THE LIGHTS of Cherbourg, France, were only five miles away when a torpedo fired by a German U-boat ripped into the side of the Leopoldville, a ship filled with American soldiers. The date was Dec. 24, 1944. The time was 6:10 p.m. The place was the English Channel.
The Leopoldville was a former Belgian passengership that had been converted for military use and was staffed by a Belgian crew. On that fateful evening 50 years ago, I was among the 2,235 U.S. Army officers and men of the 262nd and 264th Infantry Regiments of the 66th Infantry Division aboard the Leopoldville. We had boarded the ship early that day at Southampton, England. As we neared Cherbourg, our destination, the hunter submarine permitted the Brilliant, a sister ship also carrying troops of the 66th Infantry Division, to go through, choosing the Leopoldville for its target.
By 8:30 that night, 802 men were lost in this tragic maritime disaster. While I have many memories of this evening, one stands out: It was my priviledge to see one man face his own crucial hour of testing.
That man was U.S. Army Capt. John C. Van Sickle, commander of Company K, 262nd Infantry Regiment. I was a member of the companion Company I of the same regiment. The closeness of our companies had give me the opportunity to observe Captain Van Sickle on many occasions, although I had never met him. From a distance, the school teacher from Akron, Ohio, impressed me as a dedicated and decent man. Like many of us, Captain Van Sickle had entered the military in response to an emergency call from his country for the "duration and six months."
Regardless of how each man had come to be on the Leopoldville that evening, it was a night that we would never forget.
After realizing what had happened, the crew of the Brilliant pulled its ship alongside the Leopoldville in a rescue attempt, but the Channel's 20-foot swells forced the Brilliant to withdraw. To eliminate the possibility of the Leopoldville drifting out of the Channel that had been cleared of mines, the anchor was dropped.
Shortly after 8 p.m., the ship suddenly lurched and listed to such a degree that we instantly knew it was going down. I walked down the side of the listing ship and a short jump put me into the cold water, which I later learned was 49 degrees. I am not sure how long I was in the water before being picked up by what I judged to be a Coast Guard cutter-type ship. The crewman who pulled me from the water took me to his bunk, helped me out of my wet clothing and wrapped my shivering body in a blanket. He returned to help others.
Soon my benefactor returned with another soldier. It was Captain Van Sickle. He was in a semiconscious state caused by fatigue and exposure. I told the seaman I would take care of the captain, and he could go back to search for others.
As I removed his wet clothing, I recognized that the captain was saying something. I listened intently and realized that he was repeating: "God, make me a man. God, make me a man." I knew immediately what he meant by that prayer.
The meaning of his words were clear to me: As the leader of more than 200 men, he did not want to fail in this hour of testing. In this highly emotional evening, Captain Van Sickle decided that living up to his idea of manhood was more important than removing himself from harm's way. His basic character decreed that he do the right thing, irrespective of the consequences.
He survived and continued to serve his beloved Company K until the unit was inactivated in September 1945. He served in the Army of Occupation until August 1946 when he returned to his wife, Natalie, and resumed his teaching career. In 1975, he retired as principal from Independence High School in Independence, Ohio. He died at 78 in 1990.
As a retired Army chaplain, I have shared "The Captain's Prayer" with thousands of soldiers and from hundreds of pulpits and lecterns. I count it as one of the most inspirational moments God has given me. It has challenged and helped determine my own definition of what it means to be a man. Further, I have prayed the prayer often in my times of testing and temptations.
While Captain Van Sickle sued the word "man," men or women
may claim "The Captain's Prayer" as their own.
Rev. Jack C. Randles writes from Fallston.