This Day in History: The survivors of USS Leopold
On this day in 1944, survivors of USS Leopold arrive in Ireland. Their ship had been torpedoed late on March 9, and they’d been left in frigid Atlantic waters for hours.
Leopold’s sister ship USS Joyce had tried to help, but she’d been forced away. As Joyce departed, Captain Robert Wilcox grabbed a bullhorn and yelled over his shoulder: “We are dodging torpedoes. God bless you. We will be back.” (See yesterday’s post.)
But those at Leopold were having a hard time. Some men were still hanging on to the stern or the fantail, which wasn’t under water yet. Others were trying to get away from the boat before they were sucked under. Some men had found rafts. Others hadn’t.
Everyone was very, very cold. Ocean temperatures were then hovering just 15 degrees above freezing.
Staying awake was critical. Men who slept would die. “We slapped each other’s faces,” Seaman William G. O’Brien remembered, “and swung our arms . . . some were just sitting, feeling sleepier and sleepier and they froze to death.” Those who died were jettisoned from rafts to make room for the living.
In the meantime, Joyce had been looking for the German submarine, but its sonar was plagued by water leaks. She finally edged closer to Leopold again by about 9:20. Its crew had spotted two survivors, and Joyce circled to retrieve them. The survivors were being hoisted up on a rope when Joyce’s sonar picked up that awful sound again: a torpedo. The two Leopold survivors were ripped from the ship as Joyce abruptly turned to avoid it.
The survivors in the water watched Joyce leave—again—and many lost hope. But not Gunner Luke Bobbitt. He soon began praying out loud, later swearing that he felt warmer as he and those around him began reciting Psalm 23.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
At roughly 10:30, the last of Leopold’s stern and fantail finally went under. Torpedoman Richard Forrester would remember getting sucked down with the ship, but then getting thrown up again by explosions.
The depth charges that Leopold carried were detonating as the ship went down.
Joyce’s crew was still fighting its own battle. Where had the torpedoes come from? When was it safe to go back? They never found the German submarine. Finally, a little bit before midnight, Joyce returned and began pulling men out of the water.
The rolling seas complicated efforts, forcing a drastic measure: Volunteers from Joyce would have to lower themselves into the water, tied to the ship with ropes.
“When I went down into the water,” radar operator Barney Olsen described, “I wondered if I would come back. When I did, it was with a dead guy.” But others were more successful, and men started to come aboard, barely alive. “We were shivering so bad,” S2c Warren Younglater said, “we were moving off the table.”
The last man was finally pulled out of the water at 2:48 a.m. Signalman Joseph Burgun shouldn’t have survived his 5 hours in the water. His raft mates were already dead, frozen in place like statutes. He was found cradling one of them and singing songs to himself.
The story of Leopold was lost for a time, but it was resurrected again a few decades ago when a survivor let himself be interviewed for his niece’s school project. That survivor’s family would later go on to unearth more of the story—and the mystery of the two torpedoes that plagued Joyce.
One result of their efforts? Many survivors got their long overdue Purple Hearts.
S2c Gale Fuller was among the last to receive his, at age 88. “I really don’t think I deserve this one,” he joked. “All I did was get cold.”
Coast Guard World War II veteran receives Purple Heart (Coast Guard News; Mar. 13, 2012)
Lane Kelley, Vision Gave Him Strength (Sun-Sentinel; Mar. 9, 1994) (interviewing Novotny)
Leopold (DE-319) 1943–1944 (Naval History and Heritage Command website)
Randall Peffer & Robert Nersasian, Never to Return: Surviving the Worst Combat Loss in the History of the U.S. Coast Guard(2017)
The Coast Guard at War: Transports and Escorts (U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Public Information Division) (Vol. I, Part II)
Thomas P. Ostrom, The United States Coast Guard in World War II: A History of Domestic and Overseas Actions (2009)
USS Leopold: The Fallen (United States Coast Guard Enlisted Memorial Foundation)