Lucedale native and WWII casualty Alton Howell remembered this Veterans Day
Like so many other Mississippians’ wartime stories, Alton Howell’s story began when he was drafted into service.
A farmboy from Lucedale, Howell was attending Perkinston Agricultural High School and Junior College (now MGCCC) in Perkinston, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was 19 years old, and it was the height of World War II. He went through basic training in the spring of 1944 and shipped to England to help finish the war in Europe. D-Day would happen in June of that year, the Battle of the Bulge in December.
On Christmas Eve 1944, Howell and 2,234 other troops boarded the Belgian troopship SS Leopoldville to cross the English Channel to Cherbourg, France, to serve as reinforcements for what would later be named the Battle of the Bulge. The battle had begun with a German offensive that had taken the Allies by surprise. Casualties were high, and the Americans sorely needed the reinforcements in parts of Belgium, France and Luxembourg. The trip across the channel was to only take nine hours, but just five and a half miles off the coast of France, a German submarine torpedoed the Leopoldville.
It was just before dark, a few minutes before 6 p.m. on that cold night, and by the time it had become pitch black on the rough waters of the channel, the ship had sunk. By the end of the night, 763 young American soldiers were dead in what was to later be known as one of the worst tragedies in American history. Many died when the torpedo hit the ship. Others (the more unfortunate ones) were trapped inside the ship for hours amidst bodies and debris, unable to find their way out. Some were crushed between ships as they tried to jump across to safety onto one of the escort ships, the HMS Brilliant. The rough waters pushed the ships back and forth, causing the jump to be perilous.
While they were on that ship crossing the English Channel on that chilly Christmas Eve, the American soldiers were singing Christmas carols. They were probably thinking nervously of the battle ahead. Most were probably also thinking of home. It was Christmas Eve, after all. What was their reaction when the loud explosion occurred when the torpedo hit the ship? How scary it must have been in the hold of the ship when the lights went out, and everything was thrown into chaos. The instructions given to them for getting to lifeboats and abandoning ship were given in Flemish, so most did not understand that the ship was sinking. What thoughts were racing through their minds at that time? What was Alton Howell, the young farmboy from Mississippi, thinking?
“I like to think that my brother was thinking of home,” said Dot Dement. “Alton was very family-oriented, so I’m sure our parents and my older siblings were on his mind. He was always in the woods or in the fields at home, an outdoors person, so maybe he was thinking about hunting or fishing, too.”
Dement, next to the youngest of 15 kids in their family, said she never knew her brother, who was second oldest. He died shortly before she was born. “I knew a lot about Alton from what my parents have told us and what my older brothers and sisters have said. He worked hard, helping Mama and Daddy as much as possible. There wasn’t a lot of money in those days, so he did what he could to bring money home. When he went to Perk, he stayed at the campus during the week and milked cows at their dairy to pay for his education.”
On Thursday, November 9, 2017, Dement her her brother and sister, Clayton Howell and Estelle Stewart, attended a special ceremony at Gregory War Memorial Chapel on the Perkinston Campus. The chapel, a WWII-era building brought to the campus in 1947 from the U.S. Naval (Seabee) Base in Gulfport, serves as a memorial to the college’s dead from the Second World War.
“I was excited about participating in the ceremony. Six of my brothers fought in wars – the two oldest in WWII. This is a wonderful way to acknowledge what they sacrificed, and so many others, to protect our country.”
For the Howell family, news that their loved one had died protecting his country did not come until March 3, 1945, when the family received word, via telegram, of the Leopoldville tragedy. The telegram said he was missing in action, and it would be many years later before the family found out he had died that fateful Christmas Eve. “Mama spent many years looking for a vehicle to turn down the driveway bringing Alton home,” Dement said.
In fact, it was more than 50 years after the incident before the details of the tragedy were revealed. The loved ones of almost 800 soldiers were left bereft – no answers, and for many, no bodies to bury. Wartime secrecy kept information about the event quiet for many years. The government’s embarrassment over the events of that night kept it under wraps for many more. There had been no spotter plane with the troop transport ships, so there was no way to know there was a German submarine coming up to periscope-depth nearby. Being Christmas Eve, the military had given personnel in Cherbourg leave. No one heard the call for help.
