Christmas Eve, Remembering Dad

When my Dad joined the Army in January of 1943, he was 18. He had completed a year of college courses after graduating early from his small rural high school in upstate New York, and he was working on his family’s dairy farm, waiting to enlist. The Army gave recruits a customized I.Q. test, which resulted in his invitation to join a special program to train officer candidates and technical specialists. After the usual Army basic training, my Dad, Private First Class Merritt W. Dayton, traveled to the University of North Dakota along with other privileged recruits. They lived in barracks like regular soldiers and took a highly regimented program of condensed courses in basic engineering and other specialty areas prioritized by the Army. Back on the farm in Cayuga County, New York, my grandparents received this snapshot from Merritt in November of 1943.

On the back of the photo, Merritt wrote: “I’m ridin’ high.” Results of North Dakota’s only blizzard during the winter of 43–44. A.S.T. U.N.D.

The black and white print does not show his auburn hair and ruddily tinged, completely freckled complexion. His comrades in arms nicknamed him “Red.” He was only 5 foot 3, but what he lacked in height he made up for in friendly eagerness to make friends and follow orders. While he readily professed that Jesus Christ was his Lord and Savior, his alter ego was “Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy,” whose adventures he had listened to each week on the family radio. As an old man reminiscing, he seemed to marvel at his teen-age devotion to Wheaties and Jack Armstrong.

Early in 1944, the United States War Department abruptly ended the Army Specialized Training Program. Its political enemies were many, and they had overwhelmed the Secretary of War’s support for the program. Merritt was sent somewhere to learn Morse code and how to operate and maintain wireless radios. Meanwhile, the war in Europe slogged on, with Allied momentum stalled in Italy. The breakthrough came, of course, with the invasion of Normandy and the rapid liberation of most of France. The 66th was one of the newly formed or reactivated divisions intended as reinforcements for the final Allied push into Germany. By November 1944, U.S. troops were fighting along a jagged front stretching east from the North Sea and then south through the Low Countries and France to the Mediterranean.

The 66th arrived in England in late November and early December of 1944. In the wee hours of Christmas Eve two of the division’s four regiments chaotically boarded two troop ships in Southampton for the crossing to Cherbourg. The generally accepted rumor was that the Allied high command was sending them as reinforcements to the front lines in the Ardennes, where the Nazis were mounting a counteroffensive soon to be dubbed the Battle of the Bulge. The ship Merritt boarded was a repurposed Belgian passenger liner, the SS Leopoldville. It entered the English channel in a diamond formation with the second troop ship and four armed anti-submarine escort ships. The mini convoy set sail a bit later than planned but by dusk of that short day those on deck could see the lights of Cherbourg twinkling about 5 miles away.

“We were in hammocks on the ship,” Merritt wrote, on his 94th birthday. “Tech Sergeant Goble was in a hammock to my left; Sergeant Sullivan was in a hammock to my right. It was about 2 p.m., December 24, 1944. We shared a joke — I remember we all laughed. Then I drifted off to sleep. When the torpedo struck at 5:50 p.m., the lights went out and I never saw those guys again.” Both sergeants lost their lives that night.

The torpedo from Nazi submarine U-486 struck the starboard side of the Leopoldville near the stern. Hundreds of soldiers in the hold near the blast were killed immediately. An aftershock of chaos rolled through the ship’s overcrowded hold. Unit leaders yelled commands to quell panic and confusion, directing everyone to make their way to their preassigned “prepare to abandon ship” locations on the decks. Once topside, packed onto the decks, awaiting orders, an uneasy consensus began to form that the ship was either not sinking or sinking so slowly that rescue was the most likely outcome. While three of the escort ships went off hunting the submarine, the lead ship, the destroyer HMS Brilliant, swung in on the Leopoldville, apparently intending to pull alongside. Inexplicably to most of the soldiers watching, it veered suddenly and sailed past the port side, warded off by dangling lifeboats, then laboriously swung around to approach again on the starboard side, which was free of obstructions.

