceiling toward the staircase. When I finally reached the stairs I was so numb I could hardly climb them. I continued to climb until I reached the deck. I never saw my friend again.”

Walter Blunt of Company L, 262nd Regiment: “I was awakened by the explosion and was immediately engulfed by water as the compartment filled and there was total darkness. As the water buoyed me up, I felt equipment and objects bumping against me. I heard screams and muffled cries. My head surfaced above the water and I could taste the oil and smelled the gunpowder. I was dazed but aware enough to wonder if I would die. My next awareness found my head in a hole. My head and part of my shoulders were above the floor but I could not move. I could see the ocean. There were waves washing over me and then there would be a pause. I held my breath when the waves washed over me, but each time the wave stayed longer. I thought it was a hell of a way to die. The next thing I knew, there was a light shining down on me and the voice I recognized was Captain H. C. Orr, my company commander. He said, ‘Give me your hand son, you’ll be all right.’ After a few minutes of pulling and struggling, I was lifted from the hole.” Blunt survived. Seventy-four of the 181 men in Blunt’s company were lost and 61 were injured.

Speaking of holes, “Mac” MacFall, a runner for E Company, 262nd Regiment, found himself in the ocean, outside of the ship. Some soldiers saw him and threw a rope to him and pulled him in. He was evidently backwashed out of the compartment where the torpedo struck.

Peter Wood of Bethesda, Md., referred to the crew putting the lifeboats in and leaving. He related the soldiers actually cheered as they thought the boats were for them, but, of course, they were sadly mistaken. The cheering stopped when the crew got in the boats and pulled away. A silence fell over the crowd of soldiers on the deck. Wood added that a very special event happened. A soldier began singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and others joined in until hundreds of soldiers followed, some not knowing the words and some not knowing how to sing, but all were trying. This occurred at a time when the lifeboats and rafts were snarled and the crew was abandoning the ship. Wood still chokes when he remembers.

A very unusual account of survival was given by Kenneth Cline of Hatfield, Pennsylvania: “When the torpedo struck, I was lying in my hammock on the bottom deck of the hold. I was covered with water instantly. My foot was trapped and something struck me on my head and shoulder. Fortunately, I was able to get free from whatever was containing me and swam to the surface after being submerged for a long time. I saw a metal ladder on the side of the hold. I proceeded to the upper deck. Several men on deck gave me a blanket. I was taken to the crewman’s cabin. Two medics came into my cabin and decided to give me a shot of morphine. I was extremely cold. Sometime later I remember four men carrying me in a blanket down a stairway. On the deck I had my second close call. The four men swung me, unconscious, at the time, with very good timing on to the deck of the Brilliant. At Cherbourg they found my shoulder fractured and some bones in my foot were fractured. I had a very short stay in Europe, back to the states in two months. In hospital five and a half months, then back to duty.”

Lieutenant Ben Thrailkill from Greenville, S.C., and an officer in K Company, 264th Regiment, was one of the officers who organized the jump to the Brilliant. These officers stayed there until water began crossing the deck. They swam away as fast as they could to avoid the suction and fortunately were picked up by a boat. He was highly critical of the ship. He said the conversion of the ship from a passenger ship to a troopship made mass rescue almost impossible since the flimsy walls were weak and a solid blast would seal off any recovery. He was very angry. He mentioned there were many heroic efforts by soldiers to rescue those in distress and in taking care of the wounded.

From a soldier who requests anonymity: “A friend of mine and I were in our hammocks, but because of the conditions in the boat, we decided to go up to the deck. Shortly thereafter, we climbed the flimsy stairway to the deck; a tremendous explosion shook the boat. A black volcanic eruption arose from the compartment I had just left. After sunset, we were in complete darkness. The ship began to list. After some time the boat shuddered and there was a muffled sound, which I assume was a ruptured bulkhead. A British boat came alongside, but the sea was rough and the vessels could not be locked together. We were told to jump, and two soldiers did jump. A cruel wave sequence occurred and they fell into the water. I made the jump OK, but I still see them. Later we were asked to try and identify any of the dead. I could not and this is another thing I still see.” (This story was given to me in the year 2000 and this soldier is still haunted by the memories of this tragedy. He is 89 years old).

The following was recorded by a member of the Brilliant’s crew, William E. Clark, able seaman, torpedo man, 23 years old: “My recollection of that terrible night, Christmas Eve, 1944, is still as clear as the actual happening. I was on watch at the time, being a torpedo rating. Our other activities were to man the depth charges. We heard the report that the Leopoldville had been hit. The seas were rough. Our captain, John Pringle, brought the Brilliant alongside, which was no easy task, as we were rising up and down, giving only short periods for the troops to climb or jump on board. We tried to break the fall as they jumped by laying our hammocks on the deck, but quite a few damaged limbs when they landed. The most horrifying was watching some of the guys sliding down ropes to our lower deck only to be killed when both boats came together. I will always remember screams of those poor G .I.s who never had a chance of survival.”

There were hundreds of heroes who risked their lives to save someone they did not know. One of the most outstanding was Colonel Ira Blumberg, who made eight or 10 trips down a 40-foot ladder and each time he brought two soldiers, one hanging to his neck and the other hanging to his waist. Unfortunately, he did not survive his last trip. He was highly decorated posthumously.

A story told by a soldier to the author  one that particularly touched the author’s heart  was the soldier’s encounter with a very young soldier who was crying. He asked him what was the matter and the young G. I. said he knew he would die because he could not swim. The soldier took off his own life jacket, put it on the young soldier and said, “You are going to be all right.” In the situation they were in, giving your life jacket to someone else is the ultimate sacrifice. We know the older soldier survived and can only hope the younger one did also.

Epilogue

Although badly damaged, the 66th Infantry Division relieved the 94th Infantry Division on schedule New Year’s Eve, 1944, and contained 50,000 Germans in the U-boat bases of St. Nazaire and Lorient until the end of the war. The soldiers of the 66th Infantry Division were given blanket Bronze Star medals for their meritorious service in combat.

Clive Cussler and his crew located the Leopoldville in 150 feet of water near the French coast in July 1984. Cussler said it should be designated a wartime memorial. It is a tomb for hundreds of soldiers just like Arlington. The French government protects it well.

Randolph Bradham, M. D., is a former staff sergeant in E Co., 262nd Reg., 66 Inf. Div. and a retired surgeon.

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