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Courage aboard the S.S. Leopoldville

March 24, 2016

Photo on 2013-08-13 at 18.58

After the Leo takes a torpedo from U-486:

I am cold, wet, and my ears are ringing.  Am I lying on the street, and I can’t move my legs?  Now I remember:   The water was over my head.  Then it dropped a few inches and I could yell.  I screamed every time the water dropped and I could breathe.  And scream.  Someone grabbed my shirt and, with a steady lift, handed me up to someone who got me out of the dark water.  What dark water?

Wait.  I am not on a street.  The sun is setting, and I see the superstructure of a ship.  I’m on a ship, not a street.  I again try in vain to move my legs.

Did someone knock me out?  I feel like I was dreaming.  In my mind we were in London looking for women, but I–no, I am on a ship.  Freezing.  Wet.  The air stinks of a familiar gunpowder smell.

Someone is walking past me on both sides, quickly, not running.  I hear many voices, but mostly I hear the sound of boots on the steel deck.  Somewhere.  I make out the words “We got hit.”  I know I got hit.  Felt like a sledge hammer.  I think the deck is slanting.  Sinking?

Now I remember.  My buddies in Company E, weapons platoon, are with me on this ship, somewhere.  Something terrible happened.  Something really big, like a hammer smashed into our ship.  I am hurt.  Someone is telling me not to worry, that I’ll be okay.  Now they are lifting me and putting me on some canvas.  Now they are carrying me on a litter up hill, across the deck.  The wind is cold.  I hear a voice say to “set him down here.”

Soon I am being placed onto another stretcher, this one with chicken wire above me and below me.  A rope harness with a pulley is close above my chest.  I am being tied down to the new stretcher.  Someone lifts me up and the ropes tighten.  The pulley squeaks as the cable passes through.

After they put me over the side of the ship, the last thing I remember. . .


A smaller ship, the HMS Brilliant, pulls up to the converted Belgian luxury liner, the doomed, SS Leopoldville.  Someone from the deck yells up at the soldiers clustered at the rails:  “Jump, mate!”

A few brave souls make the attempt, but not all of them jump at the proper time.  Some fall between the ships and are crushed when the waves make the ships bump together.

Despite the lack of organized Army leadership, the soldiers are calm.  They fasten each others’ life jackets and throw their helmets down the listing deck to port.  Very few men carry their rifles.

They hear the shout of the Battalion Commander, a Lieutenant Colonel:  “Who gave the order to abandon ship?”

One of the soldiers on the deck yells:  “Fuck you!”  The soldier who yelled this probably saved the lives of many who were transfixed by indecision whether to try jumping to the rescue ship.  Soon wave after wave of men leap from the rails of the Leo when someone shouts, so they get the timing right.

The Brilliant rises and falls with the waves.  Sometimes the soldiers on the Leo can reach out and almost touch it.  Other times the distance from rail to deck is nearly 20 feet.

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