Merritt said that he’d scrambled with his unit to get out of the ship’s hold but got stopped by a sergeant who told him to go back for his lifejacket. As always, he obeyed orders. And that was the first lucky break that night he came to regard as preordained. Once the Brilliant pulled alongside the Leopoldville, the British sailors shouted for the American soldiers to jump aboard, which must have struck most who could hear their screams as suicidal lunacy. Huge swells rocked both ships, smashing their hulls together and then jerking them apart again. No orders had been heard to abandon ship. Who would want to dare such a desperate leap when no one was sure the ship was actually sinking. Imagine trying to assess the risk as you watch comrades jump: Some hit the smaller ship’s deck as it rises forward or slides away, but others miss and fall, flailing into the wildly sloshing water between the ships. Both hulls are soon awash with the blood and gore of men who mistimed their leap and get splattered between the clanging walls of steel.

Meanwhile, Merritt’s providential luck continued. His unit had been ordered to an upper deck, from which the leaping was riskier and less apt to be successful. Many of the fortunate survivors suffered grievous injuries because they jumped from higher up on the Leopoldville and crashed into metal structures on the deck of the Brilliant. But Merritt, when he got to the first upper deck and told an inquiring officer he didn’t know where his unit was, got ordered to join a file of soldiers that was working slowly toward a gap in the railing that made a particularly good spot from which to jump. Once again, Merritt simply followed orders. “I only had to jump six-inches to reach safety,” he told an interviewer for a local newspaper in 2018. “A British sailor told me to jump when the two ships banged together again.”

The Brilliant could only take on about 500 survivors before its captain gave the order to pull away from the Leopoldville. In that 2018 interview, Merritt summed up the aftermath of the disaster: “Because of the torpedo attack on our ship, we lost all our equipment. That was the primary reason they didn’t send us to ‘The Battle of the Bulge.’ Our division went to the Brittany Peninsula and the 94th Division was sent to ‘The Bulge’ in our place. During the rest of World War II, our division only lost 27 men. If you survived the ship sinking you were pretty well on the way to surviving the war.”

According to other sources, the Allied high command had already decided, before the ships left England, that the 66th would replace the 94th, which was battle-hardened already from fighting as a rearguard force against Nazi troops defending the U-boat bases on the coast of Brittany. The 66th, though destined to fight a far more boring campaign against the remnant Nazi force guarding Hitler’s U-boat fortresses, suffered about double the number of men lost in battle that Merritt reported. Still, his point remains: The men of the 66th Infantry Division who survived the Leopoldville disaster were very likely to survive the war, which in Europe lasted only another four and a half months.

The United States government did not declassify documents about the Leopoldville until 1996, primarily because the Brits — who were in charge of the convoy — decided to cover it up. Ultimately, official records identified 763 soldiers and 56 crewmen who had lost their lives when the ship sank. Because the Army ordered the survivors to never reveal what happened, Merritt kept mum about it for over 20 years. He began to recount what he remembered after Jack Sanders’ book A Night Before Christmas appeared in 1963. Sanders was a 66th infantry rifleman who witnessed the disaster from the deck of the other troopship in the convoy. He pieced together a full account from unclassified documents and first-hand testimony of survivors and bystanders like himself.

Merritt remained reluctant to discuss that singular event of his life in any detail, but he shared with his children the gist of what he remembered in a way that highlighted the lesson without making it explicit: That he survived was not his doing; he had merely remained faithful and obeyed. He was spared an early transition to his heavenly home by the grace of God, and we, his children, were also alive because “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

In the letter to his children dated on his 94th birthday, November 10, 2019, Merritt recounted another war story, one he didn’t think he had ever told any of us before. In fact, he’d told me, but his written version was more detailed. He composed the retelling as he did his sermons, writing out drafts in the neat printing the Army had taught him as a signal corps trainee. My sister typed the final draft.

