Archive for Wednesday, November 8, 2000

Veterans provide war answers

November 8, 2000

For decades Sandy Cardens knew little about the death of her father during World War II. She was 2 1/2 and an only child when he died. Her mother remarried, and questions were never asked.

"There was a humongous silence after the war," Cardens said. "If you didn't talk about it, it didn't hurt."

Even decades later, when Cardens wanted to learn more, there weren't many answers.

Cardens, Baldwin City, didn't even know the name of the ship her father served on until she was 35 a small, but helpful, piece of information. Then, about 17 years ago she was contacted by a man who said her father saved his life during the war. Later, she was contacted by a historian about contributing to a book about the disaster that killed her father on Christmas Eve, 1944.

Cardens' father, Sgt. Elmer Baker, was a member of the 66th Infantry (Panther) Division aboard the S.S. Leopoldville, a converted Belgian luxury liner. According to Cardens, the Leopoldville was carrying more than 2,200 American soldiers from the 66th Division across the English Channel as reinforcements to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, when a torpedo from a German submarine tore into the ship.

Because of the holiday, help was slow to come to the disabled ship, even though it stayed afloat for nearly three hours after the torpedo hit. And the ship's Belgian crew abandoned ship on life boats. The Leopoldville was 5 miles from shore and within sight of the Cherbourg, France, harbor. The soldiers, because they could see the lights of the harbor, thought they would be rescued. However, more than 800 men died, 650 were injured and nearly 500 bodies were never recovered.

Cardens said her family was notified that her father was "missing" nearly a month later. His body originally buried in a military cemetery in France was returned home in 1948. His birthday would have been Sunday.

"It was kept secret." Cardens said of the attack on the Leopoldville, which is now considered the third greatest Naval disaster of the war. "Eight hundred and three men died on that ship five miles from shore because it was Christmas Eve and no one was there to help. And they didn't tell families what happened. I didn't even find out the name of the ship until I was 35 years old."

She would later learn that her father probably froze to death in the icy waters of the English Channel.

Contact from Vincent Codianni, the man who said Baker saved his life aboard the Leopoldville, and Allan Andrade, the author of "S.S. Leopoldville Disaster: December 24, 1944," helped Cardens seek out more information about her father and his war experience.

She talked with Leopoldville survivors and found more information than she thought possible through the American World War II Orphans Network (www.awon.org).

However, the accounts she has heard from survivors has provided her with the most information about her father. And she encourages all veterans to share their war experiences with their families and others, as well.

"There are people who want to know," Cardens said. "If veterans are contacted by a son or a daughter or someone they were with in the war, tell them as much as they can. That information is precious, and anything is helpful.

"We do need to know. I know there are a lot of people that survived the war, but never talked about it."

Through her own search, Cardens has discovered memories she never had, such as the 78-rpm record Elmer Baker sent home to his wife, Geneva, and daughter. The cardboard record with tattered edges was a courtesy of the Pepsi Cola Corporation to servicemen during the war, and Baker sent the record home as a Mother's Day greeting.

"I didn't even know the record existed," said Cardens, who was in her mid-30s when her mother gave her the record. "The first time I played this I put the needle down and it said 'Hello, Sandy.' The record was a tremendous thing to have."

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