This week I officiated at the funeral of Joe Leyanna, a 93-year-old World War II veteran. His family told me how Joe had been grateful throughout his life for being spared when he missed boarding the Léopoldville, a ship used to transport troops across the English Channel.
On Christmas Eve 1944, the Léopoldville, a passenger ship prior to the war, was hastily loaded with 2,223 reinforcements for the Battle of the Bulge. An important fact you need to know, the Léopoldville was built to carry 360 passengers. You read that right, 2223 soldiers and crew were jammed on a ship built to carry 360 people. Packed in like sardines, many of the troops were from the 66th Infantry division—the Black Panthers, Joe’s division.
In the rush to get the soldiers to battlefront, the ship wasn’t loaded by unit as it normally would have been. Instead, as the soldiers arrived on the dock no matter their unit or division, they boarded the ship. I imagine, those in charge figured they’d sort it all out in France when the soldiers disembarked.
When not one more soldier could be crammed onto the ship, it sailed. There were an insufficient number of life jackets (remember the ship built was built for 360 people not 2,223 soldiers), and few troops participated in the poorly supervised lifeboat drills. The instructions were given in in Flemish not English. Still at 0900 hours, the Léopoldville sailed from Southampton as part of convoy crossing the English Channel to Cherbourg, France.
The Léopoldville was within five miles from the coast of France when at 1754 hours a torpedo struck the starboard side of the ship and exploded. Some of the troops were rescued, but many were lost. Approximately 515 are presumed to have gone down with the ship. Another 248 died from injuries, drowning, or hypothermia. The U.S. Navy later announced the sinking of the Leopoldville had the second-largest loss of life from the sinking of a troop transport ship in the entire European Theater.
Joe missed it, because he and his sergeant had stopped to get a cup of coffee and a donut before heading to the dock.
The similarities between that Christmas Eve tragedy in 1944 and our Christmases 75 years later seem obvious. We jam as much as possible in our 24-hour days. We rush around looking for the perfect gift and expect the perfect gift in return. We disregard the warning signs and miss the point of Christmas. Like we are listening to a different language, we mindlessly fall into the cultural trap of believing that our level of spending indicates our level of love. It’s all a sinking ship.
Maybe our best preparation for Christmas is to be like Joe. Grab a cup of coffee with a friend. Relax. Stopping off at Donna’s Donuts for a tasty treat isn’t a bad idea either. Take time to be thankful for what God has done in your life. Be generous with others. Be mindful that our time on planet earth is limited. Joe had 93 years, last week I participated in a funeral of a wonderful man who didn’t wake up one morning. He was 58. Slow down. Pray. Listen. Love. Forgive. Share. In so doing, even when sailing through troubled waters, God will see you safely make it to the other side.