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Train to London

June 11, 2016
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I don’t know who took this picture of Carl Bonde in front of his house in Kalispell, probably in the winter of 1943 or early 1944.

Carl Bonde remembered when he hadn’t known what to do with himself.  He had gotten all of the attention from his girlfriend, Virginia Clark, that he wanted, and he had been afraid that she might call him on the phone.  If he didn’t want to speak to her she was apt to say, “Well….” and leave an uncomfortable silence until he spoke up.  She had been the clingy type.  Only he really loved her.  At least he thought he did.

Only now Buddy — his family called him that — was in England, in the army, an hour by train from London.  He was sitting on the step to the brick barracks at Camp Piddlehinton, reminiscing about his old girlfriend back home.

He had not spoken of her to anyone because he had said his last goodbye when he left Kalispell to be inducted at Butte.  He had been certain that he wouldn’t survive the war with Germany when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, so he told his girlfriend they were through with each other.

Things sure looked different now.  The U.S. had practically won the war.  After D-Day, the allied forces then pushed the Germans out of France.  The rumor was that the Germans were on the verge of quitting and accepting whatever peace terms were thrust upon them.

Best of all, Buddy had gotten plenty of female action in England.  He learned how to do it standing up in a doorway with a few women who had been, well, drunk.  Then he had met Penny Lane.  Penny was not only beautiful, but classy, for a British woman.  He called her his “lime-ette.”  He called English men “limeys”

Buddy didn’t know what to do with himself, so he stood and returned to his bunk with straw mattress inside the barracks.  He collapsed on it.  About that time, Hank showed up, a tall lanky guy from the mortar section, with enormous feet.  “Let’s go into town, Carl,” he said.  “Let’s go see if we can get a piece of action!”

“You know there’s more to life than ‘action,’” Carl replied.  [Pause.] “There’s great big bouncy babes, too.”  They laughed.

Carl grabbed his tie from the foot of his bed, inexpertly tying it as they walked over to the command tent where they could get 24-hour passes to town.  With the Germans on the run, passes were easy to get.

Inside the tent Carl and Hank had to stand for a couple minutes behind five or six other GIs who were waiting to speak to the clerk who worked for the First Sergeant.  The men called him the “First Shirt.”

Sure enough, the clerk filled out passes for them.  They didn’t need to be back until Saturday morning at 11 a.m.  Christmas Eve was Sunday and the men had high hopes of spending some of their pay on presents for their sweethearts and for their families back home.  Carl was hoping to do a little bar-hopping with Penny Lane, maybe get her a bit tipsy, then “va va voooom,” he thought, smacking his lips.  He loved to kiss this beautiful British woman.  She wouldn’t let him go all the way with her, not even to first base.  Hell, there were plenty of other women in London who would do it in a doorway for a pair of black market silk stockings or a carton of GI cigarettes.

The train station was about six miles away in Dorchester, so the men stood by the road with their thumbs out.  Soon a soldier they recognized as a general’s clerk stopped his jeep for them.  He was able to give them a ride the whole way.  The clerk had to pick up something from the train station, a package of top secret material, he boasted.

The train car was wooden, wooden seats covered with plush cushions, wooden walls, varnished and shiny.  The train locomotive spewed huge clouds of tarry black coal smoke.  Luckily the wind was blowing from the land out to the channel that morning, because the cloud didn’t gag the men in the train as they headed for London.  The group had the above-mentioned Hank and Carl, but also Bill Loughborough, Bill Moomey, Al Salata, Maurice O’Donnell, and Randy Bradham.  Enough to start a game of bridge, even though they’d have to stop playing in just over an hour.

The train took them to Piccadilly Circus in London and they all piled out.  Some of the men went to find something to eat.  You could get fish and chips almost anywhere for a schilling. A couple of schillings and you could get a warm English beer, too.  Only the beer in England was a true pint, way bigger than American beers.

Carl managed to slip away from his friends, saying he wanted to go browse a store for a chess set.  He did this after all his friends committed to going to a show.  A burlesque show with honest-to-goodness women with big, bouncy breasts.

Here’s where the story gets murky, since Carl never did kiss and tell.  Bill Moomey and Hank Anderson swore that Carl returned to the camp with them, but Bill Loughborough said he wasn’t quite so sure.  In any case, subsequent events didn’t permit any easy answer to this question.

