SGT Elmer A. Baker
Co. K., 262nd Infantry Regiment, 66th "Panther" Division
Lost 24 December, 1944
after the sinking of the S.S. Leopoldville
-- Sandra Joyce Baker Cardens, very proud daughter --
Elmer August Baker, was born November 12, 1922, in Cedar City, Missouri.
When I was born in June of 1942, his family lived in New Bloomfield,
Missouri, a few miles further north. It was there he went to high school and
there he met my mother. From all accounts, he was a bright, hard-working,
conscientious, thoughtful and considerate young man, planning to be a farmer
until he entered the Army. He was the first born in a family of six and all
the younger children adored him.
When my dad joined the Army, in January of 1943, he was little more than
twenty years old. Late in 1944, the war was not going well for the Allies in
Europe so more men were needed to shore up the beleaguered troops.... and
they needed them fast. Elmer was in the Army's A.S.T.P. program attending the
University of Nebraska, studying to be an engineer, when he learned the
program was being disbanded. All the men in that program were reassigned to
training bases all over the country. My mother and I left the apartment in
Lincoln and went home to Missouri to live with Elmer's family. After
training, his new Division, the 66th "Panther" Division, shipped out for
Southampton, England just days from his twenty-second birthday. On Christmas
Eve morning, the 262nd & the 264th Regiments were ordered to leave
Southampton on the converted Belgian liner, S.S. Leopoldville, even as they
could smell the turkeys roasting for what would have been their traditional
holiday meal. The orders came to ship out sooner than anyone had expected
and the confusion that ensued was unbelievable - more than the ordinary
SNAFU. Men were put on one ship, then taken off and put on the other.
Regiments and companies were split up and there was no accurate listing of
who was on which ship. Some were saved because of this, but others were doomed.
The S. S. Leopoldville was carrying more than 2,200 American soldiers from the
66th "Panther" Division, across the English channel as reinforcements to
fight in the Battle of the Bulge. At about six o'clock in the evening, when
they were only a little more than 5 miles from their destination, Cherbourg,
France, a torpedo from a German U-486 submarine tore into the ship. The
ship's crew from the Belgian Congo, who spoke no English, got in the working
life boats with their luggage and even a parrot in a cage and abandoned the
American troops and the ship. The troops had not been given any instructions
in deploying the lifeboats or how to put on their lifejackets. Because it
was Christmas Eve, most soldiers and sailors onshore were at holiday parties;
requests for help were misrouted through London. Help was slow to come to
the disabled ship, though it stayed afloat for nearly three hours. Most of
the men on board believed they would be rescued. But help didn't come soon
enough and 802 soldiers died - most by drowning or freezing or from the
initial torpedo hit; 650 were injured; 493 bodies were never recovered.
Because of wartime censorship, the disaster was not reported to the news
media and all reports of the disaster were filed away as top secret by the
American, the British and the Belgian governments.
A retired police officer from New York, Allen Andrade, wrote a book,
published in 1997, about the sinking of the Leopoldville called S. S.
Leopoldville Disaster - December 24, 1944 and from contact with him, I
learned a lot more. About fifteen years ago, a survivor in my Dad's Company, Mr.
Vincent Codianni, wrote to me telling me that my dad had saved his life that
night before losing his own and how grateful he was. Mr. Codianni has since
seen that a monument was erected at Ft. Benning, GA, at Sacrifice Field, in
memory of the men, survivors and the lost, from the Leopoldville.
Because the sinking of the ship was kept secret by our government, as well as
the British and the Belgian governments, for so many years, I didn't learn
what happened until 1977 and it was 1997 before I learned most of the details
surrounding the event. The survivors and their rescuers were all told to
keep their mouths shut about the tragedy.
My mother was sent a pair of rusted nail clippers and a ring made out of a
coin which were recovered with his body. He received the Purple Heart and I
am fortunate to have that, plus several pictures of him. My most cherished
possession is a little cardboard record he made for my mother and me.....a
lot of soldiers made these and sent them home to their families. I was in my
mid-thirties before I even knew it existed. When I played the ragged little
45, the first words I heard were "Hello Sandy". It as the only time I could
remember hearing his voice. I was overwhelmed by those two little words.
He was buried in the St. Mere Eglise Cemetery near Cherborg, France, but his
parents had his body returned and in September of 1948, reburied in
Jefferson City, Missouri. My mother had remarried in 1947, but she and I
went to the graveside service. My grandmother never recovered from losing
her oldest son and was very emotional at the funeral. We hardly ever saw
her, or my grandfather after Elmer was killed. I guess they didn't want to
have much contact with me because it was a painful reminder of their son and
I wish I could tell my dad that he has a handsome grandson, who is bright,
thoughtful, hard-working, conscientious and considerate, just like he was,
who will start college in August, 1999. My father, and all the others who
died in the war died for freedom and peace and we, their children, and
grandchildren are the benefactors. I hope with all my heart my Dad knows
he's not forgotten and I still miss him very much.