Do you know anything about the S.S. Leopoldville?
That’s a rhetorical question, because odds are you don’t. As Christmas Eve nears, I wanted to share the story because this Dec. 24th marks the 70th anniversary of a tragedy that cost the lives of 763 American soldiers but was an official secret for many years.
I first learned of it in 1999, from a retired New York City police lieutenant, Allan Andrade, when I was working for the N.Y. Daily News.
The column I wrote then is available online, but also available, and of greater import, is the book Andrade authored, “S.S. Leopoldville Disaster: December 24, 1944.” You can find it on Amazon.
At risk of plagiarizing myself, I’m repeating the story for Observer readers because those 763 men deserve to be remembered.
The U.S. Army troops were members of the 262nd and 264th Regiments of the 66th Infantry Division who were being transported across the English Channel, from Southampton to Cherbourg, for deployment in the Battle of the Bulge. In all, there were 2,235 soldiers, including some British forces, aboard the Leopoldville, a former Belgian passenger liner converted into a troopship.
As the ship approached the French coast, it was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank. More than 500 of the Americans are believed to have gone down with the vessel. Another 248 died of injuries, drowned or froze to death in the frigid Channel. In all, 493 bodies were never recovered.
Those who were found were piled on a Cherbourg pier. Andrade provided me with a quote from his book, from a Linden man, Robert Hesse, who had witnessed the scene. “Live ones were stacked up with the dead ones. Some were so frozen, they could only move their eyes, but that was enough to save their lives.”
For whatever bureaucratic/ diplomatic reasons, the story of the Leopoldville was kept secret and remained so long after wartime censorship could be used as the explanation. Survivors were ordered not to discuss the sinking. The families of the victims were given scant information. The telegrams sent by the Army read, “Missing in action.” Or, “Killed in action in the European area.”
The U.S. Army records were not declassified until 1959; the British files, not until 1996.
(An interesting sidelight, although it may be apocryphal since the sources have not been verified: As the story goes, for decades, the French Navy used the sunken wreck of the Leopoldville as a training site for divers. This supposedly ended in the late ‘90s when they finally learned the facts about the ship.)
In 1997, a 66th Infantry Leopoldville memorial was finally erected at Fort Benning, Ga. It is inscribed with the names of the dead, including 24 from New Jersey. Among them are two local men: Pfc. Malcolm B. Christopher of Nutley and S.Sgt. Gilbert J. Steuble of Belleville.
For a complete list of the victims — which, coincidentally, was complied by Andrade — visit leopoldville.org.
That’s one of the benefits of the internet. Things that had been lost to history are now being rediscovered. The dead can become, as they should be, the honored dead.
And now, I will deliberately plagiarize myself, paraphrasing the words I used to end the column I wrote for The News:
Come Christmas Eve, you might acknowledge the supreme sacrifice of the Leopoldville victims. With a silent prayer on a holy night.
– Karen Zautyk