It was Christmas Eve 1944 when Staff Sgt. Val Peterson and the 66th “Black Panther Division” got their marching orders.
“We had been stationed in Dorchester, England, since mid-October when orders swept the camp to be ready to get out in two hours. We were taken to Southampton by truck,” the 84-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. man recalled more than 60 years later. “The whole division was lined up on the dock in the cold in the dark with all our stuff.
“We could see the outline of two ships at dockside. We were standing alongside the S.S. Cheshire and down the dock 150 yards was the S.S. Leopoldville. My top sergeant and another sergeant flipped a shilling to see which ship we’d board.
“My sergeant won the toss and we boarded the Cheshire right beside us. It was probably the luckiest thing that ever happened to me that we got on the Cheshire. We made it across the English Channel and many of those soldiers who were aboard the Leopoldville didn’t,” he said.
At 9 a.m. when a small convoy of troops ships left Southampton for Cherbourg, France, the weather was cold and the English Channel rough. By 2 p.m. the ships in the convoy were zigzagging to avoid German U-boat torpedoes.
Lurking in the deep was Capt. Gerhard Meyer, skipper of U-486, waiting for the convoy to pass. At 5:54 p.m., five miles off the French coast, the Leopoldville, crammed with 2,235 soldiers, took a German torpedo that sent it to the bottom. In the snafu that followed, 802 members of the 66th Division lost their lives.
Although Meyer survived the depth charges fired by HMS Brilliant, a British destroyer, and two other destroyers accompanying the convoy, the German sub skipper and his crew were sent to the deep by a British sub on April 12, 1945.
All of this was kept under wraps because Allied commanders didn’t want to make the disaster public for fear it would have an adverse affect on the war effort.
There was no official word about the disaster until more than four decades after the war and then only because of a Freedom of Information request made to the government by the 66th Division Association.
Peterson and the rest of his regiment were oblivious to the fact that the Leopoldville had been sunk by a German U-boat until years after the war. They arrived in Cherbourg not knowing the fate of many of the soldiers sailing on the doomed ship.
“We disembarked from the Cheshire and marched a short distance to small wooden boxcars called ’40 and eights.’ In World War I these little boxcars contained eight mules and 40 soldiers.'” Peterson said. “We had no idea where we were going, and we had nothing to eat. Finally a lieutenant got us a K-ration each; that was Christmas dinner.”
A couple of days later what was left of the 66th division finally reached its destination. It was to replace a seasoned division that had a 20,000-man German division bottled up at the submarine pens along the French coast at Lorient and St. Nazaire, France.
“The Germans were out of food, ammunition and gasoline. They were staying put because we had them surrounded,” he said. “But they had a very strong perimeter defense guarding the submarine pens. The pens, protected by 18 feet of reinforced concrete, were impregnable even when we bombed them.”
After being stationed near Loriente for a while Peterson decided to volunteer to go on patrol on a regular basis.
“I was a dumb 22-year-old kid. Our job was to go out on a patrol every day or so and find out what the Germans were up to at the sub pens. There was a no man’s land around the outside of the pens that was half a mile to a mile wide,” he said. “When you went out on one of these patrols, from the time you left our lines until you got back, you were up tight. Most of the time when we’d run into a German patrol we’d go one way and they’d go another.
“Every once in a while you’d get in a situation where you’d get surprised and you’d have to fight your way out. One of those times we were out on patrol in no man’s land, and we came across a couple of houses. We looked at the houses, that appeared to be empty, from the concealment of the hedgerows,” Peterson said. “I told the rest of the guys in the patrol to cover us while me and my point man moved in closer.
“When I jumped the hedgerow, I saw this little patch of blue below me a few inches from where my foot landed. I knew right away it was an anti-tank mine that I had almost jumped on,” he said. “The rain had washed the mud off it and there it was! We kept on going.
“The point man and I reached the houses that were empty, and we went on past them to a nearby woods and disappeared into the brush. All the while the rest of our patrol was watching from a distance. While the two of us were in the woods, a German patrol came up and occupied one of the houses,” Peterson said. “So one of our guys, who had more guts than brains, jumped over the hedgerow, ran past the houses full of Germans and came looking for us in the woods to let us know we were cut off.
“We took the long way home around the Germans in the house and got back to our guys without incident. When we did, I called in 105 mm Howitzer fire on the house were the Germans were holed up,” he said. “As soon as our artillery started hitting near the house, we opened up on them with our rifles, too. The Germans took off into the woods.”
When they got back to company headquarters, Peterson filed a report on their activities on the front line that day for higher command to review. At war’s end the 66th Infantry Division was reassigned to occupation duty in Germany. Before the men of the “Black Panther Division” were trucked to Victoria, Germany, they witnessed the surrender of the German forces.
“They had a formal surrender out in a big field near the town of Lorient,” Peterson said. “With 18,000 German soldiers standing in ranks, our general went out and accepted the German commander’s pistol. It was something else. Then they handed all the Germans over to the French Army and that was the last we saw of them,” he said.
Peterson went on to Victoria, but was only there a short time when he shipped out of Marseilles, France, for home. He had been in the U.S. Army since Sept. 16, 1940, when his Connecticut National Guard unit was given a one-year enlistment. They were to be discharged from the U.S. Army on Sept. 16,1941, but their tour was extended 90 days. Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941, and Peterson and thousands of other soldiers were in for the duration.
In late November 1945 he arrived in Boston aboard a troop ship. He was assigned to Fort Devens for a few days before being discharged. While at the fort, returning soldiers were allowed to make one call home.
“I lived in Stratford, outside Bridgeport, Conn., and when I called home my father answered the phone. I heard him yell to my mother, ‘Val is back!’ I told her I’d be home in a couple of days.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Dec. 25, 2006 and is republished with permission.
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