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VOYAGE BACK IN TIME

BRADENTON — George Bigelow’s wife could never get him to go on a cruise.

They were married 58 years.

“We took a lot of trips but never a cruise,” said the 84-year-old widower and former high school teacher. “She understood.”

Bigelow was a survivor of the catastrophic sinking of the S.S. Leopoldville, a refitted Belgian liner carrying 2,235 American soldiers on Christmas Eve, 1944.

Torpedoed by a German U-boat five miles from its destination, Cherbourg, France, almost 800 men drowned or died from hypothermia.

History.com called it, “the worst tragedy to ever befall an American infantry division as a result of an enemy submarine attack.”

It is the subject of a National Geographic Channel documentary airing at 10 p.m. Monday and 6 p.m. Feb. 16.

“I’ll be interested to see what the heck this is going to look like,” said Bigelow, a winter resident from Ann Arbor, Mich.

He’s in the program.

Last April, National Geographic flew Bigelow overseas to recollect that fateful voyage from Southampton, England.

His weeklong journey back in time included a visit to the site of the Leopold-ville’s watery grave beneath the English Channel.

It was his first time aboard a ship in 64 years.

“I didn’t know how I was going to react, but it helped me very much,” Bigelow said. “It did me a lot of good. I’m glad I went. Now I’m able to talk about it freely. There were no bad feelings.”

Which is remarkable to Allan Andrade, the author of “Leopoldville: A Tragedy Too Long Secret.”

A consultant for the TV project, he chose Bigelow for the documentary because he was the healthiest of the remaining survivors.

“For want of a better word, it helped give him closure,” said Andrade, a 71-year-old historian from Landenberg, Pa. “It was a terrible thing to befall them — kids 18-19-20 years old — and it was allowed to be forgotten.”

Bigelow had tried to forget, all right.

“I never talked about it,” he said. “That’s how you survive things like this.”

Lynda Wagner, his niece, remembers her stunned reaction last year upon hearing Bigelow recount his incredible experience just weeks before he left for the National Geographic filming.

“I always saw him as a quiet, reserved common man, a schoolteacher,” said Wagner, a Bradenton resident. “But after he told us what he’d been through, I saw him in a whole different light. He wasn’t just Uncle George anymore.”

Bigelow was a 20-year-old staff sergeant with the 66th Infantry Division, which was being rushed into combat to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.

They never made it.

“We had just eaten, it was 5:15 p.m., just becoming dark,” Bigelow said. “I was lying under a table, using my life preserver as a pillow.

“Then the torpedo hit. Everything went black.”

Armed with a flashlight, Bigelow led other soldiers through the carnage and rising water to make it topside.

He tried to find buddies from his unit, one in particular.

“He was on the opposite side of the ship,” Bigelow said. “The British destroyer escort Brilliant had pulled up alongside and guys were jumping across. You had to time your jump according to the sway of the ship. If you missed, you fell and were crushed. I found out later my buddy had made it.”

When the order to abandon ship was given, Bigelow went over the side and almost drowned.

“I was underwater . . . got caught in the suction and didn’t think I was going to make it, and I had a near-death experience,” he said. “Imagine a 9-inch TV and everything that was happy in my life and happened to me up to that point flashed before my eyes. It was peaceful, calm.

“Next thing I know, I surfaced, gagging saltwater.”

Along with other soldiers, Bigelow clung to a dining-room table sized piece of wood for what seemed like an eternity in 48-degree water.

“We were told we’d only last 20 minutes, but it felt like two hours,” he said.

Hindering the rescue were numerous factors the National Geographic special is expected to examine.

To wit:

n Ship-to-shore communications were obstructed by different frequencies used by U.S. and British forces.

n The British commander in charge of the convoy ordered the Leopoldville’s anchor dropped to keep it from drifting into a minefield. Tragically, it also prevented tugs from towing the ship to shore.

n The crews of boats anchored in Cherbourg harbour that could have assisted in a rescue were out celebrating Christmas Eve.

“Horrible,” Andrade said.

Bigelow was eventually pulled from the water by a tugboat crew and was hospitalized a week in Cherbourg for exposure.

The war resumed for him soon enough.

Bigelow led combat and reconnaissance patrols around the French towns of St. Nazaire and Lorient until V-E Day.

Looking back he is forever grateful he was spared that Christmas Eve.

“It’s funny the things you remember,” he said. “Like the redheaded nurse brushing my hair back with her hand just like my mother used to do when I was a boy. The Red Cross gave us shaving gear and toiletries for Christmas.

“It was the greatest Christmas I ever had.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or email him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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