CHRISTMAS 1944 (58 K)

Remembering Christmas 1944:
Year 2000 Edition

AA XMAS (9 K)   As we here at Skylighters do each Christmas (visit our 1998 and 1999 pages), we take a journey of remembrance back to that final Christmas of the war in Europe. We usually tell a story about what it was like to spend that holy day on a windswept ridge above the Seigfried line, or at a frozen airstrip in eastern France, or in a POW camp on the Polish frontier. Sometimes the stories are uplifting; other times, they're tragic. Sometimes, the story contains elements of both. The point is to remember what it was like for those who won our right, all those Decembers ago, to enjoy our freedoms this December, and there is no more poignant tale for this purpose than the sinking of of the Leopoldville.

   This year, thanks to the kindness of an English newspaper (for permission to reprint the text further below), we relay the story of the "Nightmare Before Christmas," the sinking of the troopship SS Leopoldville in the English Channel on Christmas Eve, 1944, a tragedy that took nearly 800 American lives. It's a story that few Americans of my generation are aware of, and even some of the WW II generation may not have heard.

   As a (relatively) young man myself, it's always a sobering thing to read the names of war dead, and in the case of the Leopoldville, it seems all the more horrible that all those bright young men of the 66th Infantry Division ("The Black Panthers") died on Christmas Eve just under six miles from friendly shores. That a U-boat fired a torpedo into the former Belgian liner was a known risk of warfare. As a result, many of the young infantrymen aboard never saw Christmas 1944, or, indeed, another Christmas at all. But what contributed to the deaths of so many of the 800 and what happened afterward could not have been imagined.

   Who were these men? I took the trouble to look up some of their names. There's Carlton Garlan of Stockton, Alabama; James L. McNair of Calhoun Falls, South Carolina; and William A. Klosterman of Rockville Center, New York. And Pablo G. Franco of Loving, New Mexico and John Marzotto of Weehawken, New Jersey. Scranton, Pennsylvnia gave Walter J. Skibinski and Chicago, Illinois sacrificed Albert Verbauen. I whisper the names in the dark room as I type this. For those moments that the letters materialize on the page in pronounceable patterns, I feel somehow this long-dead men are remembered. Like the scene in Saving Private Ryan where Ryan asks what the names were of the men who died looking for him, the mere intonation of each name (Caparzo, Wade) has resonance, meaning. Like Ryan, who repeats the names to himself, saying the names of the dead aloud is a way of remembering them.

   With each name uttered I'm transported back to that black Christmas Eve 56 years ago. The lights twinkling in the windows across the street may have been how the harbor lights of Cherbourg may have looked through the mist that night in 1944. I see wreaths floating on the dark water — not Christmas wreaths, but funeral wreaths. Black circular holes in the water through which these young men disappeared as if down a coal chute into those cold English depths, the surface chopped by the hand of fate that night to the whipped green-white color of frozen spinach. It must have been much like the cold water of Long Island's Great South Bay that lays before me today as I contemplate the events of December 24, 1944. Somehow the common ocean connects this spot to that, across that other ocean, time. And that place is no hallowed "altar of victory" on which those boys were symbolically sacrificed. That night the sea was an unforgiving slab concealing a murderous vortex that stupidly robbed those GIs of their futures in pure "here one minute, gone the next" finality. And today it is in no uncertain terms a silent graveyard 180 feet below the Channel. A gash in the ocean through which the 66th passed to join the drowned and dead of the 1st, and the 4th, and the 29th, and others of dozens of units who had made the same crossing on a much warmer day in June, all without completing it. It's just that there are no white crosses or stars for these 800. Just darkness and murk.

   So, on this Christmas Eve 2000, I will think about the last days of those 800 GIs, many of them teenagers, sons who would never have sons or daughters of their own. Perhaps there was a cure for cancer among them. Or a peace plan for a future conflict. Or a small instance of tenderness when it was needed, or the right words at the right time to a single person. I will think about their last vision of Christmas, spent perhaps in a chilly English drill hall with makeshift trees strung with garlands of silver gum wrappers, "ornaments" of balled-up cigarette packs, and crowning stars fashioned from flattened tin cans. And when the last order came, to " gear up and move out," perhaps they were really scared for the first time. They were heading to France, and into combat to reinforce the units being bloodied in the Battle of the Bulge.

   Only they never made it. They died before they had the chance to die another day.

   A poem written by Tom Cordle as a tribute to Pfc. Ferrel F. McDonnell and the soldiers of the 66th who died that night provides a more eloquent ending to this essay that I could fashion. Maybe on Christmas Eve I will drive down to my local dock and stand at the edge of the bay in the cold wind, where the fingers of the Atlantic curl around the rocks, and repeat those names I learned. Garlan. McNair. Klosterman. Franco. Marzotto. Skibinksi. Verbauen. And I will think about Cordle's words and imagine that night, and try to feel what it must have been like. And then, maybe then, I will feel like I deserve to celebrate Christmas.
Hell is not the place you think
For I have seen its murky ink
Though there is fire down in that hole
It's cold and wet and chills the soul
December Channel, dark and cruel
Coffin on that mournful Yule
Fifty years have passed away
Fifty years like yesterday —

Christmas Eve of '44
The Leopoldville just off shore
Of Cherbourg and its dancing lights
The U-Boat had us in her sights
Torpedo caught us in the hold
The water rushed in — Oh, so cold!
Steel and wood and flesh all met
Oh, God! I wish I could forget!

But heroes rose up everywhere
Brave hearts fought their own despair
To comfort wounded, dying, weak
And tried to find the words to speak
They gave their all that some might live
Till they had nothing left to give
Then prayed to find the strength to stand
"God, Oh God, make me a man!"

