Pfc. Merritt Dayton of Venice was one of the lucky ones who escaped the SS Leopoldville disaster off the coast of France on Christmas Eve 1944. The Leopoldville was a Belgium troop transport crammed full of 2,223 soldiers from the U.S. 66th Infantry Division sailing from England to France to take part in the “Battle of the Bulge. They were torpedoed by a German U-boat five miles off the French coast. A total of 763 soldiers and an additional 56 crewmen lost their lives when the ship sank.
The transport was accompanied by four escort destroyers across the English Channel: HMS Brilliant, HMS Anthony, HMS Hotham, and a French frigate Croix de Lorraine.
Within sight of the French coast the Leopoldville was torpedoed by U-486. She fired two torpedoes, one of which hit the starboard side of the Belgium troop ship killing 300 soldiers in the hole of the ship immediately.
“We were all in hammocks when the torpedo hit us. Sgt. Gabriel was in a hammock to my left and Sgt. Sullivan was to my right in a hammock. I never saw them again after the torpedo hit.
“The captain of our ship never gave orders to abandon the ship,” Dayton recalled 74 years later. He spoke no English, only Flemish.
“A British destroyer, HMS Brilliant, pulled along side the sinking Leopoldville and I jumped aboard the smaller ship,” he said. “I only had to jump six-inches to reach safety. A British sailor told me to jump when the two ships banged together again.”
Official reports said seas were running eight to 12 feet in the Channel that day. Even so, the Brilliant was able to rescue 500 of the soldiers aboard the Belgium transport and take them back to safety in Cherbourg.
When Dayton and his fellow soldiers in the 66th Division reached shore they found out quickly the brass wanted to keep a lid on the torpedoing. Those in charge tried to block all comments about the sinking of the Belgium transport ship.
“The government told the families who lost loved ones that they had been fighting in the English Channel when they died. It wasn’t until years later the whole truth was made public and then it was only in bits and pieces.
“Because of the torpedo attack on our ship we lost all our equipment. That was the primary reason they didn’t send us to ‘The Battle of the Bulge.’ Our division went to the Brittany Peninsula and the 94th Division was sent to ‘The Bulge’ in our place,” Merritt said.
“During the rest of World War II our division only lost 27 men. If you survived the ship sinking you were pretty well on the way of surviving the war.”
Like millions of other soldiers who fought in the Second World War, Merritt took advantage of the G.I. Bill. He decided he wanted to be a minister. He graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas shortly after the end of the Korean War.
Then he re-upped in the Army. He became a 1st lieutenant and a chaplain. He and his new family’s first duty station was Camp Kilmer, N.J. After that assignment he and Rose, his wife, and their growing family were sent to the Panama Canal Zone for several years duty.
He decided to go airborne a few years later. He joined the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. By this time he was a captain who liked to jump out of airplanes. He made 40 non-combat jumps with the 82nd. Then Merritt joined the 101st Airborne and jumped another 81 times non-combat while serving as a minister.
Why did he make 121 total parachute jumps?
“I wanted to be physically fit,” he said. “Furthermore, I liked jumping out of airplanes.”
Merritt was sent to Vietnam in the late 1960s as an airborne chaplain. He was there when the enemy pulled off the “Tet Offensive.” This was a strike by the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong Guerrillas on all of the major military bases and cities in the southern part of the country. The enemy offensive eventually led to the downfall of the South Vietnamese government.
He was no where near the shooting during Tet. At the time he was stationed at U.S. Army Headquarters near Saigon. Merritt served as chaplain for the 1st Signal Brigade. Chaplains don’t carry guns in the Afmy, but they do fill a lot of sandbags during a battle that are used to build protective cover for soldiers. That’s what Merritt did during the weeks of “Tet.”
After 17 years of service in the military, first as a gun toter and then as an Army chaplain he retired as a lieutenant colonel. He was 46.
Within a year or so after getting out of the Army Merritt went to work for the State of Indiana as a prison chaplain. He spent the next 15 years working as a chaplain at the Indiana State Farm, a minimum security prison with 700 inmates, near Putnamville, Ind.
In 1992 Merritt and his late wife moved to Florida. He has five children: Doreen, David, Candler, Camille, and Mark.
Name: Merritt W. Dayton
D.O.B: 10 Nov. 1924
Hometown: Cortland, NY
Currently: Venice, FL
Entered Service: 1943
Discharged: 7 Feb 1946
Rank: Private First Class
Unit: Company C, 264th Regiment
Commendations: Purple Heart, Bronze Star,
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, April 23, 2018 and is republished with permission.
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