The Christmas and other holiday festivities of over 2,000 American soldiers were silenced by a German torpedo that sent their ship, the S.S. Leopoldville, plunging into the icy English Channel Dec. 24, 1944.
“It was a bad moment,” John Waller said, reflecting on the sinking of the S.S. Leopoldville in the documentary “The Silent Soldier and the Portrait.”
Produced and directed by his daughter Garland Waller, the documentary chronicles John Waller’s journey back to the English Channel that almost took his life decades ago.
The S.S. Leopoldville carried more than 2,000 American soldiers over from England to France, where they would have served as reinforcements in the Battle of the Bulge. With approximately five miles left in the journey, their ship was attacked, and nearly 300 men were instantly killed.
Over 750 men died in total, and many drowned in the unforgiving 48 degree waves of the English Channel. At 19 years old, Waller swam away from the ship, clinging to survival in hopes that he could spare his mother from receiving the dreadful letter so many other families received on Christmas Day.
Seven decades later, Garland, an award-winning producer, writer and director who has worked in production from WBZ-TV in Boston and on her own independent documentaries, saw potential in her father’s story.
Garland, who is the director of Boston University’s College of Communication television graduate program, said the adventure of “The Silent Soldier and the Portrait” began by looking through her father’s WWII photo albums.
The attack was censored by the military to protect morale at the homefront during the war. After the ban was lifted, Garland said John’s photo album opened the door for him to share his experience on the Leopoldville.
Garland said the ban from the government was only part of the reason her father hadn’t shared much about the tragedy before.
“That generation just sort of kept a tight lip about the war in general,” Garland said. “The basic idea was if you come home from the war and you’re in one piece, you just don’t talk about it.”
For the documentary’s editor Dan Dunbar, the composure of the greatest generation stuck with him the most.
“I mean what always strikes me about John is the ability to sluff it off, to not even think about it … and just kind of move on,” Dunbar said.
Garland said that for most of her life, her father maintained his composure. Yet, when he did talk about his wartime experiences, Garland said she discovered he had in his possession a picture from the war that was very different than those that filled the pages of his album — one painted with watercolor on a thin ivory sheet.
After the sinking of the Leopoldville, John and a few fellow soldiers came across a chateau in the French hillsides. Here, John stole a small portrait that he would carry with him during the war, eventually bringing it back home to Virginia.
Garland said she sensed her father felt guilty for taking the portrait all those years ago. With this feeling, Garland launched what became what she called an international story of grace and kindness.
In this self-defined “project of the heart,” Garland worked with friends and family to create the award-winning documentary. The team, her husband, herself and Dunbar, their longtime friend, shot the film primarily on iPads.
“It just became a family experience,” Garland said. “It went from, ‘Hey Dad, how about I do a story on you?’ to ‘This is a real story’ — one that I could make with reverence and honor for my dad, and all the forces of the universe came together to make it happen.”
John was able to return the portrait to the family whose home it was taken from through the investigatory work of Garland and her graduate students.
On the 77th anniversary of the bombings at Pearl Harbor, the College of Communication opened its doors to its first screening of the documentary, and to the man of the hour — John Waller.
After the screening, Garland introduced her father, who took questions from the crowd, buttoning his jacket each time he stood up.
Yasmine Jama, a junior in the College of Communication, watched the documentary and said she felt it was driven by the people in it.
“The story behind this was so universal,” Jama said. “Maybe it was because the characters were here with us, but I feel like even if not, even if they weren’t in the room, I felt connected to them.”