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The Silent Soldier and the Portrait

A painting depicting the rescue of soldiers from the SS Leopoldville sinking in December 1944.
Courtesy of American Public Television
A painting depicting the rescue of soldiers from the SS Leopoldville sinking in December 1944.

Saturday, May 28, 2022 at Noon on KPBS 2 / On demand now with PBS Video App

Shot primarily in England and France, "The Silent Soldier and the Portrait" documents the story of one of the last living survivors of a major World War II military tragedy, and two secrets that he kept for decades. On Christmas Eve 1944, John Suter Waller was a 19-year-old soldier on his way to join in the Battle of the Bulge. A German U-boat sunk his troop's ship, the USS Leopoldville, killing more than 800 U.S. military personnel as it plunged into the icy waters of the English Channel.

Fearing the effect of the news on morale back home, the military instructed the survivors not to discuss it. John Waller kept that secret faithfully for more than 75 years. John Waller's other secret involved a French portrait "purloined" from a ruined estate during the war. The moving stories of the Leopoldville and the portrait, discovered during a move, set both father and daughter on a journey to retrace the young soldier's footsteps as he headed to war so long ago.

The Silent Soldier and the Portrait

Read The Letter:

Once the war was over, the men who survived the sinking of the Leopoldville were allowed to talk about one of the worst maritime tragedies of WWII. This is a copy of the original letter and a typed version of it. The true horror of that night is captured in this one soldier’s memory of thatChristmas Eve 1944.

A painting depicting the sinking of the SS Leopoldville in December 1944.
Courtesy of American Public Television
A painting depicting the sinking of the SS Leopoldville in December 1944.

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Presented by VPM Media Corp. Distributed by American Public Television