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In the line of duty — Book helps give family closure in soldier's death

By Vincent Z. Whaley
Johnson 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 Cherbourg, France, hoping that would be his last holiday spent overseas during World War II.

It was.

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 up.

"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 forgotten.

"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 said.

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 years."

"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 alone.

"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."

Story Copyright © 2000-2004 by Vincent Z. Whaley and the Johnson City Press,
204 W. Main St., Johnson City, Tennessee 37605, 423.929.3111.
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division
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