Private Leo Kenneth Chalcraft
- Unit: 66th Infantry Division, 262nd Infantry Regiment
- Service Number: 34972683
- Date of Birth: December 18, 1925
- Entered the Military: March 21, 1944
- Date of Death: December 25, 1944
- Hometown: St. Petersburg, Florida
- Place of Death: English Channel, off the coast of Cherbourg, France
- Award(s): Purple Heart
- Cemetery: Plot G, Row 15, Grave 37. Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France
Mentored by Ms. Deborah Pettingill
Largo Hgh School
Leo Chalcraft was born on December 18, 1925, in St. Petersburg, Florida, to John and Lelia H. Chalcraft. Two years later, his brother, Richard, was born, followed by his youngest brother, Albert, in 1923.
Leo lived during the Great Depression, and as a result, most of his family worked jobs to help get by. Leo quit school after the fifth grade and worked as a gas station attendant at Count’s Service Station on 4th Street in St. Petersburg, while his brother, Albert, was a paperboy. His father sold ice during the Depression, becoming a salesman for Rawleigh Company by 1940.
As a teenager, Leo did his own thing. He went around with friends, drove Albert’s car, and was not very close with the family. When he turned 18 in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army on March 21, 1944.
Due to the climate in Florida, soldiers could be trained all year. Hundreds of thousands of people from all branches of the military came to Florida to be trained, and there were over 170 installations established for them. Besides the lack of a harsh winter, Florida had many hotels that tourists were not using as rationing restricted travel. The military rented these vacant rooms from the hotels for their soldiers and used their lawns and local parks to train them. There were many flight stations and airfields in Florida: Dorr and Carlstrom Field, Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, the Army Air Force base (now Macdill Air Force Base), Drew Field (now Tampa International Airport), and Henderson Field in Tampa, and Valparaiso, there was another Army air grounds named after a military crash victim, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick J Eglin. This was the famous site where Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle trained his B-25 bomber pilots for the carrier launched a raid on Tokyo in 1942.
Florida experienced other effects of the war besides training. Ten weeks after Pearl Harbor, German submarine U-128 was spotted off the coast of Cape Canaveral, and on February 19, 1942, it sank the U.S. tanker Pan Massachusetts. Of the 378,000 German and Italian prisoners of war sent to the United States during the war, 10,000 were sent to Florida to work in logging or agriculture.
In St. Petersburg, World War II came alongside a population boom and relief from the Great Depression. Although the economic crisis decimated the tourism industry, and later by the war, it was chosen to be a major technical services training center for the Army Air Corps.
St. Petersburg and the surrounding area (Tampa Bay) were busy training pilots because the landscape and climate were ideal. There was a flat landscape and warm climate all year round, which was not something one could get in New York or Michigan. In Pinellas County, where St. Petersburg is located, there were two Army Air Corps training facilities: Albert Whitted Airport and Pinellas Army Air Base (now known as the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.) Due to training, many civilians worked as spotters, who identified aircraft as American, German, or Japanese planes and alerted authorities when there was an issue.
In St. Petersburg, there were soldiers everywhere. Downtown streets were jammed with marching platoons and armored convoys, and Army jeeps. By July 1943, over 100,000 trainees and instructors passed through St. Petersburg. Downtown St. Petersburg streets were constantly crowded, day and night. Restaurants were packed. There was a large training center in Hillsborough County, which brought them a lot of tourism again. The soldiers and sailors who were training there often visited St. Petersburg on the weekends because it was so close and had beaches. Many of their wives stayed in St. Petersburg to be closer to their husbands and see them on the weekends.
Leo Chalcraft registered for the draft on December 20, 1943, two days after his eighteenth birthday. He was drafted on March 21, 1944, and entered service at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia.
He trained at Camp Blanding, Florida, with the 66th Infantry Division, 262nd Infantry Regiment. They were sent to England on the George Washington on November 15, 1944. They spent six weeks in England at Camp Piddlehinton and then departed on December 23 to board the S.S. Leopoldville.
It was not until after midnight that part of the 66th Infantry “Panther” Division (2,236 infantrymen) went up the gangplanks of the Leopoldville. This was when the errors began. The Leopoldville was not expecting the Panthers – 2,000 paratroopers were already getting settled in on the Leopoldville. These paratroopers were told they were on the wrong ship. The paratroopers packed up and evacuated the Leopoldville, and finally, at 2:30 a.m. on December 24, the 66th Infantry Division began to board the ship. They did not finish boarding until 8:00 a.m. The delay in loading caused some chaos.