“We can only imagine what my parents were feeling when they received the telegram saying my brother was missing. We can only imagine the terror our brother suffered during his last hours aboard that ship. It is a sad reality that my family has lived with for many years,” Dement said.
Twenty-one other young men from Mississippi died aboard the Leopoldville that night, two of them from the Coast. Robert S. Byrd of Ocean Springs and Rufus B. Winstead of Pass Christian were in the same infantry regiment, the 262nd, with Howell. They, along with others from the 262nd and the 264th were part of the 66th “Black Panthers” Infantry Division aboard the Belgian troopship. Information about the event came out slowly and was finally released in more detail a few years ago.
Finally understanding what happened to Howell and so many other young men, the Howell family held a memorial service in November 2015. The George County Times published an article about Howell and his service, and ultimately, he was included among the ranks of MGCCC alumni killed in action.
In writing “Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College: A History 1911-2000,” Charles Sullivan, professor emeritus and college archivist, profiled 31 students and one teacher who died in WWII. He believed others would be found later…and he was right. In 2005, Sullivan found out about Milton Zelmanowitz of New York, who died aboard the SS Dorchester in 1943 when it, like the Leopoldville, was torpedoed by a German submarine. He came upon Howell’s story in 2016, upping the number of MGCCC alumni killed in action to 33 students and one teacher.
Sullivan found out about Zelmanowitz because of a photo. “When the MGCCC Bulldog Club chose New Yorker Pat D’Auria for induction into the 2005 MGCCC Athletic Hall of Fame, his son brought a number of photographs from his father to place in the MGCCC Archives,” he recalled. “One of the photos was of Milton Zelmanowitz. On the back of the photo, D’Auria had written that Zelmanowitz had died in the sinking of a ship. Research revealed that the ship was the Dorchester, which was torpedoed by a U-boat in the North Atlantic on February 3, 1943, with the loss of 671 lives.”
Sullivan said he found out about Howell when filing old newspaper articles. “We receive newspaper clippings from newspapers all over the state, and this story in the George County Times was among them. It mentioned that Howell had attended Perk. He actually attended during the summer of 1943 (June 3-August 11) to finish high school, which he began three years earlier at George County Central. Howell entered the service as an infantryman before he graduated.”
Although Howell’s story began when he was drafted into service, his story will never end. His legacy, like all veterans, is preserved in stories, photographs, family memories and ceremonies, such as those held at MGCCC.
Mississippi dead from 66th Infantry Division aboard the S.S. Leopoldville
Ainsworth, Harise E. Pfc. Co. K 262nd Regiment ?
Alexander, J. D. Pfc. Co. K 262nd Regiment Philadelphia
Biggart, Will O. Pfc. Co. I 262nd Regiment Isola
Byrd, Robert S. Pfc. Co. F 262nd Regiment Ocean Springs
Carter, Audie L. Pvt. Co. I 262nd Regiment Houston
Creed, Robert W. S. Sgt. Co. I 262nd Regiment Lauderdale
Crenshaw, Thomas L. Pvt. Co. H 262nd Regiment Louisville
Dancy, John B. Pvt. Co. D 264th Regiment Coldwater
Dillinger, Garvis Pfc. Co. I 262nd Regiment Dumas
Dover, James W. Pfc. Co. I 262nd Regiment Sarepta
Fried, Simon Pvt. Co. L 262nd Regiment Sidon
Graham, Melton E. Pvt. Hdq. Co. 3rd Battalion 262nd Regiment Tiplersville
Gurley, Ben D. T/4. Co. K 264th Regiment Tishomingo
Howell, Alton Pfc. Co. H 262nd Regiment Lucedale
Jenkins, Robert E. Pfc. Co. L 262nd Regiment Meridian
Martin, Ray E. Pfc. Co. F 262nd Regiment Wesson
McBay, James D. Pfc. Co. F 262nd Regiment Bay Springs
Moncrief, Clifton Pfc. Co. H 262nd Regiment Coldwater
Morgan, James L. Pfc. Co. E 262nd Regiment Heidelberg
Mortimer, James E. Sgt. Co. E 262nd Regiment Winona
Winstead, Rufus B. Pvt. Co. F 262nd Regiment Pass Christian