Christmas Eve 1944. Though it has been nearly 70 years, Carson "Kermit" Kirk remembers it well. The memories of one of the great American military tragedies of World War II still flood his conscience. How he survived it, he believes, can only be attributed to some divine guidance, or pure dumb luck. Back then, Kirk was one of 2,235 servicemen jammed inside the Belgian troop ship SS Leopoldville on its way from Southampton, England, to Cherbourg, France, to provide infantry reinforcements for what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Just 18 years old at the time, Kirk was a new recruit assigned to the Army's 66th Infantry Division. He had never traveled far from his home in Lee County, Va. Though frightened by the thought of what fate might lie ahead, he was comforted in the knowledge that he had friends from his hometown region onboard, including Clarence Napier, Jack Evans, Charles Bush, Calvin Parsons and Charles Goins.
Night had just fallen when Kirk left the hold, where he had been sitting with several other men, and went to the lavatory. Moments later, he was nearly knocked to the floor when a German U-boat torpedo tore through and exploded inside the hull of the Leopoldville.
Kirk hurried back to the compartment to discover that his life jacket had disappeared. Running upstairs to the top deck of the sinking ship, he found the rescue effort already well under way.
"Things were fairly orderly," Kirk, 86, recalled last week in an interview from his comfortable home in High Point. "I didn't think things were that bad until I saw bodies floating out of the hole in the ship. Then I really got worried."
Kirk had good reason to be. Although the lights of Cherbourg could be easily seen, the captain of the Leopoldville learned that rescue tugs weren't readily staffed because of holiday celebrations taking place in town. Instead, the closest help was the HMS Brilliant, a British light battleship that had been assigned to escort the Leopoldville.
Pulling alongside the listing troop ship, the Bril-liant's crew desperately tried to retrieve panicked men who had jumped into the icy water and to help off-load others still on deck. Heavy seas made the rescue attempt next to impossible, Kirk recalled.
"Men were getting caught between the hulls and crushed, and you had guys dying of hypothermia from being in the water," Kirk said. "It was the saddest thing I've ever witnessed."
The carnage caused Kirk to hesitate before attempting to jump 30 feet to the heaving deck of the Brilliant.
"I heard a British sailor yell, 'Come on, Yank, jump,' " Kirk recalled. "I landed with a big thud. Then someone landed on top of my left shoulder."
In all, more than 500 men went down with the Leopoldville that Christmas Eve night, including Kirk's friend Charles Goins, who was listed as missing. Another 248 died from their injuries, or as a result of drowning or the extreme exposure to cold.
Kirk eventually rejoined his regiment and became part of the effort that turned the German army's fortunes. Later, he served a stint guarding German prisoners.
It would take Kirk and the rest of the world decades to learn the entire story behind the sinking of the Leopoldville and the slow response of rescuers, which many critics say probably cost hundreds of lives. The disaster has been the subject of several books, magazine articles and TV specials. In 1984, best-selling adventure novelist Clive Cussler funded a search effort that located the Leopoldville about 7 miles off the shore of Cherbourg.
Kirk, who has written six self-published books on historical subjects — including his recollections of the Leopoldville incident — retired from the landscaping business and moved to Hernando County with his late wife, Aleze, in 1994. For years, he kept in touch with some of his buddies who survived the Leopoldville sinking, including Clarence Napier, who survived by grabbing onto a raft until a boat picked him up.
Napier, who died in 2009, often reminded Kirk of how fortunate they both were to survive the tragedy.
"We both felt that we were blessed somehow," Kirk said. "There are some things about that night that still haunt me, but that's okay. I lived to tell about it. That's more than a lot of people could say."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.