By Nick Charles
December 11, 2000 12:00 PM

In Christmas Eve 1944, Pfc. Edward F. Stone and more ‘than 2,200 other U.S. infantrymen were crossing the English Channel to France on the S.S. Leopoldville, bound for the Battle of the Bulge. They never made it. About five miles off the French coast, the lights of Cherbourg twinkling in the night, a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the converted Belgian luxury liner, sending nearly 800 GIs to their deaths. Stone, 23, a Maine mill worker who left a wife and four children, was one of some 500 men whose bodies were never recovered.

It was one of the worst sea tragedies of World War II and one the U.S. government met with a half century of silence. Surviving soldiers claim they were instructed to keep quiet, and families of the dead were told only that their loved ones had been killed in action. A 1963 book revealed that the Leopoldville’s death toll was partly accountable to the fact that the soldiers aboard had been ill-prepared for evacuation and that holiday leaves and partying at the American command headquarters in Cherbourg had left few men available for rescue operations. Still, many families never learned the truth of how their loved ones died. Compounding the insult, divers have been looting the wreck of the Leopoldville, which lies 200 feet below the channel surface.

“It’s like they’re digging up a grave,” says homemaker Ginger Weston, 56, of Brownville, Maine, the youngest child of Private Stone. Six months old when her father died, she learned of his fate in a local newspaper last year. Now Weston, her family and the families of other victims determined to protect the Leopoldville have undertaken a letter-writing campaign, contacting President Clinton and Francois Bujon de l’Estang, France’s ambassador to the U.S. They have been encouraged by Allan Andrade, author of 1997’s S.S. Leopoldville Disaster, who notes that souvenirs from hundreds of sunken warships are at risk of being illegally salvaged.” “By calling attention to the Leopoldville,” says Andrade, “you call attention to the others.”

Stone’s survivors have been active in the effort—they’ve written more than 100 letters—and it’s gotten results. The French government, which has jurisdiction over the site, responded swiftly, opening an investigation this September. “I think we’ll rapidly be able to protect the shipwreck,” says Pierre Henri Guignard, Ambassador de l’Estang’s chief of staff. “It is our wish to work to give satisfaction to the families.”

Preserving his final resting place may be the sole comfort for Stone’s kin, who have only two photographs, one slightly blurred, of the quiet young man who enlisted in March 1944. “To tell the truth, as they say, you don’t miss what you don’t have,” says Weston, a grandmother of seven. “But it was kind of hard [growing up], listening to other [kids] talking about their fathers.” Stone’s widow, Bernice, now 80, received $35 a month as an insurance settlement from the government, which she supplemented by working at a lumber mill, taking in ironing and crocheting loops on shirts at a factory. “She didn’t have teeth for a long time,” says son Patrick, 59, a prison guard who spent 23 years in the Air Force, “but we didn’t go hungry.”

Though his children wanted to know more about their father (“My grandmother never talked about him,” says Wood), virtually all they had to hold onto was his Purple Heart, kept in a box. “Whenever [my mother] would go somewhere,” says Weston, “my sister Peggy and I would open the thing.”

At an October 1999 memorial service at Fort Benning, Ga., the family learned more. Bernice met Stone’s company commander, Walter T. Brown of Lynn, Mass., and asked if he remembered her husband. He did. “He was a good soldier,” says Brown, 85, a retired machinist who lost all but five men in his unit. “I’ll never forget. We drank together, ate together, trained together. These men are like your brothers.”

As they work to protect the Leopoldville, Stone’s family takes solace in the knowledge that he did not suffer. “We found out he was right where the torpedo hit,” says Weston of her father. “He never knew what hit him. That was good—he was sleeping.”

Nick Charles

Anne Driscoll in Brownville