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Bill Loughborough’s Account of the T.S.S. Leopoldville Sinking 12/24/1944

August 3, 2016

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Finished June 25, 1945

My Darling Jean,

I know you are curious about my eventful trip from England to France. My folks have also asked me to describe it. Walrath wrote about it as soon as censorship was lifted, and his mother called mine to relate the little bit Don had known about it. When censorship was discontinued, we were asked not to write about troop movements until 6 months afterwards. That is the reason I have not talked of it. To save my writing two letters on the subject, will you please send this on to my folks, Honey?

I went to London on the morning of the 21st of December [1944]. Jack Yarbrough, Chuck Gere, Bob Rogers, Bill Moomey, Tony Lemos, Carl Bondy, Dick Vester, and Jim Grunewald were in the same pass group with me. We left the London railroad station about midnight of the 22nd and arrived at our camp in Dorchester about 5 A.M. on the 23rd. After an hour’s sleep, we were awakened along with the rest of the camp and told to pack. All day Saturday the 23rd we worked frantically to get the supply room, kitchen, and orderly room packed and ready to move. There was the usual arguing on rather this proposed move was to be a “dry run” or the “real McCoy”. We were to be ready to leave by 5 P.M. Because of this short notice, we were almost sure this was just a practice move. We were “good to go” at about 4 P.M. so I went over to see Bill Klostermann, whose barracks was just a few yards away from mine.

Bill was not his usual self that day and seemed to be in very low spirits. I don’t know what was bothering him and whether or not he was worried about going to France. There was a crap game in progress in one corner of the barracks and a bull-session in another. I thought it strange that Bill was not in either of these. I believe he was just plain homesick that day. He read me his latest letter from home in which his mother told of the nice gift you had sent her and of how much they liked you. I left him to go eat.

We finally left for the railroad station at about 9 P.M. One group had left approximately two hours earlier; and, when they didn’t return, we figured this must really be it. We carried everything we owned for the mile and a half to the station. I had a pack-board, with blankets, shelter-half, pack, etc. attached, on my back. My carbine was slung on my shoulder, my gas-mask drooped from the other shoulder, my steel helmit pushed my head down into my collar, and my over-crowded dufflel-bag was carried first in my arms, then over one shoulder, then over the other, then on top of my pack and resting on my neck, and finally dragged along the pavement. My rather weak right leg gave out on me about a quarter of the way and I took a tumble. From then on I went along at my own speed and fell further and further back. The entire regiment started out in regular formation, but was really strung out before we reached the station. Bill Bailey of the 3rd platoon joined me in the rear and we helped each other with our bags. We sat down on them about every 100 yeards. Of course this was all done in the dark and thru the blacked-out town of Dorchester. By the time we reached the train we were all very bitter because trucks could have just as well carried us.

Eight men with all their equipment were squeezed into each compartment on the train. In spite of this sardine-like living, almost all of us slept during the two hour ride.

It was about 1 A.M. when we dismounted at the Southampton Station. Here we loaded our duffle-bags on trucks and then marched across town to the docks. We didn’t see much of this great port because it was in total blackness, and we were on the low road by the docks: Most of the city is on high ground. The docks were really buzzing with activity even at such an un-Godly hour.

At about the last dock we finally did a column right and passed by the gate of a brilliantly lighted pier. Two grey hulks loomed up at their waiting positions. We were marched into the large frame building on the pier for doughnuts and coffee from the Red Cross. They had two clubmobiles set up and American Girls to hand out the stuff to the long lines of G.I.s. The bunch who had left Dorchester before us had already had their refreshments and were beginning to load on one of the ships. After standing around kidding for about an hour, we marched on to the other ship. As we left the dock we picked up anyone’s duffle-bag, that is, in our own company group. We carried these up the gang plank, along the deck a ways, and then down a narrow, steep stairway to our compartment in the hold of the ship. We were on E deck, which is well below the water level. We dumped the bags in the middle of the floor, and the first men down grabbed the hammocks and began tying them up to hooks on the ceiling. The next ones down laid claim to table tops and benches as their “beds”. This compartment evidently was the ship’s mess hall. Being in the 3rd mortar squad in the 4th platoon, I was always #186 in a company of 187 men on these troop movements. Consequently, when I got below, the only place to establish a “bed” was on the floor beneath a table. Bob Rogers was next to me under the table, and Len Benda was on top of the same table. Dick, “Nick”, Matthews, Jack Yarbrough, and Everett, “Mac”, MacDaniel were hanging in hammocks above the table.