There was another regiment boarding at the same time at the 262nd Infantry Regiment. The men at the docks paid no attention to what regiment, division, or company the soldiers were in. The soldiers just stood in line, and a man directed groups of no more than ten to one ship, the Leopoldville, and then to the other, the Cheshire. This caused people to be separated from their squads and companies. Once all the men were on the ships, the six-ship convoy left the dock at 9:00 a.m., heading to Cherbourg, France.
At 5:44 p.m., the Leopoldville was hit by a torpedo from a German U-Boat. It sank just about three hours later, and Private Chalcraft went down with the ship. Many of the 66th Infantry Division men did not see action, as almost 800 men died in the Leopoldville incident. Surviving men went on to reinforce the troops who had been in Cherbourg since D-Day.
Private Chalcraft’s body was recovered, unlike many of his fellow soldiers on the S.S. Leopoldville. He was buried on December 27, 1944, at Blosville Temporary Military Cemetery. In 1947, his mother was given the choice of having his body repatriated to the United States or re-interred at Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy. She chose for him to remain in France, the country he had been sent to liberate.
Private Chalcraft, a “Black Panther” in the 66th Infantry Division, was only 19 years old when he died in the sinking of the Leopoldville, a story almost too horrible and tragic to believe. The Leopoldville was a Belgian transport ship headed towards Cherbourg, France, on December 24, 1944, with soldiers destined for the Battle of the Bulge. The crew did not teach any of the men how to use the lifeboats. This lack of preparedness led to chaos when the ship was torpedoed by German U-Boat 486.
During a time of war, everyone expects to make sense of death. They understand that people die in combat. They know that many people they know will probably not come home. But they expect that those deaths will be fighting for the cause of freedom. Private Chalcraft never had his chance to fight for freedom. For the two and a half hours the Leopoldville was sitting on the water that Christmas Eve, most of the men could have been rescued. But they were not, and of the 2,235 infantrymen on that boat, over 700 men could do nothing but walk into the water.
Leo Chalcraft wrote in a letter to his mother, “I think that when this war is over and I get back home, I will take a trip and come over here to see what it looks like after it is fixed up and the lights are lit up.” I am, right now, in a place where he wanted to go. He would have loved to see this spot right here. I can see the things that he wanted to see. I can see the lights lit up.
Somehow, Leo, I hope you know that everyone remembers you. You have not been forgotten. For the rest of her life, your mother never again celebrated Christmas. Your niece, Albert’s daughter, was close to your mother and knew all about you. Albert’s wife Charlotte, to this day, still preserves your possessions, and now I know you, and I’ll never forget you.
My brother passed away at the age of 19, the same age as Leo. I have never in my life felt anything more painful. The loss of someone so young, someone who will never experience or see so many things that you can, changes you forever. Everything reminds you of them, and I know now that this is how Leo’s family felt. I know that they had never felt anything more painful, and for that, I am forever heartbroken.
He was not a fighter pilot, a paratrooper, or any of those people that are glorified in the movies. He was what most soldiers in World War II were normal men who were called to serve their country, men who were too young to know yet what they were going to do with their lives but still traveled thousands of miles away from home to fight for this country. That’s who most of the men were. And without those men, men like you, we would never have won the war.
When I learned of the Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Student & Teacher Institute, I had just over two weeks to apply, and all I knew was I’d be going to Washington, D.C. (a place I had never been) and France (another place I had never been). I was so excited to apply; it was one of the best days of my life. I did not think that out of all the other people around the country. I would be selected to experience amazing things. But then I was, and it changed my life forever.
When everything started, and I had to pick my silent hero, I never thought I would hold him as closely as I do or know his life the way you would know a close family member’s. I knew I would research his story, but I never thought I would memorize and cherish it. I did not expect for a place in my heart to form that was reserved just for him, but it did. Private Leo Kenneth Chalcraft changed my entire life, and I genuinely cherish him.
