In the line of duty Book helps give family
closure in soldier's death
By Vincent Z. Whaley
City Press Staff Writer
(PUBLISHED Sunday, Aug. 6, 2000)
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. On Christmas Eve
1944, 18-year-old Pfc. Robert Stills was aboard
a Belgian troopship en route from England to
France, hoping that would be his last holiday
spent overseas during World War II.
The port of Cherbourg had been liberated by
the Ninth "Octofoil" and 4th "Ivy"
infantry division shortly after D-Day in June
1944, and the S.S. Leopoldville was scheduled
to drop off soldiers of the 66th "Black
Panther" Infantry Division. The GIs then
were to join the campaign in Germany.
The majority, however, never made it ashore.
Five and a half miles from Cherbourg, the vessel
was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sent to
the bottom of the English Channel. Stills, a
Johnson City resident, was among more than 800
of 2,235 soldiers of the 262nd and 264th infantry
regiments who died in the submarine attack.
Until recently, Stills' family knew little about
his tragic death. But a New York author recently
published a book, SS. Leopoldville Disaster:
December 24, 1944, and has helped answer
questions that have eluded the Stills family
for more than 55 years.
"The sinking was the worst disaster to
ever befall an American infantry division as
the result of an enemy torpedo attack,"
author Allan Andrade said. "Yet it is a
tragedy the history books forgot and the United
States, British and French governments covered
"Pfc. Stills was assigned to Company I,
3rd Platoon, 262nd Infantry Regiment. There
were 22 survivors from the 3rd Platoon, of which
15 were hospitalized. The body of Stills was
among nine bodies recovered. The bodies of eight
soldiers from the 3rd Platoon were never found.
Those statistics indicate that Pfc. Stills made
it off the ship and either drowned or died from
exposure to the frigid 48-degree waters of the
English Channel," Andrade said.
Andrade recently contacted the Johnson City
Press seeking assistance with locating any
of Stills' surviving relatives. When contacted,
Stills' sister, Lucille Cable, was able to offer
a few insights about her brother while learning
more about his death.
"Robert was kind and gentle, and he wanted
to go fight for our country," Cable said.
"He used to write letters to me and my
mom while he was overseas quite often. I'll
always remember him being happy and whistling
all the time. But my family and I never have
known exactly what happened to him."
Irene Stills, who married Stills' brother, Ottis,
shared her husband's memories of Stills while
displaying a belt buckle, Army insignia, dog
tags, a ring and a wallet that were returned
with Stills' body in 1948. Stills then was buried
at Boones Creek Christian Church Cemetery.
"I met Ottis shortly before they sent Robert's
body home to be buried," she said. "My
husband really would have been proud of Andrade's
book, because he used to watch TV and say that
his brother deserved recognition, too, for his
military service and sacrifice."
In addition to spending the past few years researching
the Leopoldville disaster, Andrade served
as a consultant for a special documentary broadcast
on The History Channel and on the TV
show's Web site. Andrade also has striven to
gain public awareness of the Leopoldville
Disaster Memorial at Fort Benning, Ga.
"Upon the memorial are engraved the names
of the loved ones who died," he said. "It
is my goal to ensure that their sacrifice for
the freedoms we now take for granted are not
"Stills' outfit, Company I, will hold a
reunion from Aug. 24-27 at the Radisson Hotel
Cleveland Southwest in Cleveland, Ohio. Some
of Company I's Leopoldville survivors
will attend, and I truly hope that some of Stills'
relatives or friends can possibly attend the
reunion as a means of coming to a better understanding
of his World War II sacrifice," Andrade
While Stills' relatives just recently learned
of the availability of Andrade's book, Cable
said her family will obtain a copy of the book
soon to "help their healing after so many
"Today, accidental plane crashes, terror
bombings and school shootings are front-page
news," Andrade said. "Numerous memorial
services and tributes occur, but the families
directly touched by the Leopoldville
disaster for 55 years have suffered and cried
"The 20th century is over. In the new millennium,
World War II will pass even further into the
back pages of history. An extremely narrow window
of opportunity exists to recognize the valor
of those who survived and honor the sacrifices
of those who died."
© 2000-2004 by Vincent Z. Whaley and
204 W. Main St., Johnson City, Tennessee 37605,
All rights reserved. This material may not
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