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75 Years Ago in Belgium

December 15, 2019
Buddy and his sergeant posed for this photo in New York prior to embarking to England on the USS George Washington. Although most thought the war with Germany was practically over both of these soldiers would soon die, their bodies never to be recovered.

Dec. 14, 2019

Today is the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s aggression in the Ardennes region of Belgium in 1944.  My uncle and his fellow American soldiers were a few hundred miles away in Southern England, quartered at Camp Piddlehinton.  They lived in long red brick barracks, each with kitchen facilities.

Hitler’s reckless decision to attack set in motion the circumstances leading to my uncle’s death ten days later and my grandma’s lifelong grief.

I was familiar with my grandma’s grief, her loneliness, her inability to explain her feelings.  December 12, 1944, two days before Hitler attacked Belgium, she posted a letter from Kalispell, Montana, to her son, Carl “Buddy” Ralph Bonde, Jr.  She told him she was mailing him a package.  She told him about his sisters and his dad, how they were getting ready to celebrate Christmas. No doubt one of his sisters, home from college, would sleep in his room.

His mother asked him to be kind to the other young men in his company who were likely to be homesick.  Her letter was returned undelivered.  And January 25, 1945, she received a telegram saying he had gone missing in action.  Eventually he was declared killed in action.  She only had her imagination to tell her what all that meant.

The story of Buddy’s fate, according to a West Point graduate I spoke with on the phone, was famous.  Text book material to the cadets, because hundreds of troops died because of a myriad of poor decisions and miscommunications.

That Christmas Eve morning in 1944 about a thousand soldiers boarded the SS Leopoldville, a Belgian luxury liner that had been converted to a troopship.  They were to steam from Southampton with the tide the 60-plus miles across the English Channel to Cherbourg, France.  They were part of a diamond-formation convoy that zig zagged to avoid submarine attack.

About six o’clock that evening a German U boat, U-486, under the command of Gerhard Meyer, fired a torpedo at the Leo.  It missed.  He fired again and the missile struck the Leo below the water line near the compartment where Buddy was berthed.  Some of his buddies were above, watching for the lights of Cherbourg to appear on the horizon. I eventually met some of these guys. Three were on the Leo, three others were on another troopship, the HMS Cheshire.

The Leo had water tight compartments.  It had lifeboats, it was only five or six miles from port.  It had plenty of life preservers.  Many problems: the life preservers were barely adequate, hard to use. They consisted of two flotation bags attached with several ribbons. Soldiers called them “teabags.” The lifeboats and life rafts were welded to the deck or too complicated for the soldiers to deploy with no training.

Many other problems, but one in particular was challenging:

It was Christmas Eve.  You can imagine.  The junior officers were on duty, of course, and they could tell through a binocular something was wrong with the troopship because it stopped dead.  Companion ships went in a sub-hunting mode, something the observers in Cherbourg were familiar with. 

Radio silence.  The Leopoldville could radio the base in England, but not Cherbourg because the frequencies were different.  The Leo used its signal light to tell Cherbourg they were in trouble.  Cherbourg signaled back to ask what kind of trouble, but never got an answer.

General grade officers in Cherbourg partied. They could not be persuaded to take action to aid the troopship stopped out on the Channel, at least not right away.  Aboard the Leo the American troops assembled on deck and awaited instructions that never came.

The crew of the Leo, all civilians, launched lifeboats and rowed to safety while the soldiers watched. Some soldiers said they heard messages of reassurance on the ship’s loudspeakers that the ship wouldn’t sink.

The captain of the Leo spoke only Flemish and kept to himself, listening to classical music.  None of the American officers could approach him.

A British warship, the HMS Brilliant, pulled alongside the Leo and took several hundred soldiers, those lucky and brave enough to risk the 10-20 foot drop to the deck below, and the potential to be crushed as the two ships crashed together with the stormy sea. A few others descended a rope net to the Brilliant.

One survivor, Bill Moomey, told me jumping from 20 feet was terrifying.  Both he and Hank Anderson, another survivor from Buddy’s Company E, 262nd Regiment, 66th Division, said they credited God with their survival.  Both remembered my uncle Carl.  They said he was a jokester and smart.  And they liked him. Bill broke down when he told me about him.

In the end, 764 soldiers died Christmas Eve when the Leo was struck or when it sunk the 150 feet to the bottom of the Channel.  Witnesses said many bodies washed ashore near Cherbourg during the next few days.  They stacked bodies on the pier like cordwood, they said, then trucked to St. Lo for burial.  Other remains were not recovered, including that of my uncle Buddy.  Many went down with the ship, including the reclusive captain.

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