In Normandy, France, I was in the middle of an experience of a lifetime. Everything that I had ever learned about the Normandy Invasion was right before my eyes. I could see the boats coming to shore on Omaha Beach, the soldiers running up the beach, and the Germans shooting down from atop the cliffs. Standing on Omaha Beach made me appreciate the battle so much more. I stood there and wondered, “How in the world did we do this?” The beach was empty. Everyone was quiet. Our group of about forty were the only people around. It felt like we had made a memorial for the men who ran across that beach; we were all silently honoring them at that moment. It is one of the most amazing feelings that I have ever felt.
As I stood at Private Leo Kenneth Chalcraft’s grave and read my eulogy, I understood one thing: I was keeping the memory of him alive and preserving his history. I was the next person in his line of remembrance, and he would now forever be on the list of stories to tell as I grow old.
Three days before leaving for Washington, D.C. with my teacher, the worst day of my life happened. And when I arrived at the Institute, I expected to have to deal with things by myself. But the people I came into contact with were like a family. I spent every waking moment with them for two weeks, and I could not have asked for anyone better. They weren’t going to let me deal with things by myself. They were there for me. They showed me who true friends were. They showed me what caring for people looked like – by caring for each of their Silent Heroes and by caring for me. They helped me through the most challenging time of my life, and I am so grateful for that.
I have never met a group of more passionate teachers, educators, and students. Everyone loved what they were doing, everyone was so excited to be a part of the experience, and it was such a fantastic atmosphere to be in. When we arrived back in the United States, we talked about the trip for days together. And now, almost two months after the Institute has ended, we are still sharing our Silent Heroes stories. This experience has shown me what it is to remember truly. It has taught me how to feel pain, how to love people, and how to live to keep someone else’s memory alive. I learned what it means to be a hero, what it means to be brave. I would not trade this incredible experience for anything in the world.
Chalcraft Family Photographs. Courtesy of Albert and Charlotte Chalcraft.
Florida. Manatee County. 1940 U.S. Federal Census. Digital images. ancestry.com.
Letters from Leo Chalcraft to Lelia Chalcraft, 1944. Courtesy of Albert and Charlotte Chalcraft.
Leo K. Chalcraft. Headstone and Interment Records for U.S. Military Cemeteries on Foreign Soil, 1942-1949. Digital images. ancestry.com.
Leo K. Chalcraft, Individual Deceased Personnel File, Department of the Army.
Leo K. Chalcraft, Official Military Personnel File, Department of the Army, RG 319, National Archives and Records Administration – St. Louis.
Leo K. Chalcraft. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946. ancestry.com.
Leo Kenneth Chalcraft. World War II Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947. Digital images. ancestry.com.
Leo K. Chalcraft. World War II Hospital Admission Card Files, 1942-1954. ancestry.com.
Andrade, Allan. Leopoldville: A Tragedy Too Long Secret. Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2009.
Arsenault, Raymond. “War and Peace 1941-1950.” In St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950. Norfolk: Donning, 1988.
Babb, Ellen J., and James Anthony Schnur. St. Petersburg Goes to War, 1941-1945. St. Petersburg: St. Petersburg Museum of History/Florida Humanities Council, 1995.
Coles, David. “Home Front-Battlefront: Florida During World War II.” In Florida World War II Heritage Trail. Florida Division of Historical Resources, 2015.
“Florida During World War II.” Florida Memory. Accessed July 23, 2016. www.floridamemory.com/onlineclassroom/floridawwii/photos/.
Gannon, Michael. “World War II.” In Florida: A Short History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.
Gregory, David. “West Central.” In Florida World War II Heritage Trail. Florida Division of Historical Resources, 2015.
“Leo K. Chalcraft.” American Battle Monuments Commission. Accessed April 18, 2021. www.abmc.gov/decedent-search/chalcraft%3Dleo.
“Leopoldville – Leopoldville Troopship Disaster.” Leopoldville Memorial Association. Accessed February 18, 2016. leopoldville.org/.
“The Leopoldville.” 66th Infantry Division Panther Veteran Organization. Accessed April 9, 2021. www.66thinfantrydivision.org/leopoldville.html.
“War’s Impact on Florida: German POWs Held in Camps in Florida” Museum of Florida History. Accessed April 8, 2021. museumoffloridahistory.com/exhibits/permanent-exhibits/world-war-ii/florida-remembers-world-war-ii/wars-impact-on-florida-german-pows-held-in-camps-in-florida/.