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Russell LaRossa

Russell LaRosa
U.S. Army, 66th Infantry Division
42nd Infantry Division
European Theater



Tuesday, December 17th, 2002
The Night Before Christmas - December 24, 1944

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and graduating from high school, Russell Larosa enlisted in the U.S. Army Aircorp. After primary testing he was sent to Lehigh University for special training. When his Aircorp training was canceled he was transferred to infantry and took training at Camp Blanding, Florida. He joined the 66th "Black Panther" Infantry Division and then was sent to England. On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1944, a German U-boat five miles off the coast of Cherbourg, France sank the Belgian-Congo troopship he was on, the S.S. Leopoldville. It took three hours before any rescue boats came to search for survivors. In those three hours nearly half the men aboard, approximately 1,000 men were "Killed in Action." Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces decided to cover up the sinking of the troopship. The families of the men who were lost at sea that night were only notified that these men were "Missing in Action" somewhere on the Normandy, France. (There will be a film shown during the lecture covering this incident.) After being rescued and recovering, Russ was sent to France where he joined the 42nd "Rainbow" Infantry Division. He also was at the liberation of a concentration camp at the end of the war. Russ will share his memories of these events and will also present a slide show of photographs taken during the war.


My name is Russell Larosa. I was born on February 6th, 1926 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I attended Southern High School in South Philadelphia. I then attended college at Lehigh University as a part of the Army Aircorp ROTC program. I wanted to be in the Army Aircorp, but they took me out of the program and placed me in the infantry. I was put on Active duty January 1st, 1944. I took my basic infantry training at Camp Blanding, Florida. I was trained for jungle warfare. I joined the 66th Infantry Division. Then went to Fort Rucker, Alabama for maneuvers. Then I went to Fort Benning, Georgia for advanced training. Then was sent north to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. We were sent across the Atlantic in a converted WWI German Cruiser. It took the convoy 11 days and then we arrived in Southampton, England. Most of the convoy was operated by the Merchant Marine, but also had Navy Armed Guardsmen. There were many destroyers and even carriers in the convoy. This convoy was the second largest in the war and was preparing for the D-Day operations in Normandy. I got sick on the ride over. Sometimes I was so sick I couldn't eat.

We stayed in Southampton a month then landed at Omaha beach a couple days after the initial invasion. I fought in Normandy (Hedgerow Country), Cherbourg, Bordeaux; we had special mission to take submarine pens. We also fought in Rheims, then another division relieved us. We always dug foxholes and always feared the German 88s. We found out that they could set their artillery to burst at treetop level. The artillery barrages were always scary. We then went back to England in the fall of 1944. I was in charge of gathering replacement troops. When the Bulge began we were notified that we were going back to Europe to bring replacements to the division. We took off again for Normandy on December 24th, 1944. I was on a ship called the SS Leopoldville. This ship was from the Belgian Congo. It had a Belgian Congo crew and was operated by the British Transportation Corp. I was on this ship with many of the units from the 66th Division. We had 5,000 men aboard this ship total.

On the night of December 24th, 1944, about 5:00pm, the Leopoldville took a hit from a torpedo. I remember what it felt like; the ship rattled. The Belgian Congo crew took off with all the lifeboats. They never gave the order to abandon ship. The ship began to sink five miles off the coast of Cherbourg. It wasn't bad enough that the ship was sinking, but the German U-boat surfaced and starting shooting any survivors it could find. I remember the sound of the machine-guns. I always get seasick, that's why I didn't go into the navy. I was near a rope ladder when the ship was sinking and I grabbed onto that and did not let go. I could have been sucked into the ship if I had not grabbed onto the latter. Many of the men that died, I know for a fact, were trapped inside the ship. I thought I would die that night in the freezing waters of the English Channel. I must have gone into shock. It wasn't 'til 2:00am on Christmas Day that I was picked up by an English tug boat. The American GIs that operated the ports at Cherbourg were having their Christmas Eve party. I was one of 900 survivors out of the original 5,000 men aboard the ship.

I was sent to an American field hospital outside of Cherbourg, France. I stayed there about a month. I had a back and head injuries and a broken wrist. I was allowed to have a medical discharge, but instead I chose what division I wanted to go to. I was transferred to the 42nd "Rainbow" Division, which was the National Guard of New York. I joined up with the division in Marseilles, France. I missed the Bulge, but was with the division the rest of the war. We liberated a concentration camp near Czechoslovakia on May the 6th, right before VE-day. When we went in to the camp, at first, we didn't realize what it was. None of us had ever heard of a concentration camp. There was a huge Iron Gate at the entrance to the camp. Our Reconnaissance came back and reported that there were hundreds of decimated people in the camp. They all had a bluish white uniform with the Star of David patch. There were 10,000 prisoners in the camp. They used them as slave labor. On May the 7th was the cease-fire and on the May the 8th it was all over. I was sent back to Marseilles, France and in charge of handling the prisoners and the quartermaster trucking companies. I had to check all the Germans to see if they had an "SS" tattooed under their armpit. This was the Army of Occupation. We were 58 kilometers out of Salzburg. We sent a lot of the Germans to Displaced Persons camps.

I arrived back home on June 6th, 1946 and was discharged as a Staff Sergeant. After the war I went to Temple University on the GI Bill. I wanted to go for Pre-Med but couldn't get into it, so instead of Med, I received a degree in Journalism. I worked for the old Philadelphia Bulletin until 1960, then I worked for the New York Times from 1960 to 1990 when I retired. So I had a 40 year long journalism career. I did a lot of traveling. I have been all over the United States. I was married on September 9th, 1950. We just celebrated our 51st Anniversary. We had three children and we have three grand children. I am a life member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. I received the Combat Infantry Badge, The Bronze Star, The Purple Heart, and One Battle Star.

There were two things that helped me through combat; they were my buddies and my religion. Like they say, "There are no atheists in foxholes." We would dig two man foxholes. When we captured German bunkers, they could fit six men to a bunker. I lost one of my friends when my ship went down on Christmas Eve. His name was Harold Miller. He was from Harrisburg, PA. I kept in touch with his family, but then that faded away.