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70 years ago in the English Channel

December 15, 2014

The 70th SS Leopoldville demise anniversary. Bud’s friends Bill Moomey and Maurice O’Donnell went to great lengths to assure me that he had died quickly from the torpedo blast. But they could not have been certain. Even so, the scenario may have looked like this:

In the dark early morning hours the soldiers lay on the ground dressed in their wool overcoats. Some lay on the brick surface of the dock. Maybe the surface was concrete. Some sources said the area was within a huge building lit by incandescent lights. Other soldiers lay on the piles of duffel bags. Most were weary from hours of walking the previous evening, then riding a packed train from Wilmouth to Southampton. The men didn’t mind the bright overheads because they could sleep at last. This was the morning of Christmas Eve, 1944.

Bud was one such soldier. Perhaps he and the others of Company E, 262nd Infantry Regiment, lined up single file to board the ships to France. A bored looking sailor stood at the gangway, directing first one way, then the other. “You up there,” he said to Bud. The ones before and after were went on to the next gangway. They went to the HMS Cheshire. Bud boarded the SS Leopoldville. He was in good company. Hank Anderson and Bill Moomey and others in his weapons platoon also boarded. They were to sail with the tide on the English Channel.

The Channel is shallow and the ships cannot cross to France except when the tide permits. No doubt the gangways to the ship were short and the inclines gentle. The ships sat low because the tide would remain out for hours.

On the SS Leo, sailors routed the tired men to various ladders and stairs below decks. Bud’s company went to the number 4 hold about 5 levels down, to 4-E. Lightbulbs hung from the ceiling of the room that spanned the width, so the room was perhaps 60 by 15 feet with a wooden stairway that landed sidewise in the center. Ten picnic style tables were arranged down the room and hammocks and life jackets stacked on the sides. The exhausted soldiers dropped their duffel bags on the deck, dragged them to one side, and laid down to get some more rest. The ambitious men fixed hammocks. Toilet facilities were accessible, but distant from quarters and insufficient. They were aboard a troopship meant to shuttle thousands from England to France in less than a day. By the time she left port most of the men were still sleeping. Soon after they departed Southampton the soldiers from each berthing area fetched pots of food and dinnerware.

In 2006 I attended a reunion of men who had partaken of the midday meal that December 24. Bill Moomey called it “inedible slop.” Several books have been written about the SS Leopoldville on its final trip across the Channel and the meal has been described many ways, but few of the narratives agree on exactly what it was. Possibilities: bread pudding, stew, cornbread, greasy mutton, and a few descriptions containing bathroom curse words. Some men were certain the pot contained fish.

Bill Moomey said he didn’t eat any of the meal, but others did. Bill said with pride that he never got seasick. Once onto the Channel the ship began to roll with the waves and Bill said some of the men vomited. Seasickness added to the vomit and the odor of the food. Bill left the quarters below for the upper deck and fresh air. The air was fresh, but cold. All the while Bud stayed behind, perhaps seasick. No one knows for sure. Perhaps he too went above deck but gathered with a different group. Bill was fairly sure Bud remained below when the torpedo struck the ship at 5:55 pm.

The men of the 262nd Infantry Regiment had been training together for at least a year in Arkansas and Alabama before their month in England. They knew how to behave if they were on a sinking ship. Various witnesses said that a loudspeaker voice assured them the ship would not sink and that help was on the way. The men could see the lights of Cherbourg, France, from their vantage on the upper deck of the SS Leo. Shore was closer than 6 miles.

Those who could find life preservers helped each other tie the ribbons. The preservers looked like 2 large teabags fastened in 2 places along one side. Your head went between the ribbons and the bags hung front and back. Along the edges were several ribbons and these needed to be tied.

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