Once the war was over, the men who survived the sinking of the Leopoldville were allowed to
talk about one of the worst maritime tragedies of WWII. This is a copy of the original letter and a
typed version of it. The true horror of that night is captured in this one soldier’s memory of that
Christmas Eve 1944.
Monday, September 3
This morning I was the happiest fellow alive because I thought I would be coming home in a few weeks. Now all my dreams are shattered. My commanding officer told us this morning that we would have to go to Germany as Army of occupation. All men with 45 points and under will have to stay over here. There is nothing I can do about it except feel bad and that does not do much good. If they stop the draft, I’ll never get home. My only hope is that they continue the draft so that we can be relieved to come home. From what I’ve been reading in the papers, the draft will stop. It seems as if the people have forgotten that we want a chance to live as civilians. We, the combat men, won the war and it seems to me that it is only fair to let the ones who didn’t fight come over for the occupation and make sure there isn’t another war.
It is quite evident that the people don’t see things that way. So it looks like I won’t be home for a couple of years.
Now that censorship has been lifted, I can tell you the whole story about the “Leopoldville.”
We got orders about noon on December 23rd to be ready to sail for France by 6 o’clock. We were ready and on the train headed for Southampton by 6 o’clock. We boarded the ships and were ready to sail in a very short time. My company was put in the wrong compartment by mistake and another company took the compartment that we were supposed to take. (the torpedo hit that compartment and the whole company was killed). We didn’t sail until the next morning (Dec. 24th). It was a beautiful day and everybody was happy even though we were headed for the “Bulge” and would be fighting for our lives in a couple of days. Toward evening the water was getting rough. I was up on deck getting a little fresh air and remarked to one of the boys, “I would hate to be in that water” never dreaming that in two hours, I would be in it swimming for my life. I went below and tried to sleep until we docked because once we hit land, I knew there would be or more safe sleeping. The boys were all singing Christmas carols and we as happy as anybody could be under the circumstances. At about 9 o’clock, the torpedo hit us. I was thrown out of my hammock by the concussion of the torpedo. We went up on the deck and everybody was as calm as could be. The boat was sinking but we didn’t know how fast so we weren’t worried much. We were just three miles off Cherbourg and we could see the lights. A destroyer pulled up along side of us and we started jumping from our boat to the destroyer. About 800 men got on including the captain of the ship and the crew. About 15 minutes after the destroyer left, the boilers blew up and the ship starting sinking fast. There was nobody to tell us to abandon ship except army offices and they didn’t know anything about the ship.
This is John Waller’s letter to his mother, written the day after WWII ended.
In this letter, he tells exactly what happened the night the Leopoldville was torpedoed in 1944.
After the boiler blew, we knew the ship would sink in a very few minutes but we didn’t jump overboard because we had orders to stay on until we had orders to abandon ship. The orders never came so we stayed on until the last minutes. Everybody started jumping at the same time. Guys were jumping on each other and necks were broken by the dozen in the mad scramble to get off the boat. The boat sank two minutes after we started jumping. A lot went down with the boat. After the boat sank, we were all grouped together and everybody was yelling and screaming. I swam away from the crowd because it was like death to stay all together. The screaming and yelling soon turned to prayers. There wasn’t a man in the water that night that didn’t turn to God for help. All material aid was gone and only God was left. I kept thinking about the telegram you would get. Then I turned to God and I knew I was protected and that nothing could happen to God’s child. I kept repeating the (scientific) statement of being out loud. The water was cold and I was losing my strength fast. My life preserver wasn’t doing much good because it was so small. I had an overcoat, a field jacket, and two pairs of underwear. That weighed a lot. I was lucky to even get a life preserver. Some of the men didn’t have any because there weren’t enough on the boat. I was so tired and cold and full of salt water that I didn’t care what any more. It would have been easy to die then. Every time I would try to open my mouth to breathe, a big wave would cover me up. It would have been easy to sink out of sight into the peace and quiet away from all the coming horrors of war. I’ll never forget how I felt then. Then I started thinking about the telegram you would get for Christmas. I gave a look around to see if I could find a life raft or something to hold on to, but all I could see was men swimming around. Then I said out loud again, “Divine love always has met and always will meet every human need.”
About that time, a raft came from I don’t know where and I hung on. It was crowded with men but I managed to hold on. The raft was a gift of God because when I looked the first time, it wasn’t there. Then I turned to God and there was a raft. I held on to the raft until I was pulled off by a man that seemed to go crazy. I didn’t have the strength to fight back., but I wasn’t afraid when I found that I had nothing material to hang on to. I had God and I knew that he had saved me once and would save me again. In less than two minutes, I was pulled aborad a tug boat. I laid on the deck and vomited and then passed out cold.I came to in about five minutes and by the time we got to Cherbourg, I was well enough to walk off the boat. I refused to go to a hospital because I knew they would be crowded with the men that were coming in from the “bulge.” Men were coming in with arms and legs blown off and lots of men were nearly dead from drowning. At least I could walk in (to) an ex-German concentration camp. We slept on pallets on the floor with about five blankets. I thought I would never get warm again. The next day, Christmas, we went to an assembly point and had our Christmas dinner. After a good meal, I felt wonderful. All I had was a slight cold to show for the catastrophe. Without my knowledge of God and Christian Science, I wouldn’t be here today. That’s the story of the “Leopoldville.” We lost 800 of the 2000 men on board.
I’ll write again soon. Keep on sending packages because I won’t be home for quite awhile.