This year the World War II memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. In France and England there have and will continue to be the 60th anniversary ceremonies in memory of D-Day. I am sure there will be other ceremonies during the year throughout the United States and foreign countries where we had military personnel, honoring those who served during WWII, both living and dead.
In many cases, we may not even be aware of such ceremonies or have any specific reason to participate in the events. On the other hand, there is a local reason to at least acknowledge an event which occurred 60 years ago and would probably be of interest to many people in the area serviced by your newspaper, since 47 of the then 48 states were represented by sons, husbands and fathers in a tragic incident that happened on Christmas Eve 1944. Missouri had 31 brave men who lost their lives that night.
On Dec. 16, 1944, the Nazis launched a desperate offensive in Belgium intended to split the Allied Forces. The fierce struggle became known as "The Battle of the Bulge." As part of the allied response to this threat, on Christmas Eve 1944 over 2,000 American soldiers of the 66th Infantry Division stationed in England were rushed to Southampton, where they boarded the troopship SS Leopoldville. The troops were then transported across the English Channel, but just 5 1/2 miles from their destination, Cherbourg, France, the vessel, was torpedoed by the German submarine U-486.
Some of the soldiers were killed instantly, some went down with the ship, some safely jumped from the ship's rail to rescue craft that pulled alongside, while others missed the jump, plunged into the waves and were crushed as the two vessels came together. Some drowned, some froze to death in the frigid 48-degree waters of the English Channel. In all, there were 763 American soldiers confirmed dead, representing youths from 47 of then 48 states. There were three sets of brothers killed, including two sets of twins. The bodies of both sets of twins were among the 493 never found. Although over 1,400 soldiers survived, more than 500 were hospitalized with injuries or pneumonia.
Mistakes were made by the American, British and the French military authorities concerned, and most of the Belgium crew fled the Leopoldville's lifeboats, leaving the American soldiers to fend for themselves. American authorities did not declassify pertinent documents regarding the Leopoldville disaster until 1959 and the British withheld release of their Leopoldville documents until 1996. There are therefore many families in the United States still unaware of the true circumstances that took the life of their loved one.
Many of the survivors and relatives of survivors or those who did not survive that night formed a Memorial Association to commemorate that night. We are attempting to contact survivors and relatives of both survivors or non-survivors who live in areas serviced by your newspaper. We feel there are many in the area who would be interested in the Association and its events if they knew about such activities, such as the ceremony which will occur at Fort Benning, Ga., this coming October to honor both survivors and non-survivors approximately 60 years from the date of the tragedy.
Locations in Missouri of the 31 soldiers of the 66th Infantry Division, at the time of their deaths are: Aurora, Ava, Cardwell, Farmington, Florissant, Jefferson City, Kansas City, Kirkwood, Lee's Summit, Lockwood, Long Lane, Monett, Neosho, New Bloomfield, Richmond, St. Joseph, St. Louis, Sikeston, Stover, Versailles and Williamsville.
If you want additional information, you may contact Frank Haugh at (440) 777-5255 or Allen Andrade at (610) 274-3130.
Your efforts in recognizing the part people from this area played in this tragic event, or are now actively participating in the Leopoldville Memorial Association would be appreciated.
Gerald Howard, Sikeston