Today, on the eve of Veterans Day, I am pleased to share this WWII story about a local WWII soldier, Sgt. Lowell Sell.
A big thank you to Dr. Jerry and Connie Sell for sharing this story that involved Jerry’s uncle Lowell Sell in January 1945, shortly after Lowell arrived in France to begin his service in the war.
Lowell Sell told the story to his brother Paul and Paul wrote the narrative in 1999.
Four Sell brothers grew up on 707 south of Rockford. Three of the Sell brothers, Lowell, Paul, and Carl, and their cousin Otis “Leroy” Sell, all served in WWII.
In addition to Lowell Sell’s story, their cousin Leroy’s father, Charles Dillon Sell, wrote a poem about sixteen Rockford-area men who served in WWII. His poem, The Otterbein Sixteen, appears here, after Lowell’s story. Otterbein United Brethren in Christ Church, aka Stringtown United Brethren Church, was located on State Route 707, about a mile east of State Route 118, south of Rockford.
A STORY OF WORLD WAR TWO
This is an account written for my brother that took place when he landed in France during WW2. He told it to me and also presented a report that had been written in recent years to substantiate the occasion. This is HIS STORY and a story of the US Army, that they have been so reluctant to tell.
–Paul Sell, Bluffton Indiana, 1999
For my children and grandchildren…This is a story that should have been told and written many years ago, but it was only in recent times that research and investigation brought forth the facts. I have entitled it simply
ONE DAY IN MY LIFE
(Sgt) Lowell Sell
Have you ever heard the longing mournful howl of the wolf or the lonesome cry of a loon down along the lake shore late at night? Well, I was listening somberly to the slow-wailing, nearly monotone whistle of a creeping shaking troop train, some place in France, one day when World War II was raging. It was a lonesome sound and I was thinking of home—far away in Ohio. The sound of the whistle echoed and reechoed along the hills, valleys and villages as we passed through them slowly. It was blowed for a warning to those along the tracks, but little did we realize the danger that was before us, or we too, would have reacted to this cry of warning.
The long day had started as we disembarked from our ship, the S.S. Henry Gibbons, at the French port of LeHavre. We had just crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a convoy on this troop carrier. We had departed from the East Coast on New Years Day in 1945. Our destination was a tent city near the French coast, known as Lucky Strike. This was to be a staging area to reorganize our troops and equipment for further military action. The United States Forces were firmly committed to the battle plans that had been escalated since its beginning on D-Day, in June of 1944. Our group was a vital part to that commitment.
After many tedious hours of off-loading and marching through the war-ravaged town of LeHavre, to a decrepit train station that had been bombed out, it was about 11 p.m. before we were able to climb on board those old, rickety, wooden rail cars that were known as 40 by 8. The night was as dark as ink except for the occasional lights from our G.I. flashlights. At first, the group of men that I was responsible for, (the Fourth Squad) sat in scattered areas of the car, in an attempt to find a comfortable place to rest. Soon, however, a larger group of men from a tank division began to join us. As a result, I called our men together and we moved to a forward position of the car. Little did I realize it but that move saved our lives from the tragedy that was ahead of us.
Hundreds of men clambered on those old cars of the French Railway, with some even sitting on the tops of the cars. Others were seated along the sides in the open doorways. The entire train was overloaded and crowded, but the journey was not long. We should be arriving at Lucky Strike on schedule the next day. There was no room to relax or to get a few minutes of sleep.
Much of the night was spent getting the train out of the mostly destroyed railroad yard which had been heavily bombed and destroyed tracks were scattered about and not very usable. We had heard that General Patton was in desperate need for replacements due to recent heavy losses, as the Battle of the Bulge was winding up. He had sent a Colonel to the port of LeHavre to meet a tank replacement company that was vitally needed at the front lines, and they were on our train. Initially, the train crew refused to drive this train as it was in poor repair. The brakes were worn out. The engine had no acceleration gauge or speedometer, as well as other undependable items of equipment. However, the Colonel ordered-at gunpoint-the French crew to get the train underway. Additionally, the relief crew was not familiar with the route or knowledgeable about the long descent of the track at the end of the route.
During the night the train stopped and started several times. When it was moving, the old cars squeaked and squawked as it crept slowly down the tracks. The journey was about fifty miles and it took over eight hours to cover the distance. We knew that we would reach the end of the rails at the resort town of St. Valery. Our camp would be only a short distance away-just a few miles.
