Or more aptly titled - The Sinking of the S.S. Leopoldville...
It's Christmas Eve, 1944, the Belgian troopship Leopoldville was transporting 2,235 American soldiers across the English Channel as reinforcements to fight in what was to become known as the Battle of the Bulge. The Leopoldville was protected by escort ships, including the British destroyer Brilliant, but no air cover was available even though the likelihood of attack by German submarines was high. About five and a half miles from it s destination of Cherbourg, France, the vessel was torpedoed by the German submarine U-486. It sank two and a half hours later...
According to accounts from many of the survivors, the Belgian crew abandoned the ship and left the American soldiers to fend for themselves. The British Commander in charge of the convoy ordered the Leopoldville's anchor dropped to prevent the troopship from drifting into a minefield outside of the harbor. As sometimes happens, this solved one problem but created another.
Then a tug arrived on the scene, the dropped anchor prevented it from towing the vessel into shore. Murphy's Law now goes into full effect. Delayed radio transmissions for help, delayed response of rescue craft, heavy seas and freezing temperatures were just a few of things that sealed the fate of the soldiers. To top it off, its Christmas Eve and the servicemen stationed at an American base in Cherbourg, who could have assisted, were taking a night off from the war, either out partying or attending religious services.
By the end of the night, 763* American soldiers were dead, mostly from drowning or freezing to death in the icy waters of the English Channel. These soldiers represented men from 47 of the 48 states, most were between 18 to 21 years old and 493 bodies were never recovered. Three sets of brothers, including two sets of twins were killed.
Because of wartime censorship and to hide the mistakes made by various governments and officials, the disaster was not reported to the news media. Survivors were told by the British and American governments to keep quiet. Amazingly, relatives of the victims received notices that their loved ones were Missing in Action, even though the United States War Department knew them to be killed. Later, the men were declared to be Killed in Action, but even then, no details of their deaths were divulged to their families. After the war, the whole incident was considered an embarrassment to the Allies and all reports were filed away as "secret" by the American and British governments. Families of victims searched in vain for information about the deaths of their relatives and loved ones. Finally, in 1996, over 50 years later, the British government declassified documents related to the sinking of the Leopoldville.
The sinking of the Leopoldville was the worst disaster ever to happen to an American Infantry Division as a result of a submarine attack. More than a story about wartime tragedy, its about how governments, in order to either hide or disguise their mistakes, can hide the truth from those who need to know it the most.
*The death toll has often been reported as 802. The official Leopoldville Disaster List from the National Archives totals 763 confirmed dead.