In remembrance of the Leopoldville
● By Richard Gaw
The Belgian troopship that carried more than 2,000 was torpedoed by a German submarine on Dec. 24, 1944.
Before Allan Andrade of Landenberg revealed a secret to the world, and before his telling of the horrific aftermath of what happened on Dec. 24, 1944, there was simply this: A 501-foot-long Belgian troopship named the Leopoldville left a pier in Southampton, England at the height of the Second World War.
It contained more than 2,000 American soldiers.
The soldiers, belonging to the 66th Infantry Division, were being transported across the English Channel to their next destination in Cherbourg, France. Just five-and-a-half miles from landing, the troopship was torpedoed by the German submarine, U-486. In the course of that bitter cold night, the Leopoldville slowly disappeared into the 48-degree Channel waters, 763 American soldiers died, and the bodies of 493 American soldiers were never recovered. All told, every state in the nation lost at least one soldier, except Delaware and Wyoming. In total, 74 soldiers from Pennsylvania perished in the disaster. Although no one from Chester County was killed, ten of the dead were from Philadelphia.
Despite having the full breadth of horror with other World War II incidents, the story of the Leopoldville Disaster was soon lost. In fact, the first American documents about the tragedy were considered "classified" until 1959, and Great Britain did not release public information about the Leopoldville until 1996.
"I prefer to use the term, 'It was allowed to be forgotten,' rather than calling it a cover-up," Andrade said on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the tragedy. "You have to understand that this was a Belgian ocean liner converted to a troopship that was going to France carrying American soldiers, under British escort. One of the big issues is that the Belgian crew abandoned ship and left the Americans to themselves. Of the 238 Belgian crew on board, only six were killed, while of 2,000 American soldiers, 763 were killed. What does that tell you?"
A self-described World War II buff, Andrade first became aware of the disaster in 1994, by accident.
While researching the Oneida Limited marketing campaign called "Back Home for Keeps" that appeared in Life magazine after the war had ended, Oneida became interested in Andrade's research and gave him access to the company publications issued during that time. As he was sifting through them, he discovered that Oneida had published an honor roll of 32 former employees who were killed during the war. One of them, 20-year-old Benjamin J. Blaskowski, was said to have perished in a transport sinking in the European Theater on Christmas 1944.
He began to dig for documentation about a ship sinking in Europe on Christmas in 1944, and could find nothing about it. One night, he shared his frustration with a man who told him, "I know exactly what sinking you're talking about, because I was there."
The man, it turned out, had served as a medic in Cherbourg, and assisted with caring for the wounded on the Leopoldville. He referred Andrade to a magazine article about the 50th anniversary of the disaster, which led Andrade on a nearly a three-year investigation that took him into the homes of dozens of survivors and families of those lost in the disaster.
Ultimately, Andrade's work became his book, "Leopoldville: A Tragedy Too Long Secret," published in 1997, that featured illustrations by Richard Rockwell, the nephew of artist Norman Rockwell. [The book was revised in 2001, updated to include two new chapters and was republished in 2008.]
Although another book had been published in the early 1960s about the Leopoldville Disaster, Andrade's book is generally considered as the definitive document about the disaster. Rather than just steeped in facts, the book is a document of hundreds of personal stories, told through profiles of those who were killed during the disaster.
"The power of my book is nothing I wrote," Andrade said. "The power of my book is the families who poured out their hearts to me. I had love letters from women who gave me the permission to use them. I got photographs. I got Purple Heart medals. I got their high school yearbooks. I had some wives who told me, 'This was the fist time I learned what my husband went through.' What I set out to do was put faces on statistics. When you say 763 dead and 493 bodies never found, it's a meaningless number. When you say it's Glenn and Jack Lowry and you have their picture in the book, now you have a face on the tragedy."
Andrade's work is now a part of a website developed by Don and Pete Nigbor, which commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Leopoldville disaster. It's an interactive site filled with information that gives visitors the opportunity to learn more by contacting Andrade.
"I'll get inquiries from people who want to know what really happened to their grandfather on the Leopoldville," Andrade said. "For many families, all that they knew was that their relative was killed in the war. That's where I feel that I've performed a little service, to be in a position to help them verify what indeed happened to them."
Although his extensive research has long since ended, Andrade said the stories he heard -- told to him from Leopoldville survivors and the families of those who perished that night -- still haunt him. One of the many stories Andrade recalled was the one told to him by Jack Randles of Maryland, who survived the disaster. While Randles struggled in the frigid waters beside the Leopoldville, he told Andrade that another soldier fell into the water beside him. While they floated, Randles heard the soldier repeatedly mutter, 'God, make me a man.'"
Randles told Andrade that he had found out years later at a World War II reunion that the soldier had become so weak that he deliberately pushed himself away from the boat to allow other capsized soldier to be more easily rescued. The muttering, Randles told Andrade, was part of the Captain's Prayer, and that the soldier had appealed to God to give him the strength to do the right thing.
"I agree with Tom Brokaw that this was the Greatest Generation," Andrade said. "Some of these guys went into the service when they were 16 years old, because they felt a responsibility to give back to their country, which I think is largely lost on many Americans today."
To obtain more information about the Leopoldville Troopship Disaster, visit www.leopoldville.org .
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .