A story of survival: 93 year old war veteran returns to the wreck of the SS Leopoldville
As we look forward to our Battle of the Bulge tour in December, we have become captivated by some of the stories of the soldier’s own journeys to the Ardennes, some of which have only recently been told. This is one of our favourites, the story of John Waller and the SS Leopoldville.
On Christmas Eve, 1944, the Belgian troopship SS Leopoldville was carrying American troops of the 66th Infantry Division to join The Battle of the Bulge when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. 800 men lost their lives just five miles from the French coast. The information was censored by both the American and British governments, meaning that families only found out what happened to their loved ones decades afterwards.
In April 2018, for the first time in seventy-four years, John Waller returned to the site of the sinking to lay a wreath at the watery grave of his friends and former brothers-in-arms.
“I didn’t think I would be emotional about it, cause I never thought about it again’ he said about being back, ‘I just wiped that whole scene out of my mind”.
It was only five years ago that John was able to tell his daughter about what his experience of that night.
It took the Leopoldville two and a half hours to sink. “All I did was feel the shaking of the boat when the torpedo hit…for a long time we didn’t know what had happened”. The torpedo hit at 17:54, exploding in number four hold and killing about 300 men instantly. However, evacuations were slow and confusing. Orders were given in Flemish and American troops were unsure of British Navy evacuation procedures, many staying aboard the sinking ship with expectations of being towed ashore by tug. While other ships in the convoy tried to find the U-boat, the HMS Brilliant attempted to save some of the sinking soldiers. However, as a much smaller ship the HMS Brilliant could only save 500 men, leaving 1200 aboard.
"I must have been at the back of the line cause when it came my turn, I walked down the side of the ship and into the water, I walked into the sea.” Once in the freezing winter water, John had to swim for his life for forty-five minutes.
Communication confusion prevented the several hundred Allied ships in the harbour at Cherbourg from mobilising efficiently. The American held Fort L’Ouest used a different radio frequency to the British and could not read the British code, meaning that HMS Brilliant had to contact them indirectly through HMNB Portsmouth. Even then, all communications and orders were slowed by the minimal holiday staffing. It took a whole hour for Cherbourg to learn of the sinking of the Leopoldville, at which point only belated efforts by USS PC-1225 to rescue survivors could be roused due to cold engines and skeleton holiday crews. The Leopoldville sank at 20:40.
“I can remember it just rolling over and going down… I did watch it disappear into the sea”.
Both the American and British governments considered the sinking a disaster, heavily censoring the relevant records and ordering the survivors to keep silent. Their letters were read and censored for the rest of the war and once discharged, they were informed that their GI benefits as civilians would be cancelled if they mentioned it to the press. British documents about the sinking were only released in 1996.
The wreck itself was discovered in July 1984 by Clive Cussler of the National Underwater and Marine Agency. It lies on its side on the seabed, crumbling and decayed, but still clearly recognisable.
There are few memorials to those lost with the Leopoldville. The most recent is in the Veterans Memorial Park in Titusville, Florida, erected in 2005. 802 beech trees have been planted at Piddlehinton in Dorset, UK, the camp where many of the 66th Infantry Division spent their last days.
At 93, John Waller is one of the last people alive who can remember this tragic event, something that is now passing out of living history and being forgotten. Standing above the harbour at Cherbourg, he spoke of his experience:
“I am a lucky, lucky man to have survived that, and to have what I have now, wonderful family”.
Added: 10th August 2018