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Christmas Eve 2007 on the English Channel

December 24, 2016

 

 

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You can see Bertrand Sciboz standing on his boat, the Ceres, as his daughter pilots to pick us up on a pier at Cherbourg, France.  I took this picture on our pilgrimage to the Leopoldville.

 

 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

On this day in 1944 the S.S. Leopoldville, a Belgian luxury liner that had been refitted as a troopship, left its mooring at Southampton, England, when the tide came in.  The English Channel has one of the greatest tidal variances in the world, so Captain Limbor had to wait to sail with the tide.

The Leo was rusty and rundown looking.  A long line of soldiers of the U.S. Army 66th Division waited to cross the gangway.  One soldier was said to have looked at it and shouted, “I’d rather swim to France than get on this tub.”  Another from the Southern U.S. cried out plaintively, “We’ll never get there!”  Someone else hollered, “Where are we going?”  A chorus answered, “To the bottom!”

This—the story of the S.S. Leopoldville—matters to me because my only maternal uncle was among the several thousand soldiers waiting in line to board the Leo.  He spent Christmas Eve day berthed in the depths of the ship, destined to die when a German Uboat torpedo struck the starboard side as Captain Limbor zig-zagged his way toward the French port of Cherbourg.  My uncle Carl Ralph Bonde, Jr.’s body was not recovered.  In fact, only 12 from weapons platoon, Company E, 286th Regiment, survived to see Christmas Day.  I met one of Carl’s close friends, a retired farmer in Nebraska named Bill Moomey, who couldn’t talk about the torpedoing without emotion.  Well, he weeped when he told me about his survivor’s guilt.

I’ve been obsessed with my uncle and his fate since I was a child.  Thanks to the internet, in 2002 I found out about the fate of the 66th Army Division.

After much planning my wife Penny and I went to Cherbourg France at Christmas on a pilgrimage.

In 2007 on Christmas Eve, we waited on the dock at Cherbourg for my friend, Bertrand Sciboz, to meet Penny and me for a ride to the place about eight kilometers from the port where the wreckage of the S.S. Leopoldville lay under 50 meters of water.  Bertrand had dived the wreck and he had an echo locater with which he could visualize the massive ship.  Because of the tide Bertrand had a narrow window of opportunity to take us to the wreck at about 6 p.m.

Bertrand and I purchased a wreath to lay on the water exactly over the place where several hundred American soldiers’ bodies were entombed in the steel ship.  I had some prayers and letters to read from survivors of the wreck.  As Bertrand kept the Ceres steadily over the wreck I placed the wreath, read the letters and prayers aloud, and even put some soil from my uncle’s childhood home in Kalispell, Montana, right into the water where it could drift down to the wreck.

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