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December 25, 1944, 5 miles out from Cherbourg, France

December 26, 2015

I did not meet the person who drew the layout of the SS Leopoldville on Christmas Eve, 1944, but he was Bill Loughborough.  I missed him by a couple of years, but I spoke to people who knew him intimately.  I am thinking of Hank Anderson’s wife, Mary.  She seemed familiar and fond of the men of Company E, 262nd Infantry Regiment, 66th Division, better than her veteran husband Hank.  I believe she had been to many of the Panther Division Army reunions and had come to love and respect this prolific chronicler whom she called “Luff.”  Luff has written the most lucid, complete account of the events leading to the tragic end of the troopship.  Indeed, Luff wrote with such detail that he even mentioned my Uncle Carl Bonde.  He was the only one who mentioned him by name in any account written in the 1940s.  I have speculated why Carl was not mentioned by others who wrote of the SS Leopoldville. He must have been forgettable, somehow.  Not distinctive enough to be mentioned by name.  Some of us are that way.  Yes, even me.

Even though the official Army account lists the day that my mother’s only brother, PFC Carl R. Bonde, was killed in action, as December 25, I spoke to three or four who assured me that he actually died Christmas Eve.  In fact, there can be no doubt about the date.  A U-Boat torpedo exploded in his troop compartment, probably killing him quickly.  At least, his buddies did their best to assure me that he had been killed instantly.  They acted as if they wanted to protect me from the horrors of the war they experienced, the way my Uncle Bud would have.  Avuncular.  Like an uncle.

Instead of comforting me, their efforts had the opposite effect.  In trying to protect me they have made me fearful.

In the numerous accounts of the horrific events in the enormity of the sinking of the SS Leopoldville, several soldiers wrote of hearing the terrified screams coming from the troop compartments near the place where the torpedo exploded with such a terrible smell of gunpowder.  Soldiers were weeping, bawling, pleading for their mothers to help them.  These accounts told the suffering of members of my Uncle’s company, perhaps his platoon, his section.  Possibly of Bud himself.  At this point in history, does it matter?  No, not the particular people, they are all dead.  But yes, those who were there suffered greatly until mercifully, they drowned.  It may have taken up to two hours for the ship to slip beneath the waves, quenching the suffering of Bud and his fellow soldiers.  Christmas Eve, 1944.

That night Hank Anderson said he felt he died the moment he leapt from the SS Leopoldville 20 feet down to the hard steel deck of the HMS Brilliant.  The Brilliant had pulled up to rescue as many as possible.  But then Hank felt that he had been resurrected once the soldiers had been delivered to the dock at Cherbourg.  Many of them were wet and cold, others, like Hank, had injuries from jumping such a great distance.

Bill Moomey

Bill Moomey, who died last year, was a close friend of Carl’s. He credited Carl with saving his life because the 66th Division had been devastated by the torpedo that struck the SS Leopoldville Christmas Eve, 1944. The 66th was assigned to the cost of France to contain German submariners in their bunkers.

Bill Moomey told me that once he and the others regrouped on the dock at Cherbourg, he was dismayed at how few from his company remained.  In the cold night, someone had built a fire.  The men called out their company and platoon names, hoping that they would be reunited, but answers did not come.  Bill said he saw a pallet of canned rations on the dock.  A lieutenant, whom he didn’t know, told him that it might be a good idea if he grabbed a couple cases, so he did.  The weather was cold and he and several others moved close to the fire.  Sergeant Al Salata was the senior member of their platoon.

Hank said he had a religious experience Christmas Eve.  A truck pulled up on the dock at Cherbourg, so he and the others boarded.  They rode to a warehouse.  Maybe it was a church, perhaps a hotel.  A large stone building for emergency housing.

The races were segregated in World War II.  The truck delivered Hank and some other soldiers to the quarters of black soldiers.  They had just finished a Christmas Eve meal and theywere singing carols.  The gospel singing sounded heavenly to young Hank Anderson, who later said that he felt like he had died and gone to heaven.  Hank became a Presbyterian minister when he returned to Minnesota.  He said that the Black soldiers graciously fed and housed the survivors of the Leopoldville.

Scan 2

Pictured:  some of Carl Bonde’s army friends who survived the sinking of the troopship SS Leopoldville, and their spouses. And me.  I am the youngster in the back row.  To my right is Hank Anderson and his wife, Mary.  In the front row, Mary and Al Salata and Martha Merza.  Her husband, Wally, probably took the picture.

I don’t know if Hank Anderson got separated from his Company E, but Bill Moomey told me he and the other 66th Division soldiers ended up camped in canvas tents on a big field, possibly a race track or fair grounds.  Bill said that for the first time, he and the others got to sleep in as much as they wanted, eating the C-Rations he carried back from the dock on December 24.  At the time the freedom Bill and his buddies had seemed heavenly.

 

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