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Another previously unpublished letter from a survivor of the SS Leopoldville disaster

October 11, 2016

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June 25, 1945 — Mon. evening

St. Martin, France (Arles staging area)

Dearest Ruth,

I don’t know whether I’m in the right frame of mind to give you the story of my unforgettable Christmas of ’44, but here goes.

December 23rd, after dinner we were told to get ready to move immediately.  And they sure weren’t kidding.  First we started folding our cots, dumping the straw out of our mattresses, same time they started issuing us some more of the essentials of battle, and by eight o’clock we were on our way [to] the train depot, having had packed our duffle bags, eaten, and loaded all the vehicles besides.  None of us G.I.s knew why or where we were going.  The thoughts among us were many for some of them were spoken aloud — what we did last xmas, what we would give to be home.  What our folks were doing, if we were going to the Bulge, how we would have liked to have spent our xmas in Dorchester and wondering what would happen to all the good turkey that came in for us that day for our xmas meal.

In the meantime we were rolling on to Southampton, losing no time.  There we had to walk over 2 miles to the pier from the depot.  And I mean walk, we had no break and carrying our full field pack made it no easy job.  Yes, there was the Leopoldville waiting for us, but we still had time enjoy some coffee and doughnuts which were really appreciated.  Next they called us off by roll — and on the boat we went.  We, 2nd Bn Medics were assigned to G-4 (bottom deck) shared by Co H and F.  I guess it was around 3 a.m. when they finished loading and not long after that we shoved off.  Naturally we were all dead tired for we had been rushed around.  Most of us dozed off and on till chow 9 o’clock I think it was.  What a messy way to feed, listen to this.  The mess tables were right [in] the compartments including the dishes and the pots to go after the chow with.  In fact all the hammocks hung over and about the tables.  The food was lousy.  Stew one time.  I’m [not] sure the other ?  I don’t remember only that I ate very little of anything composing either meal.

During the trip up to around 6 p.m. the time was spent, playing cards, sleeping, and going up on deck at intervals.  You couldn’t stay up too long for it was cold and windy out.  The sea was rough.  Oh I forgot to finish about our chow.  Each table was given a ticket to pick up chow for 12 men at the kitchen.  Two guys got the chow each meal and divided it among the 12 of us.  Upon finishing the NCO in charge of the table had to get two volunteers to take all dirty dishes and utensils up on top deck where they had to wait in line maybe 30 to 40 minutes to wash the dishes in a small sink, cold water only and very little soap.

Back to six p.m.  It was then that a torpedo hit our compartment.  Myself and about 5 others were lying [on] the floor on top of duffle bags, because they were short on hammocks and personally I didn’t like them which may have helped saved my life.  I was asleep.  I heard the powerful explosion, felt the water and timber hit me and heard screams all at the same time.  Believe me it all happen so quick I don’t remember everything.  The following minutes I was under water, just how long I don’t know I did get some water in me and thought of a million and one things while under.  Strongest in my mind was that everything was taking place so fast and I wasn’t even having a chance to escape.  Just then I came to the surface.  As Grace of God would have it I came up right in the center of the hatch which was about 3 yards square.

Incidentally I didn’t have my life preserver on at any time during the episode.  The pressure of the incoming water was making the water go up through the hatch as a fountain.  Had I not kept my senses and grabbed a hold of a partly dismantled metal ladder I would have been washed by the water back from the hold where I would have drown as many did when the water reached the ceiling of that deck, Deck F, I think it was.  I held on to that ladder with all my might and caught my wind.  By that time the water was up to the floor of the next deck.  I pulled myself out of the water.  I started with a large group who were all trying to get out on deck.  I knew I would never get out before the time that water would have that deck flooded for I was among the last of the group.  I looked behind me and behold I saw a light out on the open deck on the other side.  Keeping my eye on the light as a guide through most total darkness I crawled over timbers and bodies to open deck.  It wasn’t so crowded on that side so before long I was on top deck.  Their I about froze to death.  Boy was that wind cold blowing through those wet clothes.  I don’t know what I would have done had I not been able to get a blanket.  I no sooner had reechoved that when I spied that dear ole destroyer pulling up beside us on the side I was on.  I can’t express in words how good that ship looked.  They kept loading from my side but started from the front as that was where the two ships were tied together.  I really sweated that time out till it was my turn to shed my blanket grab a vertical rope and swing over to the destroyer.  You had to let loose at a certain time or you would miss the destroyer, landing between the two boats which mean most certain death for the following reason.  The sea was so rough the boats were always banging together, besides tossing up and down.  The fellow that I followed let loose of the rope just as the boats were pushed apart by a wave landing into the water.  You aren’t kidding I was scared but I made the jump okay.

