When Antonio Ralph Martinez joined the U.S. Army during the Second World War, he fully expected to have his share of excitement and danger. However, what he found exceeded his wildest imagination. He lived to tell the tale of one of the worst tragedies in military history; the sinking of the SS Leopoldville.
Along with many other American GIs, Martinez set sail for Europe in a convoy. While crossing the Atlantic aboard the SS George Washington, Martinez first tasted the privations of wartime. These included nighttime blackouts, inclement weather, the risk of a U-boat attack, and seasickness. Meanwhile, he enjoyed some of the simple joy’s soldiers often relish. These included nightly sing-alongs accompanied by a shipboard piano. One night, a dispute over the repeated performance of a particularly popular song resulted in frustrated soldiers. Banding together, the angry soldiers tossed the piano overboard into the uncaring waters of the North Atlantic.
Without a piano, Martinez and the soldiers of the 66th Infantry took up boxing. Martinez landed in England with a 2-1 record in the shipboard ring.
Boarding the SS Leopoldville
Martinez encountered another reality of soldiering life once he landed in the British Isles. The near constant motion and travel between various duty stations was a lot to handle. After landing in Dorchester, Martinez and his unit were loaded onto a train for Southampton in the middle of the night. After more travel between various facilities and ports, his unit got orders to board a ship for mainland Europe. Finally, the moment they all waited for – combat with the enemy. Excited and perhaps a bit anxious at the thought of finally facing the Nazi forces, Martinez and his fellow soldiers boarded a Belgian transport ship, the Leopoldville. They began the voyage across the English Channel on Christmas Eve, 1944.
Sinking Of The Leopoldville
Martinez and his mates were passing the voyage in classic U.S. Army fashion; playing cards. In the middle of a hand, he felt a shuddering impact and the alarms began to sound. The SS Leopoldville took a direct hit aft from a German torpedo, and was rapidly starting to sink. Thus, the passengers and crew began a hurried evacuation.
Martinez kept his head. He faced the possibility of a midnight swim in the English Channel in winter. Wisely, he took a moment and put on more clothing. Layering every garment he could get his hands on, he joined his friends in abandoning ship. The scene he found topside was near-chaos. Some evacuees jumped from the Leopoldville toward a nearby destroyer, the HMS Brilliant. Some succeeded. However, others fell short and were crushed between the two ships or drowned in the dark, frigid waters below. Martinez and some of his friends slid down a rope on the far side of the ship into the water. They were stranded in the Channel for two hours, trying to keep from freezing and assisting other survivors who didn’t know how to swim.
After two long, cold hours which felt like an eternity, a British tugboat rescued Martinez and his companions. They were among the last survivors rescued. Martinez, scared and frozen, received treatment for hypothermia and shock. The cure consisted of a shot of gin and a night spent under several warm blankets. With a commendable fortitude, he recovered fairly quickly. Many of his fellow soldiers weren’t so lucky. It is estimated that over 750 US Army soldiers lost their lives in the event.
Back To The Fight
Martinez considered himself lucky to be alive. He re-assumed his duties as a wartime soldier the very next day. Loaded onto a truck with the rest of his unit, they went straight to the front in France. There he endured German artillery attacks for a few nights in the rear. However, he eventually conducted nighttime patrols behind German lines. With his faced covered in camo paint, he and his comrades probed German positions for reconnaissance. They reported their findings back to their chain of command, who incorporated the new information into the Allied war plan.
He survived shipwrecks, artillery barrages, and risky nighttime operations a hair’s breadth from the enemy. Finally, Airman First Class Antonio Martinez heard the news that the war was over. Germany surrendered. However, his service didn’t end there. He occupied Germany and Austria with the Allied Forces, and later did a stint in liberated France.
Military superiors forbid the survivors of the Leopoldville from disclosing the incident. Thankfully, there is now a monument in Ft. Benning, Ga. honoring those who experienced this near-forgotten tragedy.