Leopoldville: Christmas Eve disaster claimed 12 Wisconsin soldiers in 1944

By CHRIS HUBBUCH | La Crosse Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 24, 2017

Two western Wisconsin soldiers killed in a little-known Christmas Eve troop ship disaster 73 years ago have been memorialized after an amateur historian tracked down their photos through a 17-year-old story from the La Crosse Tribune.

On Dec. 24, 1944, the troop ship S.S. Leopoldville set sail from Southampton, England, with more than 2,200 U.S. soldiers on board. Just a few miles from the coast of France, as the troops sang holiday carols, the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine.

Nearly 300 soldiers were killed by the blast, while hundreds more drowned or froze as the ship sunk in the 48-degree waters.

A total of 763 Americans lost their lives that night, including 12 from Wisconsin.

Among them were Pfc. Dean McHugh, a 30-year-old postal clerk from Holmen who was drafted in 1942, and Pfc. Ernest Moen, an enlistee from Whitehall, Wis., who had fought in the Pacific before being sent to Europe.
Allan Andrade, author of "Leopoldville: A Tragedy Too Long Secret," said the event was a national disaster that is still largely unfamiliar to most Americans.

"It was such a terrible thing to happen on Christmas Eve," he said. "Most people have never heard of it."

Rod Moen was just two years old when his eldest brother enlisted and seven when he died.

"I don't remember too much about it," he said. "It was really tough on my mother."

Moen said after Ernest's death the family celebrated Christmas on Dec. 24.

"That was my mother's choosing," he said.

He does remember the burial in the Whitehall cemetery when his brother's body was returned in the spring of 1946.

Moen, the son of a World War I veteran, had brothers serve in World War II and Korea. He served in the Vietnam War and spent 22 years in the military before being elected to the Wisconsin Senate in 1983.

"The whole family was Army and I came along and joined the Navy," he said.

In 2000, Holmen resident Lee McHugh recalled his dread when newspaper stories appeared in January 1945 saying the ship had been sunk with members of the 66th Infantry Division aboard. His father later received a telegram that said Dean McHugh was missing in action. McHugh was among 493 soldiers whose bodies were never recovered.

Lee McHugh, who died in 2005, told the Tribune he thought of his brother every Christmas Eve and often arranged to have him memorialized during Mass.

Hugh Gleason was just 14 when his uncle was killed, but he remembers Dean McHugh as a tall and kind man. Gleason attended the funeral but said his parents didn't talk about the circumstances. He said he didn't learn about the sinking of the ship until reading Andrade's book about 10 years ago.

In November, Andrade received an email from Martha Meyer with a copy of the Tribune story and a photo of McHugh, her uncle, that she uncovered while going through her late mother's things.

"We needed to make sure his picture is out there," Meyer said.

The Tribune story also mentioned Moen and quoted his brother Rod.
Andrade called the office of Senate President Roger Roth, whose staff helped him track down the former senator. Moen didn't have a photo of his brother, but he reached out to a sister who did and sent a copy to Andrade, who posted it on leopoldville.org, a website memorializing the disaster.

Since publishing his book 20 years ago, Andrade said he regularly receives messages from people whose relatives are listed among the dead and missing. To date he has collected 270 photographs for the website, which was created by the nephew of another Leopoldville victim.

A retired New York police officer, Andrade said he stumbled onto the Leopoldville story in 1993 while doing research for another book. He'd always been a World War II history buff but hadn't known about this disaster.

The event was classified until 1959, and Andrade said the government tried to cover up some of the embarrassing details -- from the fact that the convoy wasn't warned of German submarines in the area to the Belgian crew abandoning the ship and leaving the American soldiers to fend for themselves.

"I still hear from families that don't know to this day," he said. "People just went on with their life. They never really knew the circumstances."

(c) 2017 the La Crosse Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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