I was directed in a large room which was already crowded.  There a member of the British Navy gave me a complete suit of dry Navy clothes, besides a towel to dry myself.  I quickly changed clothes and sat down for many guys were seasick and had to go to a sink near me quite often to throw up.  The sailors also gave us food.  I’ll never forget those boys they were swell.  I still have the underwear he gave me.

Fortunately the 10 mile trip to port was uneventful.  We were all on ground no time and did it feel good.  Then [we] started to feel bad for of our 25 aboard we could only locate 4 EM and one officer (Lt. Weber).  Soon as we formed in company groups we built some fires in bombed out warehouses.  In about 1/2 hour along came some tractor-trailer jobs which took us to large hotel where troops were living.  Again you wouldn’t have asked for any better treatment.  The Red Cross served coffee and doughnuts, and I brought in K rations which tasted darn good then, and in came beaucoup blankets.  We, who were wet, were ushered down to the boiler room where we dried our wet clothes and tried to warm up.  Well after midnight (December 25 Christmas Day then) I was escorted to a house where some replacements were living.  Some of the group was on night patrol for German paratroops, who had been seen in and around the city, so 5 of us occupied the empty beds.  It took me some time to go to sleep but when I did I slept have [?] 9 a.m. While still at the hotel when most of the fellows stayed all night, there was lots of high rank asking us all kinds of questions, but were very considerate about everything.  The Red Cross girls did a good job, too.

Christmas morning I went down to the hotel had breakfast (K-rations).  Right after that, we started receiving wool k[n]it caps, overcoats, gloves, long underwear, shirts, trousers, also cots.  That noon we had a hot meal right at the hotel.  We borrowed mess gears.  In the afternoon we just laid around discussed our experiences and wondered and hoped for the return of our buddies.  Through we knew the chances were slim.  First because many were asleep in their hammocks, including Cronk, and unless they came up through the hatch were I did they were trapped for good.  Being in their hammocks didn’t give them a chance to even work toward the hatch for the water filled the first (bottom) deck in no time.  As I told Dot she could console herself to one fact that was that Rally didn’t suffer long if any for many were killed instantly from the explosion and falling timber.  Another thing that raised the death toll was that the destroyer had to pull away from the sinking ship before everyone was transferred.  Consequently, some of those who had to jump overboard were drown by the big waves before the small boats picking men up could reach them.  On the other hand the fact that there wasn’t any panic for which we were commended, saved many lives.  It was like the old saying “there’s nothing as bad it couldn’t have been worse.”

Now back to xmas night, about 6 p.m. we were loaded on some tractor trailers and were delivered to a colored port Bn.  They had just finished their Christmas meal so gave us their mess gears, and then [to] the chow line we went.  Of course it all had been pre-arranged and we had plenty of everything.  As usual we receiveed the best of hospitality.  We had turkey and all the trimmings, cooked very well for army too.  It was there that their colored chaplain delivered such a heart-rending sermon.  I think I wrote about that part before.  He spoke the words we were feeling but couldn’t express.

We stayed at the hotel xmas night.  The next day we moved to a small tent camp set up for us especially where we lived for over New Years.  It was right on the edge of Cherbourg near the port.  There we received our new equipment.  And about Jan 10 or 12 we moved  by 40 & 8, and it was darn cold, to Rennes where we lived in a large tent city on a[n] air strip.

Now for a few comments I forgot.  First there were some real heroic work done during the boat “accident” and I was glad to see the men awarded the proper medals.  One example a company commander, just before the boat went down took his preserver off and gave it to one of his men.  They were both saved by a small boat picking them up.  Another commander lost his life going down the hole, where we came up, in attempt to save some of his men.  His company, Co. F., was in our compartment as I believe I already have mentioned.  Cards and I were the only ones of the five laying on the floor, who made it to safety.

Well Ruth, I think that completes my experience crossing the channel.  I think you will agree I’m more than lucky to be alive.  I give my thanks to the Man above, too. for my being alive today.

I will try and give you the story of our move in to St. Nazaire in the near future, Ruth.

It is now the 25th, I only got around 5 pages completed last night when it was time to go to the movies.  The first I attended and the only I went [to] was that “Meet Me in St. Louis” was playing.  Enjoyed it very much though since it was a musical its being shown outside killed some of the good music.  Their living as closely made me think of our courtship, honey.  To be truthful, I though of you quite often during the picture.

Received your swell letters of 18, 19, and 20th today and will try and answer them tomorrow.  We were quite busy today sick call of 82 men evacuated 28, beaucoup venereal disease among colored troops, all right.  We have all colored troops at present.

In closing will send you my fondest love. You are such a good wife and I miss you so much.

Ever and always,

Your Cloyd

 

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