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This Day in History: USS Leopold's forgotten struggle in the Atlantic

On this day in 1944, the last survivor of USS Leopold is pulled from a frigid Atlantic Ocean. Amazingly, 28 men had survived—for hours—in ocean waters that hovered just 15 degrees above freezing.

But could those men have been rescued earlier? More certainly would have survived, if so.

USS Leopold's launch in Orange, Texas (June 1943)

Close to 200 men had been serving aboard Leopold, a Coast Guard-manned destroyer then accompanying a convoy between the United States and the United Kingdom. Or, at least, it was until Leopold’s sonar detected a submarine at about 7:50 p.m. on March 9.

The crew rushed to battle stations. Within a matter of minutes, star shells and tracers lit up the night sky. The German submarine got off one torpedo then went into a steep dive.

“We look up and there is a sub in front of us,” gunner Nelson “Sparky” Nersasian later described, “everybody’s yelling, ‘Get those bastards. Kill them. Kill them.’ . . . someone says, ‘Torpedo,’ and there we are wide open. Absolutely no defense. Bang. Explosion. Thought I would never hear another sound in my life.”

“I was blown right out of my shoes,” S1c Troy Cowers agreed, “and into a life net a dozen feet away.” Meanwhile, S1c Richard Navotyn was badly injured, breaking his back in two places. It would be hours before he realized it, though. “I don’t even remember the explosion,” he later said, “one second I was at my battle station and the next I came to in the water, swimming toward a life raft.”

He was swimming with only his right arm. He couldn’t move his left arm or his legs.

Meanwhile, other parts of the ship were eerily calm. Some of the Coast Guardsmen weren’t even sure what had happened. Had a gun malfunctioned? When S2c Gale Fuller was ordered to put the depth charges in “safe” mode, he was puzzled. Was the ship going down?

But then the power went out—and the ship started to buckle. S2c Warren Young soon noticed something else awry: Two torpedoes had been pushed out of their launchers and were lying partially loose. He later told a Board of Inquiry that they “were smoking or steaming a little bit.”

Would things have turned out differently but for the loose torpedoes?

By this point, USS Joyce was steaming toward Leopold. Its captain, Robert Wilcox, didn’t yet know that Leopold was hit, but he knew that Leopold had stopped responding to communications. As he got closer, Wilcox saw that “Leopold’s back was broken, and she was sagging badly. . . .”

Leopold’s crew was abandoning ship.

Men were grabbing life vests and jumping into the water, but they weren’t coming up. Instant exposure to such cold water was too much for their bodies to handle. Chief Quartermaster Richard Graham began shouting instructions to enter the water more slowly, and he rigged a line over the side of the boat so men could use it to ease into the water.

Nersasian was among those who took the Chief’s advice. “I go down the rope,” he said, “and this Polish kid is coming after me, a big son-of-a-gun. . . . His feet are on my shoulders.” He was never sure how he got out from under that guy, but he did. Nersasian found a life raft.

He was lucky. There were only enough rafts for about one-third of the crew.

Joyce was preparing to retrieve survivors when its sonar picked up an unwanted noise: a torpedo. Wilcox had no choice. He had to leave—and fast. He grabbed a bullhorn and yelled over his shoulder toward the Leopold survivors: “We are dodging torpedoes. God bless you. We will be back.”

The story continues tomorrow.

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