‘Goodbye, Dad’: The story of the sad and secret Christmas Eve

WWII deaths remained secret; survivors were not allowed to discuss ship’s sinking

OMAHA — Herman Lemke woke up with a feeling of dread that cold Christmas morning in 1944.

The farmer from Bruning had just sent his second-oldest son off to World War II. Otis, 22, was in England with the 66th Infantry Division, ready to join the fight against the Nazis in France and Belgium.

Over Christmas breakfast, Herman told his wife and five younger children about his bad dream.

“He dreamt he saw Otis at the foot of his bed. He had said ‘Goodbye, Dad,’” recalled Florence Hines, Otis’ sister, who was 17 at the time. “He didn’t laugh about it. He was very serious.”

Weeks later the family learned Otis had gone missing Christmas Eve night, lost at sea in the English Channel.

Herman Lemke’s nightmare had come true.

Nearly 800 families would get the same news that winter, devastating but vague.

A loved one had died — but who knew what really happened?

The War Department said little in its telegrams. It wanted no one to know that a German U-boat, U-486, had stalked and sunk the converted passenger liner SS Leopoldville, killing about one-third of the 2,200 soldiers on board.

The 763 reported victims included Otis Lemke and at least three other Nebraskans, as well as seven soldiers from western Iowa. Only 270 bodies were recovered.

“It touched a lot of lives, there’s no question about it,” said Allan Andrade, a retired New York City police detective who investigated the disaster in the 1990s and wrote a book about it. “It seems to be a never-ending story.”

They died in part because of miscommunication and incompetence by the ship’s crew, within sight of its destination, Cherbourg, France. But it took news of the attack more than an hour to reach shore, causing a critical delay in getting rescue boats to the scene. Many members of the crew abandoned ship, leaving the soldiers to fend for themselves. Few had any idea how to launch a lifeboat.

“Many of them were 18, 19 years old,” said Andrade, author of “Leopoldville: A Tragedy Too Long Secret.”

Their deaths would remain a mystery to their families, and forgotten by almost everyone else, because of official secrecy. The survivors weren’t allowed to discuss what happened.

“They kept it very quiet,” said Ardene Mammen, 92, of Geneva, Nebraska, who had been married to Otis Lemke just nine months when he died.

Otis had grown up on his father’s farm but left town before World War II with his older brother, Alvin, to work on a dairy farm in Minnesota. He returned in 1943 and took a job at the air base in Bruning.

Ardene met him at a welcome party for a family that had just moved to a nearby farm.

“He was very nice,” she recalled. “I think it was something like love at first sight.”

They were married in April 1944. Less than six months later, Otis was drafted into the Army.

Otis made it home to Nebraska for a short furlough before he had to ship out overseas. Ardene said goodbye at a railroad station in Omaha for what turned out to be the last time.

“I prayed a lot,” Ardene said.

Lemke’s division waited in a camp in England as the Battle of the Bulge raged in Belgium and Luxembourg that December. On Christmas Eve, the 66th got called up to join the fight.

Thousands of soldiers milled about the docks at Southampton, where confusion reigned in the hours before dawn. Some units boarded the Leopoldville, a Belgian luxury liner that had been converted into a troopship before the war.

Pvt. John Pordon, 19, of San Francisco boarded about 2:30 a.m. and was directed below decks on a rickety wooden staircase to an area where hammocks were hung four high.

The Leopoldville got underway about 9 a.m. on Dec. 24.

They ate what Pordon recalls was an awful Christmas dinner of greenish stew over rice as the ship tossed about on the choppy Channel waves.

Many soldiers got seasick.

“We were all griping about what a lousy way it was to spend Christmas,” said Pordon, now 91 and living in Sonoma, California. Little did we know.”

After dinner, Pordon had returned to his hammock. Suddenly, just before 6 p.m., a huge shock rocked the ship from the starboard (right) side back near the stern. Many soldiers in that part of the ship died instantly, or were trapped below decks.

“It felt like an earthquake,” Pordon said in a telephone interview last week. “We knew something happened. We thought we had hit a mine.”

Many soldiers had missed a lifeboat drill earlier, so they didn’t know where to go or how to don a life vest. Pordon’s company had been there, so the men reported to their lifeboat station as planned. They waited for a long time, but no one gave instructions.

“By now we all assumed the ship was sinking,” he said.

Pordon said there was no panic or pushing, and he doesn’t remember feeling fear — just a certainty that he must figure a way out of this situation.

He circled around to the other side of the ship, where a British destroyer escort, the HMS Brilliant, had pulled alongside and nudged its prow up against the troopship. Its crew members were urging soldiers on the Leopoldville to jump across.

Trouble was, the destroyer’s deck was quite a bit lower than the Leopoldville’s. And the rough seas made the Brilliant a bobbing, hard-to-hit target. The penalty for missing was severe: being crushed between the two ships’ steel hulls as the waves crashed them together.

“I saw a few guys jump and not make it to the other boat,” Pordon recalled. “I said ‘I’m not Charles Atlas.’ I decided I would stay with the (Leopoldville), and whatever happens happens.”

Once the Brilliant was filled, it headed to Cherbourg. Only then did authorities at the port learn what had happened to the troopship. A flotilla of small boats steamed out to pick up survivors, more than two hours after the ship had been hit.