The remainder of our 4th platoon, the entire 3rd plat., part of “F” company, part of “H” company and a small portion of battalion hdqt. company were in this same compartment. We were crowded beyond description.

The rest of our compnay, company hdqt., 1st plat., and 2nd plat., were on the other ship. The remainders of the other companies mentioned above were in other parts of our ship. Some of Klostermann’s “F” company were directly below us in the bottom deck. Bill, himself, was in the same compartment I was.

When we got “settled”, it was after 4A.M., so we all fell asleep in spite of our surroundings. Breakfast was at about 8:30, but I slept right thru until our next meal which came at 3:30 Sunday afternoon.

These meals are the worst I have ever tasted. One big pot of “slop” was passed out to each group of about ten. The individual then ate off of a very dirty plate that was washed by just dipping it in water.

You see, this was not an American manned ship. It was a British controlled Belgian ship, the “Leopoldville”. A large part of her crew were Belgian Congo negroes.

The Channel was extremely rough this Sunday afternoon; and that combined with the lousy food made most of the boys sick. Right after “dinner” Hank Anderson, Jack Yarbrough, George Miller, and Dick Matthews headed for the fresh air of the upper decks. They asked me if I wanted to go up with them. I was all slept out by this time and was collecting my stuff which had been pretty well kicked about in the shuffle, so I told them I would meet them on deck in a few minutes. In the meantime I found my duffle bag in the pile and discovered it had a big hole in the bottom of it from the dragging it suffered the previous night. It also had a “fetching” aroma. A medicine bottle of American whiskey which I had carried from the States to have on Christmas Day had broken on Christmas Eve!

When I left to join the boys on deck, the rest of the gang were either asleep or lying in hammocks looking very green. I stood on Starboard and talked with the boys for about an hour, after which I went up to the bow to stand in the wind. Ole Jensen came along in a little while, and we sat on a hatch on C deck at the head of the stairs leading down to D deck, the last open deck. Bill Klostermann and two of his “F” Co. buddies came up the steps about 5:30, stopped and talked a minute, and then moved aft on C deck. Bill said he was too cold and was going below to get out of the wind. That was the last time I saw Bill.

Shortly, Ole and I went in out of the wind, but we went up on B deck which was partially shielded. We sat on a bench in a little alcove on the Starboard side and watched dusk come on. Bill Moomey soon came by and sat down with us. He had left his hammock when Tom Bowle and Tony Lemos had parted company with their dinners. The resultant oder was too much for him and he came up for fresh air.

The other troop ship carrying the remainder of the infantrymen of the Division was a little to our rear and slightly to one side of us. Destroyers and corvettes roamed the waters in front of us and way out on our flanks. At about 5:40 we spotted 3 destroyers or corvettes in a little huddle way off to our starboard. We guessed they had a submarine trapped. Beyond them and about 10 miles from us were the lights of the outer breakwater of the Port of Cherbourg. By this time my squad leader, Al Salata, had come along and joined our little group.

Ole suddenly felt his insides rising and hurried to the rail at a point about 15 yards aft of where we were sitting. He returned, and we contemplated procuring a blanket to keep our legs warm. We didn’t consider it very seriously, though, because we were all too lazy to go down after it. Ole hadn’t been back from the rail two minutes, when the ship jarred, a terrific explosion was heard, and a piece of metal hurtled overboard at just about the point where Ole’s dinner had gone over.

Ole, Bill, Al, and I rose simultaneously and began tightening our own and each other’s life preservers. I believe I said, “Looks like we’re hit”, without much feeling. It was really quite an amazing observation, don’t you think? We automatically headed for the bow of the ship, but not in any great haste. We went to the same hatch on C deck where Ole and I were sitting about a half hour before. The open decks were quickly filling up with soldiers. Presently we were joined by Hank, Jack, and George; making 7 of us from the weapons platoon standing there together. Dick Matthews, who had been with these 3 boys, had gone below just about 3 minutes before the explosion.

Soon C and D decks in the bow where jammed. There had been no announcements over the public address system. No one seemed to know whether we had been torpedoed or had struck a mine. All the lights onboard were turned on or awhile and our ship must have stood out like a sore thumb. This led many to believe it could not have been a submarine because we now would make a wonderful target.

The destroyers came back and hung around us like flies. I didn’t see what the other troop ship did, but learned later she took off like a “great-ass bird” around our port side. She zig-zagged back out into the Channel and returned to the Port of Cherbourg in the wee hours of the morning. The boys on her, including Eich, Walrath, Saxton, and most of the boys we knew at Missouri, disembarked Christmas Morning.