On the German soldier who saved my life… We were going on a reconnaissance patrol toward enemy territory. The Heavy Weapons Company, Company D — they were all bored because there were no targets to fire on the enemy. The Heavy Weapons C.O., Captain Browning, connived with Company C C.O., Captain Dudderar, to go on this patrol. Both were from Kentucky and were good friends.

I had a “grease gun” which fired .45 cal. bullets. I had two large cartridge holders full of bullets. I had more firepower than the other five soldiers, so I was supposed to cover our withdrawal in case we met the enemy.

As we crept forward into enemy territory, I said to myself, “If we go any farther we are going to be fired on.” No sooner had I thought that when enemy burp guns fired (900 bullets a minute). Captain Browning came bouncing through a hedge opening and said, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” Captain Dudderar said to me, “Red, you cover our withdrawal.” The burp guns kept firing. Those five men ran back toward friendly lines. I hugged the ground.

Two minutes later enemy bullets hit sticks and leaves on either side of me. It had to be a German sniper who knew exactly where I was. I got up to go back, but I stepped on a board that hit me on the knee and temporarily numbed me. Time was precious.

Suddenly a German mortar shell fell short of me. Then two seconds later a mortar shell fell beyond me. I knew from infantry training stateside that the third shell would blow me to bits. I got up and ran toward our own lines and joined the other patrol members.

The enemy sniper knew exactly where I was. He didn’t want to kill me. He wanted to warn me. Had he failed to warn me, I would have died that day, Sunday, 9 a.m., March 11, 1945. I have only related this story to two or three other persons.

Why did he spare my life? Through the scope on his gun he saw a scared young man, and he decided to warn me, not kill me. After all, the war was nearly over; so he decided to spare my life.

Most combat soldiers have had more harrowing experiences. I was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal for this action. I never even fired my “grease gun.” I was too frightened to do so. That’s it.

That was long ago and far away. It’s a war story worth remembering, especially for my children.

When my Dad first told me this story, what struck me was his certitude, as though he’d read this story in the Bible. An unseen sniper, who knew mortar rounds were seconds away, could easily have killed him. Instead, that trained killer warned him with precisely placed shots, first to one side and then to the other. If asked, Dad would have affirmed what to him was a given: God had spared him that day by miraculously changing an enemy sniper into a guardian angel. But the way he first told the story to me in private and later wrote it down as a parting gift for his survivors invited those of his children who no longer shared his faith to feel grateful simply to a fellow human being. Peering through his rifle scope, that sniper had watched the American sergeant order the smallest man in his squad, who looked to be a teen-ager, to stay behind and cover their retreat. Maybe on a whim, the sniper decided to spare the scared American kid, and decided not just to not shoot him but to save him from the mortar rounds, to give him a sign that Death had him in his sights and he better run like hell.

Dear sniper of my father’s imagination and of mine, danke schon.

And thanks also to you two anonymous officers of the 66th Infantry Division who kept your wits about you when all about you were losing theirs and directed Private First Class Merritt W. Dayton first to fetch his life jacket and then to join that queue of scared-shitless comrades calmly moving toward their turn to leap like chuteless paratroopers over, or into, the roiling bloody abyss between those two bobbing ships.

Finally, but not least, thanks to you, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, for creating the Army Specialized Training Program, whose main screening tool was the Army’s version of a Stanford-Binet-type I.Q. test. From 1940 to 1945, fifty million American men registered for the draft, and ten million were inducted into the military, but only a couple hundred thousand were chosen for the A.S.T. Program, among them Kurt Vonnegut, Mel Brooks, Henry Kissinger, Bob Dole, Gore Vidal, and my dearly departed father, Merritt W. Dayton. He retired from the Army’s Chaplain Corps as a Lieutenant Colonel in January 1971 and was buried with full military honors in Sarasota National Cemetery on July 1, 2020.

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See https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/david_dayton Here, you’ll find draft chapters of a memoir and poems I’ll select from to publish a book later this year.

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David Dayton

David Dayton

See https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/david_dayton Here, you’ll find draft chapters of a memoir and poems I’ll select from to publish a book later this year.

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