— Drawing by Richard Rockwell, a nephew of Norman Rockwell
Solvay soldier among the victims
of the Leopoldville disaster

One of the little-known tragedies of World War 2 was the sinking of a troop-carrying ship in the English Channel in 1944. Among the 800 victims was Pvt. Vincent Paci, an 18-year-old from Solvay.

Finger Lakes Times, July 26, 1984
NEW YORK (AP) — Few know her name, even though she sank to the bottom of the English Channel on Christmas Eve 1944 and took more than 800 U. S. troops with her. She is the S.S. Leopoldville, and shipwreck hunter Clive Cussler says he has located her.

The Leopoldville is “a ship most nations would like to forget” because its sinking was “one of the most tragic and senseless blunders of World War 2,” says Cussler, author of “Raise the Titanic” and “Deep Six."

Using sonar echoes from their surface vessel to map the channel’s bottom, Cussler and his crew found the ship July 1, in 150 feet of water about 5.5 miles from the French port of Cherbourg. It was sitting upright, 60 feet high, “in one piece” on the ocean floor, he said.

The hull of the Leopoldville, Cussler said, “is as important a resting place for our nation’s dead military heroes as the cemeteries of France, the Philippines and Arlington — only there are no white crosses to mark their graves."

The Leopoldville was a Belgian luxury liner pressed into service as an Allied troop ship. But Cussler, as well as several survivors of the sinking who attended a news conference, said the ship was ill-prepared for disaster the night it sank.

The ship left Southampton, England, with 2,200 troops of the 66th Infantry Division, reinforcements for use in the Battle of the Bulge.

According to survivors, there were no lifeboat, fire or abandon ship drills for the troops, and no instruction in the use of lifeboats or life preservers.

Norman Bullett of Mattydale, New York, was one of the survivors of the sinking of the SS Leopoldville in the English Channel. He was 18 years old at the time.

In December, 1996, Bullett was interviewed by David Tobin of the Syracuse Post-Standard. Bullett said he couldn't swim, but was forced to learn quickly when the troop-carrying ship, a converted Belgian ocean cruiser, fell victim to a torpedo from a Nazi submarine. Bullett managed to reach a wooden stairway floating in the rough water, grabbed it and held on. He said he saw hundreds of men float around him in water that was about 48 degrees.

About 2,200 troops were aboard the Leopoldville; more than 800 died. The victims included soldiers from 46 states. All were members of the 66th Panther Infantry Division headed to relieve American troops at the Battle of the Bulge. One of the victims was Pvt. Vincent Paci, an 18-year-old from Solvay, who is buried in France.

Bullett says the Leopoldville left Southampton, England, at 9 a.m. on December 24. The torpedo struck the ship about 6 p.m. The attack was so unexpected that there was no plan, no preparation, only chaos.

"I thought, 'I'm going to save myself,' Bullett told Tobin, adding that he couldn't let his parents down. "The would be devastated if they got a telegram that I was lost."

Bullett said he was in the cold water about 45 minutes before he was pulled out of the channel by three Coast Guard seamen. He couldn't stand; his legs were too numb. Luckily, he was not seriously injured. After a day of rest, Bullett and the other survivors headed off to fight the Germans.

Here is another recollection from one of the rescuers:

Schenectady Gazette, December 24, 1964

Gazette Reporter

AMSTERDAM, NY — Christmas Eve for most people is a time for joy, but for Edward Bablin December 24 revives a 20-year-old nightmare.

Twenty years ago tonight former Navy enlisted man Bablin helped pull hundreds of frozen bodies of American soldiers from icy waters off Cherbourg, France.

“It’s like a bad dream or a nightmare. I still can’t shake it off,” said Bablin. “I relive the entire incident every Christmas Eve.”

Bablin offered this account of the tragedy which happened during the height of the Battle of the Bulge and as a result escaped publicity. He was assigned to a 190-member ship salvage unit at Cherbourg, a coastal community located near famed Utah Beach.

The temperature was at the zero mark on Christmas Eve in 1944, according to Bablin, who said he noticed a flash of light on the English channel. Before he knew what had happened, Bablin and five other men from his unit were on a Navy minesweeper about one mile from shore.

“Bodies were floating all around us like corks,” he recalled. “We pulled in as many as we could. They looked like they were alive, but we soon learned that all were dead.”

Bablin said the men were being transported on a Belgian troopship from the United States when the ship was either hit by a torpedo or struck a mine. The vessel broke in half and went down fast,” he said.

Bablin could not remember the name of the ship, but a check by the Gazette yesterday showed that the Belgian troop transport “Leopoldville” was sunk off Cherbourg December 24, 1944 while steaming up the channel.

The victims were fully dressed in overcoats and boots and some carried duffel bags, indicating they had a few minutes to gather their gear. Small boats brought the bodies to shore and Bablin remembers helping unload “hundreds of them.” they were “laid out like cord wood” on a dock, he remembered.

It was later reported that the men either froze to death in the frigid waters or their lungs snapped when currents sucked them under the ship. Only a few of the bodies were mangled, Bablin said.

By 4:30 Christmas morning less than eight hours after the ship went down, the bodies had been loaded onto air force flatbed trucks and were taken to a military cemetery about eight miles south of Cherbourg for burial. Bablin could not remember the outfit the men were in, but believes it was an armored unit.

“I’ll never forget it. It’s a nightmare,” said the father of seven children, who lives at 218 Clizbe Avenue.

For more on Solvay way back when, check out
the Solvay-Geddes Historical Society