As we “E” Co. men stood together in the bow, we were naturally worried about what was happening aft – especially in compartment F-4.       We knew the explosion had come from very near our compartment. Bill Moomey was the only machine-gunner in our little group, and since all his close buddies were down in the hold, he spoke the most often of them [including Carl Bonde]. The rest of us tried to act and talk optimistically to cheer Bill, but there were doubts in all our hearts.

There was never any real thought that the ship would sink. Everyone in the bow was very calm. Some believed we would be put off onto destroyers, tugs, and lifeboats. Others said we would be towed in by the tugs which we were told were on the way. We watched the crew attempt to lower a lifeboat. They got it swung out over the water but couldn’t lower it because it was tied up incorrectly. They left it swinging there and moved onto another one. After much effort they finally got this one half way to the water when one man cut one of the ropes. Of course all this bungled work by the crew brought intermittent cheers, handclaps, and Bronx cheers from the G.I.’s. What would we do without that ever-present American humor?

About 7 a tug passed very close by our port side. She was manned by blue-clad English sailors, and there was the usual exchange of cheers and humorous cracks. There was a girl dressed in red standing before the cabin of the tug. She, of course, received a hearty greeting.

[Omitted is a drawing of the Leopoldville by Bill Loughborough that shows where the torpedo hit.]

Yes, about 7:30 we saw the nose of a destroyer draw up close on our starboard side. It jockeyed back and forth several times and then stayed even with us; only her nose showing to us. She had been lashed to our ship’s side. Someone yelled to those on the starboard half of this part of C deck to file along the railing and to board the destroyer. That order included our little “E” Company group. We were in no hurry to get off our big ship which still stood perfectly erect. No one hurried, in fact. We knew there had been only one explosion, and figured the water-tight doors would keep water out of the other compartments.

Nevertheless, one by one we climbed up on the rail and made the big leap to the destroyer. Big Hank was one of the first to jump from our particular point, and of course fell over his big feet as he hit the destroyer deck. I called down, “Nice one, Hank!” He looked up and grinned at me as I hung overboard on one strand of the rope net which was slung over the side of our ship. There were too many on the net, so I let go and really leaped. The waves were tossing the two ships like kites in a heavy wind. When the waves forced them apart, there was quite a gap between them. Seeing this, I gave such a leap that even had they been away apart I would have been O.K. They were just coming together, though, so I sprawled out on my belly in midship against a ventilater stack.   Old laughed at me from above.

I spoke to a weather-beaten English sailor who was straining to hold one of the huge ropes which lashed the ships together. We were moved quickly around the starboard side of the destroyer and finally down into the hold. I saw Hank a few men ahead of me but was kept from catching him by a sailor who directed me down a ladder leading to the bottom deck. Lo and behold, this was the galley! It soon filled to capacity. Al Salata was across the compartment, about 150 G.I.’s away. The cook passed some cups of hot soup around. We were all plenty cold, and the soup really hit the spot. A great many boys were too seasick to enjoy it, though….

Shortly…we learned the ship had sunk! The word spread thru the shivering crowd like a fire thru a dry forest. The ship had sunk! It was unbelievable!…

From our great bunch of the Weapons Platoon we lost our big, tall, likeable platoon Sgt, Billie Ragle, the two section Sgts Bob Hoyt (who ran the party we attended in Ozark) and “Skippy” Ransome; all our squad leaders except Salata, Bradley, and Junior Weaver of the machine-guns, and “Mac” MacDaniel and Jim Mortimer of the mortars; mortarmen Bob Rogers, Herb Koehler, Sam Noto, “Mac” MacKensie, Frank, “Whit”, Wyatt, Leonard Benda (who came to our house in Dothan once for some drinks. He was accompanied on that visit by George Eastburn another mortarman who is still with us because of being on the other ship), and Dick, “Nick”, Matthews; machine gunners Dick Vester (you met him at the Red Cross in Little Rock, Carl Bondy, Tony Lemos, Eddie DeSilva, Carl Nelson (the big, fair-haired boy you met at the Ozark party and liked so well), Pete Acri (like Ragle and Ransom a recent father!) and Tom Bowle. What a terrific gang they were! Almost all ex – ASTP and Air Corps men, too…

Bill [Moomey], please let me know any parts of this story that you would change or add to.

Love,

Bill [Loughborough]

Carl Bonde’s name appears twice in Bill Loughborough’s letter, misspelled Bondy.

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