Pordon stuck it out on deck until the Leopoldville’s last moments.

About 8:30 p.m. the ship started to roll onto its side. He stepped over the rail, walked down the side of the ship, and stepped into the 48-degree water.

He started to sink and realized his heavy ammo belt would drown him.

“I let the belt go and popped up like a cork,” Pordon said.

He was floating among dozens of men in life vests.

Some were screaming and flailing about, praying to God or shouting for their mothers.

“It was tragic and contagious. It felt easy to do the same,” Pordon said. “I calmed down and realized I had to do something to get out of this mess.”

He swam away from this tragic group and spotted a raft with some men in and around it. He grabbed an attached rope but gave it up when a panicked soldier came up and tried to take it away.

So Pordon decided to try something else. He paddled around, and after awhile he spotted a military tugboat. He swam toward it, and some of the crew members spotted him.

“Two guys grabbed me by the arms and pulled me up,” Pordon said. “I was so weak, I couldn’t get up.”

He hadn’t really felt the cold during the 45 minutes he spent in the water. As soon as he was out, though, he started shivering uncontrollably. He stripped off his wet clothes, wrapped up in a blanket and was hustled down to the engine room to warm himself from the heat of the motors.

“That heat felt great,” Pordon said.

Once ashore, the survivors were taken to a nearby hospital. Pordon recuperated there for a few days. His 66th Infantry Division, which had lost about one-third of its men in the Leopoldville disaster, was too depleted to join the Battle of the Bulge. Instead it was sent to patrol a rear area and defeat pockets of German resistance.

Back home in Nebraska, Otis Lemke’s family knew nothing of the sinking, aside from Herman Lemke’s odd Christmas omen.

After the holidays, Ardene went about her work, teaching at a country school near Bruning. But she noticed, with concern, that Otis’ letters stopped arriving.

“I hadn’t heard from him for quite some time,” she said. “Then I got a telegram from the government. They brought it to our door.”

Ardene’s parents were there to support her. More than 70 years later, it’s still too painful for her to remember that day.

“When that happened to Otis, she was pretty much destroyed,” said her daughter, Karen Corliss, of Bruning.

A minister and a postal official delivered a telegram to Otis’ parents.

“We couldn’t hardly believe it,” recalled Berneta Miller, his younger sister, who is 85 and lives in Davenport, Nebraska. The family displayed his photo and flew a Gold Star flag.

Contemporary news accounts indicate it may have been as late as early February that some families learned of a missing loved one, and April — near the end of the European war — before soldiers were declared dead.

A memorial service was held in June 1945, although Otis’ body was never recovered. The family placed a stone in the local cemetery.

In keeping with the times, people accepted the news quietly and moved on. There were crops to plant, children to teach, families to feed.

But, Florence said, “we always thought about him on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”

After the war was over, she said, two soldiers from the Bruning area who had been on the troopship with Otis told the family what they knew of his death. They said Otis had been trying to descend a rope to a lifeboat when he slipped and was crushed between the Leopoldville and the Brilliant. He never had a chance.

After the wreck, military censors sharply restricted what the Leopoldville’s survivors could say about their ordeal.

“We were told not to say anything about it,” Pordon said. “It was a military secret.”

Few details about the disaster surfaced until long after the war. The sinking was still largely unknown when Andrade heard about it in 1993 while conducting research for an unrelated book.

The Internet was still in its infancy, but Andrade used his detective skills to track down many Leopoldville survivors and get their stories. He published the first edition of his book in 1997, which prompted more survivors, and relatives of victims, to contact him. An updated edition was published a decade later.

He also worked with survivors of the Leopoldville and veterans of the 66th Infantry to raise funds for a monument in honor of those who died on the troopship. It was dedicated at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1998.

Andrade wants to make sure those who died aren’t forgotten.

“I’ve been able to get 150 articles published,” Andrade said. “A heckuva lot of people know about it now that didn’t know about it before.”

Ardene never forgot her first love, the soldier who was lost at sea. Soon after the war, she met a Bruning veteran named Leonard Mammen. He had joined the Army in 1940 and served in Europe for the duration of World War II, from the landings in North Africa to the fall of Berlin.

She fell in love again.

“He reminded me of Otis. They were both just fine men,” Ardene says now.

They were married June 2, 1946, at the same church where she had married Otis barely two years before, and with some of Otis’ sisters standing beside her. The couple lived on the farm, and reared five children. The marriage lasted 42 years, until Leonard’s death in 1988.

Otis wasn’t discussed, at least not around the children. But Leonard quietly made space for the Army comrade who had come before him.

He protected Ardene at Christmastime, when Ardene always felt blue. She didn’t join in the decorating or merrymaking.

“We knew that she wasn’t into the holidays, but we never knew why,” Corliss said.

The Mammen children, in fact, never learned about their mother’s first marriage until the couple’s 40th wedding anniversary, when someone innocently asked about Ardene’s bridesmaids.

“My dad said ‘Blondie, tell them,’ ” Corliss recalled, using Leonard’s nickname for Ardene. “We were just flabbergasted.”

“I’m probably not as open as people are now,” Ardene admitted. “You never forget it.”

Ardene said it is her Christian faith that got her through those hard times, just as it helps her now. She’s gained the wisdom that comes hard to Gold Star families like hers.

“Somehow,” Ardene said, “we’re given the strength to go ahead.”