The Brilliant came through churning seas
Answering our urgent pleas
She pulled along our starb'rd side
"Jump or die!," her crewmen cried
Men climbed up on the rolling rail
And prayed somehow they would not fail
To breach that twenty feet and odd —
And leaped into the arms of God

Some conquered space and borrowed time
And made the Brilliant or its lines
But others lost their deadly bet
And plunged into the dark, cold, wet
And swallowing sea and fought for breath
And knew the briny taste of death
Or fought the water's clawing pull
Till they were crushed between the hulls

Strong, young soldiers watching wept
For promises would not be kept
For children they had never seen
For all the dying of their dreams
Some were but boys, some not quite men
But they would not be boys again
For only men survived such sights
And all grew old in that one night

Cherbourg glittered on the shore
Laughing at our dreams of war
To die and never fire a shot
To die and never know for what
No glory, only senseless waste
With salty, oily aftertaste
No glory, only drowning dance —
Death by simple, crazy chance

But death is not the end of things
For those who've felt its searing sting
For hearts that will forever feel
For wounds that never really heal
We pay with photos, black and white
We pay with voices in the night
We ask the endless haunting why?
A son or husband had to die

What matters why the soldier falls?
What matters but the answered call?
Who measures sacrifices made?
Who dares deny the price was paid?
And there are channels yet to cross
And wars to fight that can't be lost
And men will die and do their part
Till freedom rings in every heart

So let there be no bitter tears
Let us remember better years
And those whose blood has bought and paid
That we might live lives unafraid
And let us honor valiant men
For here tonight, we say again
There is but one thing worth the price
Of such unselfish sacrifice
"Freedom!"  "Freedom!"  "Freedom!"

802 Men Went to Watery Grave on Christmas Eve 1944
(By Franklin Scarborough, The Salisbury Post)

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   Members of the U.S. Army's 66th Infantry Division are still trying to set the record straight as to what happened on Christmas Eve of 1944.

   The late Lincoln H. Morgan was a member of the 66th, but he was one of the lucky ones that were transferred to another ship shortly before the converted Belgian liner Leopoldville met her death from a German torpedo, taking 800 men, most of them members of the his outfit, to a watery grave.

   Morgan's wife, Eloise, who still lives in Rowan, also wants to help set the record straight in memory of her husband's many friends who went down with the ship. A release titled "'Twas the Nightmare Before Christmas" tells the story. It was Christmas Eve 1944. The outfit was crossing the English Channel on its way to stop Hitler's forces at the Battle of the Bulge. It was at a time when, if the Nazis had broken out, there was nothing to stop them. There was no time to lose, and the high command had reinforcements on nearly anything that could float. A converted Belgian luxury liner built to carry 361 passengers, the Leopoldville was now crammed with nearly 2,500 men of the 66th Division.

   At 5:45 on that cold Christmas Eve, tragedy struck suddenly. Without any warning, and less than six miles from Cherbourg, France, a Nazi torpedo blasted into the starboard quarter of the ship, collapsing the two lowest decks into a maze of twisted steel, bunks, duffle bags, and trapped men. The lucky ones died on impact.

   The British destroyer HMS Brilliant came alongside so the men could leap to the safety of the waiting ship. But the sea was so rough, many missed and drowned in the frigid water, while others were crushed, screaming, between the steel hulls of the ships as they crashed together.

   Other small craft did what they could. There was no panic, even in the rapidly filling compartments. Troops on deck were mustered in perfect order, dressed in overcoats with full combat packs, patiently waiting for rescue. It has been written that the conduct of the troops should be recorded in the annals of military history as among the finest examples of discipline ever observed. Each man stood in blind obedience, awaiting orders.

   The tragedy was that there were no orders.

   At 8:30 p.m. another explosion marked the collapse of a bulkhead, and within 10 minutes the ship was gone, taking more than 800 of America's finest men to their death in one of the most tragic and senseless blunders of World War II.

   Although it was customary to give emergency drills in case of mishap, none had been given. No lifeboat, fire, or abandon-ship drills were held before or during the channel passage. The soldiers were not even told how to fasten a life jacket, or that the collar would snap a man's neck like a hangman's noose unless it was held down when hitting the water.

   Most of the lifeboats were rusted to their supports, and worse, the Belgian crew, with bulging suitcases in hand, took what few were operable and left with no effort to help the doomed men. In fact, they pulled away in half-full lifeboats!

   Now the only ones who knew how to winch the massive anchors and free the ship had deserted. So it was impossible to tow the sinking ship to safety. The infantrymen aboard were in effect chained to the deep.

   After the tragedy, families were told that their loved ones were missing or killed in action, but not that they had been drowned in what has been considered this nation's second greatest maritime disaster. And to this day, many families still haven't officially been told the circumstances of the loss of their loved ones.

   Few honors have been bestowed on the dead or medals delivered to survivors. Two men who died trying to rescue comrades from the bowels of the ship were awarded not a medal for heroism, but the Purple Heart, a symbol for being wounded. Although a presidential citation was promised the 66th, it never came.

   No sea disaster in history has ever received less publicity. It was as though the Leopoldville and 802 men of the 66th never existed. No questions were asked; no answers given. The official history of the Royal Navy makes no mention of the tragedy. The official "History of the U.S. Army in World War II," in 40 volumes, makes no reference to the disaster.

   Representatives from the 66th Division have made pilgrimages to lay wreaths over the spot where the doomed ship rests today as an underwater monument of the heroism of the unsung and ordinary soldier. It is as important a resting place for our nation's dead military heroes as all the cemeteries in France, or at Arlington. Only there are no crosses on neatly trimmed lawns to mark their sacrifice.

   And it happened — 56 Christmases ago.

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