Visiting the SS Leopoldville in 2007

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Penny and I had tickets to France in 2007 for Christmas.  I took a camera specifically to document our pilgrimage from Montana to the watery expanse out on the English Channel as close as possible to where Carl R. Bonde Jr. reportedly died.
We aimed to drop a few ounces of Montana soil into the water over the wreckage of the SS Leopoldville, his doomed troopship.
He was said to have died just five miles from France and his body is still there, as far as anyone knows.  Some of his buddies were on deck where they could see the lights of Cherbourg when the torpedo struck.

Oh, I thought about it a lot.  We both did, Penny and me.  We prepared and rehearsed several years for our ritual on the Channel Christmas Eve, 2007.  (Carl’s ship was hit by a torpedo Christmas Eve, 1944, about 6 pm.  The exact time has been stated to be 5:55)  My wife Penny and I ordered passports, of course, but we also had to get the dirt.  That was Penny’s idea, putting a bit of Carl’s home into the English Channel.

Not just get it, but get it in the right way from near a certain house in Kalispell, Montana, Carl’s home.  I think I already told about scooping up the dirt from a driveway on the edge of town on memorial day weekend.

Did I mention that I tore the hell out of my fingernail?  Well, I just had a torn nail.  Did I tell how we were in town decorating graves and our visit to Bud’s home to get dirt was our second try?  The first time no one was home to ask permission.  People do this sort of thing all the time, don’t they?  My impulse was to just get out of the car, get dirt, and leave.  But no, I had to actually ask permission.

May was warm in 2007 when we visited Kalispell.  Once we got the baggie with probably four ounces of dirt, gravel, pine needles and my fingernail—well I remembered to take along a plastic bag for the dirt, but it did not occur to me I might also need a tool of some sort to gather up the soil.

The question was:  how does someone transport a bag of soil to France?  I had asked that question of Bud’s Army buddies at the reunion the year before.  Army mortar man Maurice O’Donnell recommended putting it into a woman’s face powder container, or the like.

Instead, I practiced taking a dummy bag of dirt with me on the airplane when we flew to visit our son Todd and his family in Seattle.  Well, I even took the dirt from our yard, and it was very clay-ey and even heavier.  You know, a quart-sized zip-lock bag maybe one quarter filled with dirt, labeled and rolled up.  I managed to get the baggie to Seattle and back: once in our checked luggage; another time as a carry on.

Turns out taking the dirt to France were no big deal at all.  I just put it in my carry on suitcase. My guess is people do that sort of thing a lot.

Allan Andrade, an author and expert on the SS Leopoldville disaster, helped me connect via email with Bertrand Sciboz, a French treasure hunter.  I did attempt to phone Sciboz, but got an answering message in French that sounded like French jibberish.

By email, Bertrand told me to bring a thousand euros in cash for the trip.  Cash, to avoid paying a value added tax.  I got euros from the bank across the street from where I worked.  Of course I had to order them in, pay the exchange rate, plus a percentage fee.  I got five 200 euro notes, big, maybe 4 x 6 inches, colorful, and crisp.  I folded them and put them in my money pouch with the passport.  Later I got another couple hundred euros to pay for a wreath that I sort of got talked into getting because my Uncle’s body was among about 300 others that were not recovered from the wreckage.

With our computer, I studied maps and photographs of Cherbourg.  It sits on this prominent two-lobed peninsula on the Northwest corner of France, the Normandy coast, looking a little like a snail’s head with two eyeballs.  It is situated a little west of Utah and Omaha Beaches.

I learned about Cherbourg from Jacquin Sanders’ book,  A Night Before Christmas.  The US Army and Navy established forts and headquarters there after liberating France from the Germans.  The Google Earth pictures showed the huge breakwater and the port of Cherbourg.  Also, you could see the giant pier where ferries take people to England.

A hotel is located near the north end of the jutting land, the Hotel Mercure.  Our AAA travel agent arranged for our stay Christmas Eve and the night before.  She also arranged for a round trip train ride from Paris to Cherbourg.

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