Largo High School senior Konner Ross was one of 15 students selected for “The Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute silent hero project”. Fifteen teams of high school students and their teachers from around the country team up to research a soldier, sailor or airman from their home state, who is buried in Normandy.
The Normandy Institute program also includes an all-expenses paid trip to Normandy to visit important sites from WWII. It culminates with the teens writing a eulogy for their selected, “silent hero” and reading it aloud at their graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery.
Here is the eulogy Ross wrote for one of St. Petersburg’s fallen soldiers from World War II:
BY KONNER ROSS
Born into the Great Depression, Leo Kenneth Chalcraft lived in a family where his father had to work jobs like selling ice just to get by. Leo quit school after the fifth grade to go work as a gas station attendant.
He did not have an easy childhood. He lived in a town where the war was full throttle. St. Petersburg, Florida was a place where many soldiers trained to go overseas.
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 Belgium transport ship headed toward Cherbourg, France on Dec. 24, 1944. The soldiers destined for the Battle of the Bulge. (The ship was hit by a German torpedo.)
Five miles from the shore the Belgium crew was reported to have taken a soldier’s knife, cut a lifeboat and sailed away, laughing and joking in Flemish.
The crew left the soldiers on the ship. Leaving them to do the only thing they could do, wait for rescue or jump into the frigid water.
Leo and his fellow 66th members stood on a sinking ship, stuck in a situation that certainly called for panic, but they were absolutely calm coming together to sing the national anthem to honor their country one last time.
During a time of war, everyone expects to make sense of death. They understand that people die in war. They understand that many people they know probably will not come home. But they expect that those deaths will be fighting for the cause of freedom.
Leo never had his chance to fight for freedom. For the two-and-a-half hours the Leopoldville was just sitting on the water that Christmas Eve, most of the men could have been rescued. But they were not. Of the 2,235 infantry men on that boat over 700 men could do nothing but walk into the water, including Leo.
Leo once 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 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’m able to see the things that he wanted to see. I’m able to see the lights lit up.
Somehow Leo, I hope you know that everyone remembers you.
You’ve 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 still to this day 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 so 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 wasn’t a fighter pilot, a paratrooper, any of those people that are glorified in the movies. He was what most soldiers in WWII 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. They still traveled thousands of miles away from home to fight for this country. That’s what most of the men were.
And without those men, just like you Leo, we would never have won the war.