This November, Gerald Howard of Sikeston joined other survivors and families of the disaster's victims at Arlington National Cemetery for a special tribute. Sponsored by the White House Commission on Remembrance, it honored the soldiers of the 66th Infantry Division who died in what is now called the Leopoldville Disaster.
Howard was among the 1,400 who lived through the ordeal. A second Sikeston man, Leonard E. Matthews, was also on the ship, one of 31 men from Missouri who did not live through the disaster. "I wasn't acquainted with him - I knew of him," Howard said.
As part of the tribute, one of Howard's fellow survivors from the Leopoldville placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier "in remembrance of the 763 who died that night," Howard said.
Joining Howard for the ceremony were his son, Richard Howard, and his grandson, Jeff Farris. "I wanted them both to go and see what it was to put a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," Howard said.
The tribute ceremony "brought back a lot of memories," Howard said. "I think there were 160 at the banquet. They asked the survivors to stand up and there were 12 of us. ... There were two that were in my company, in my rifle squad. That was all I knew. The rest were from different companies in the unit."
Howard said there are probably a lot more survivors who are still alive, but "distance and age may have kept many away."
On Dec. 24, 1944, over 2,200 American soldiers of the 66th Infantry Division, known as the Black Panthers, were being transported from England to Cherbourg, France, on the S.S. Leopoldville.
Owned by the Belgian Line, the ship had been refitted to increase its passenger capacity from 300 to 2,300 and was operating under the British Ministry of Transport. It had previously made 23 troop-carrying trips across the English Channel without a single enemy-inflicted casualty.
The 66th Infantry Division was being called in as reinforcements to meet the Nazi offensive that had begun Dec. 16. "We were headed for the Battle of the Bulge," Howard said.
Howard doesn't recall having had any prior notice of the trip. "They don't tell you in advance on anything - just, 'Get up and go,'" he said.
Five and a half hours after leaving the port in Southampton, England, the first submarine alert was sounded and the convoy began zig-zagging, the standard anti-submarine maneuver.
Just five and a half miles from their destination, the Leopoldville was hit in the aft starboard area by a torpedo launched by the German submarine U-486.
"There wasn't much time to recall anything, really," Howard said. When the torpedo hit, he was in a lower bunk in the ship. "They hollered for everybody to come up on the deck. Two and half hours later it was sunk."
Howard was among those who jumped from the sinking ship into the frigid English Channel. "When I came up out of the water I swam over to the lifeboat," he said, remembering it was "around 7 p.m."
He lost consciousness soon after. "I came to in the hospital about midnight in Cherbourg, France," Howard said. "I was in the hospital for nine months after that."
Of the 763 American soldiers that perished, some were killed instantly when the torpedo hit, some went down with the ship. Some froze to death in the 48-degree water while others were crushed between the ship and the rescue craft that came to save them when they missed the jump to the other decks and fell between the vessels.
According to a video by the History Channel, a number of embarrassing "errors of judgment and planning" led to more fatalities than there should have been. The History Channel also alleges there was a cover up by authorities.
In 1958-1959, U.S. military documents on the sinking were finally declassified although no effort was made to inform families of the details. Information on the Leopoldville remained classified by the British for about 50 years after incident.
It wasn't until the Leopoldville Disaster Monument was dedicated on Nov. 7, 1997, that real recognition was given to survivors and victims of the sinking.