In 2016, Carl’s nephew, Dan Struckman, wasn’t convinced that his uncle Carl had returned to Camp Piddlehinton with the others that early Saturday morning, because he knew about Miss Lane and how in love Carl had been with her.  Penny Lane remained a shadowy figure in the story of what happened to his Uncle that fateful night.  He knew that on Saturday, about noon, the mystery of the contents of the classified package that the general’s clerk had picked up at the train station the day before was revealed.

Everyone had to return to camp.  The Military Police were dispatched into London to round up any stray men and have them report immediately to quarters.  Again, Loughborough said that Carl was among those accounted for when the troops were mustered that Saturday afternoon.  That’s when the trouble began.

The lieutenant in charge marched everyone to the parade ground where General Kramer gave them the news.  The Germans had overrun the allies in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium a week before and the allied troops were fighting for their lives.  In order to repel the surprise attack, everyone at Camp Piddlehinton was being mobilized that day to deploy to France, then to Belgium to fortify the line of defenders.

This is what they had been trained to do!  Once General Kramer had read the men their orders, they dispersed immediately to their barracks.  Army cooks threw half-baked turkeys out onto the ground outside the buildings.  All of the men’s belongings were hastily stuffed in duffel bags and field marching packs.  Hats were stacked on hats and placed on heads as the men staggered under all the weight of their belongings.  Some of the men had bottles of whiskey stowed in their bags.  One even had a turkey he hoped to eat the following day, which was Christmas Eve.  Off they went, most carrying, but some dragging their duffel bags.  Soon the dragged bags wore through and the contents leaked out:  shirts, trousers, underclothes.

They did not march as much as they simply struggled along.  And this time nobody in a jeep was there to help them on their six mile hike.  Not that they were unused to great distances hiking.  In training they often hiked twenty miles, stopping for food and drink only.  Of course, once the men’s parents found out they complained to the commanding general who prohibited them from marching more than ten miles a day.  The platoon commanders got around that by marching the men ten miles until midnight, then marching them back the other direction from midnight until the small hours of the morning.  Thus, technically, the men only had to march ten miles a day.

Carl’s nephew Dan learned all this from reading letters written by his uncle’s friends after the war was over.  Bill Moomey told about the trials and tribulations of training and Bill Loughborough told about the hasty assembly and embarkation to France.  As mentioned before, both men said they were reasonably certain that Carl was among the soldiers who deployed to France.  And again, Dan Struckman wasn’t so sure.

The reason?  The British, in 2008, said their investigation differed from that of the others, in that they placed the strike of the torpedo to the SS Leopoldville about halfway between the bow and stern on the starboard side.  All of the others said the torpedo struck aft, approximately where hold number four was, the hold occupied by the men of the weapons platoon, company E, 262nd Infantry Regiment.  It is true that only about eight men from the platoon survived the sinking of the SS Leopoldville, about half of the company had been aboard a different ship, the HMS Cheshire, which rapidly continued on to the French Port City, Cherbourg.  Those who survived the torpedo blast escaped death either by swimming and getting rescued by a tug or PT boat, or they leaped or climbed to safety on the HMS Brilliant, a corvette that pulled up alongside the Leo.  Several hundred men made the jump or climbed to the Brilliant before the captain had to pull away to keep from becoming overloaded with men.

In all 786 men died Christmas Eve when the SS Leopoldville was sunk.

Carl’s nephew Dan became interested in his uncle’s fate from his youngest age, when Carl’s sister, Helen, sat with her son Dan on his bed and told him about the courage of the soldier who had been her brother.  Dan was saying his prayers and his mother said he could pray for his uncle Carl, same as for people who were alive.  His mother assured him that the dead people are still with us, or at least their spirits are.

Carl’s mother, in 1945, didn’t even get an assurance that her son had been killed.  Instead, she was notified that Carl was missing in action.  A month later, a not-to-convincing letter arrived confirming that Carl had been killed in action.  However, Carl’s body has never been recovered.  This was not unusual, though in this circumstance, because so many men had gone to a watery grave, trapped in the wreckage of the SS Leopoldville.

Some disturbing facts:  many men said they had heard screams and crying from men, but nobody has come forward claiming to be one of those men.  Men were said to have been crushed by the wave action of the SS Leopoldville and HMS Brilliant crashing together, but nobody has been identified as being one of those poor souls.  Another man was said to have died because the litter he was strapped to as an injured soldier, fell into the sea.  That person has never been identified.  In fact, despite the fact that scores of bodies have washed up, many soldiers remained unidentified and listed as missing in action.

 

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