Arlo Mathison was on his way to fight in the Battle of the Bulge when tragedy struck and the boat he was on sank. His son Chuck was only 2 ½ years old when his father died, so the only memories he has of him are the stories told to him after by his family.
Arlo was born in 1919 and moved to the Spring Valley area with his family when he was 13 years old. In 1941, he married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Utzinger, and their son Chuck was born in 1942. Later that year, Arlo was drafted into the Army.
In late 1944, Arlo was stationed in England, where he was able to spend some time with his sisters who were also stationed there and on December 24, Arlo boarded the USS Leopoldville with over 2,000 other American soldiers to cross the English Channel. They were on their way to Ardennes to fight in the Battle of the Bulge as reinforcements. Just five miles from their destination, a German submarine torpedoed the ship. Unfortunately, a combination of things led to it becoming the second worst American maritime sinking during World War II.
When the ship was hit, it was Christmas Eve night and so it took a while for the call for help to be answered. As the soldiers had just boarded the ship earlier that day, they had missed the lifeboat drill. Many didn’t even know how the life jackets worked. When rescuers did arrive, they couldn’t find the survivors floating in the water because it was dark. The life jackets had lights built into them specifically for that reason, but the men didn’t know that and so didn’t turn them on. Over 700 American soldiers died, some when the torpedo hit the ship and others in the frigid waters of the channel. The bodies of almost 500 of the men lost that night were never recovered.
Military leaders at the time realized that such a disaster would be bad for morale, especially since the Battle of the Bulge was currently ongoing and the end of the war was drawing near. Because of that, the sinking of the Leopoldville was classified as top secret, and survivors were instructed not to talk or write about it for 50 years. It would be months before many of the families would even be notified of their loved one’s death. Arlo was listed as missing for six months, and it wasn’t until August 1945 that Chuck’s mother was informed that her husband had died.
The news shook his family to the core. “My grandmother, I think, never got over it,” Chuck said. Arlo’s body was recovered when he drifted to shore in France after dying of exposure in the cold water. He was buried in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer.
Five weeks after the sinking of the Leopoldville, Arlo’s wife Dorothy gave birth to their daughter, who he would never meet. Their son Chuck had been born before Arlo was sent overseas, but because he was so young, he doesn’t have any memories of his father. When Chuck asked his mom about his dad, she told him that he had drowned. “She never really talked about him,” he said. Chuck stayed close to his dad’s family, spending summers with his grandparents and listening to his aunts and uncles tell stories about Arlo.
In 1994, the survivors of the Leopoldville were finally free to talk about what happened and several published books about the sinking that same year. Chuck was able to read one of the books by Allan Andrade and learned more about the tragedy that took his father’s life. “It was hard reading, especially since my dad was involved,” he said. One of the things that struck him the hardest was that his father was a supply sergeant in the Army, a relatively safe position. “If they hadn’t gotten torpedoed, he probably would’ve never seen combat,” Chuck said.
In 2009, Chuck had the opportunity to attend a ceremony at Arlington commemorating the lives lost in the Leopoldville sinking. While he was there, he was able to talk with two of the survivors. Neither one had known his dad Arlo, but he still appreciated hearing their stories.
“They were interesting to talk to,” he said. “So much happened and people today don’t realize.”