It was shortly after our last stop, when the original train crew changed places with the relief crew onboard, that we noted our speed was slowly increasing. We thought that was a good idea. Previously our speed had been around 10 mph on the level, but now with more speed, the cars were beginning to sway dangerously. On occasion we could feel the wheels rise off the tracks, bouncing along. The train was now going down a long slope that was many miles long. It seemed that the brakes were being applied by the train crew, but we soon realized they were not working. Our speed increased to 30 mph, then to 40, then 50, and by that time the train was completely out of control! An accident was inevitable and the continuous whistle sounded a warning to all. Those of us inside the cars could see men either falling or jumping off the tops of the cars where they had been riding. Did they see danger ahead? We felt the approach of a disaster and we were all trapped!
The train sped faster and faster! The engineer blew the whistle frantically, as if that would help slow the train. We could see bystanders along the railway waving and shouting, but we could not understand. They seemed to know something that we did not. The train tracks ended abruptly just ahead, but few on board realized it!
In a moment’s time, that seemed to stand still, the engine crashed through the barricade at the end and plowed ahead into the brick station house, crushing through the building and emerging out on the other side, its momentum and the force of several dozen cars behind, had propelled it forcibly onward. The tender car next to the engine however, broke through the station house floor and fell into a basement under the building and quarter of the station master, that was a portion of the building.
As a result, the first car behind the tender broke loose and piled on top of it. The train crewmen who had been resting in the tender were forcibly propelled forward and their lives were saved from being crushed. When they first realized the danger that was before them, they wrapped mattresses from their bunks around themselves. This action protected them from serious injury.
In the meantime, each of the succeeding cars were tossed upwards, some high enough to reach the top of the station house. Train cars piled up like dominoes. The front ends of many cars crushed the rear portions of the cars ahead. Many soldiers were immediately killed, crushed and wounded. Others, who had been sitting in the doorways, were cut in two by the huge sliding doors that were slammed shut when the cars suddenly stopped.
I was thankful that my group was huddled together in the forward portion of our car as it had been forced up and over the car ahead and we came to rest on the top of the other, crushing it and the men below. The rear half of our car was unrecognizable-nothing remained but splintered timbers and broken and mutilated bodies of those who had been passengers with us, inasmuch as they in turn had been crushed by the following car.
A deathly silence covered the area. Then there were cries for help coming feebly from the wounded and trapped scattered among the dozen or more of wrecked and crumbled cars. We carefully climbed down and through the wreckage in an attempt to find and join the rest of our Company. The living among us tried to help the wounded. Before long a group of nurses and medics arrived from the Lucky Strike camp. They had just arrived also the same day at the camp by a truck convoy from our ship. They came promptly and did their best to help the wounded and dying, but, alas, their equipment and supplies were still on the ship in the harbor in the process of being unloaded.
When my men and I were able to leave the area of our wrecked car I went to search for an acquaintance, Robert Lugenbill, who was in a Supply Company. His hometown was Decatur, Indiana, near my home area. He, in turn, was looking for me. Fortunately, he had been riding near the end of the train where some of the cars suffered no damage and had not derailed. We were thankful to find each other during this time of tragedy and confusion.
Eventually, other military personnel arrived from the base camp and the MPs cordoned off the area and the rescue work continued. The MPs soon took away any cameras found among us and would not allow any photographs of the accident. Photos that have been found later of the scene had been taken by the local residents of the village from their upstairs windows of their homes that were nearby.
Scores of men were instantly killed and many more were maimed and seriously wounded-all on the first day of our arrival in Europe. Details of this train wreck were kept secret for many years and little information had been kept on file by the Army. At the time, it was understandable that this news would have been a morale booster to the German army nearby, as the Battle of the Bulge was being consummated. Apparently, the need of additional tank corps was required in this endeavor, and it was urgent that they had to be transported on this train.
It was quite late when we eventually reached our destination and got our assignment. By this time we had gone two days with scarcely any food or sleep and the food now offered tasted good. I felt very grateful and lucky to have survived this experience. Even before we had disembarked from the Henry Gibbons in the harbor, another ship had cut in front of us to get into position first to unload. In a quick moment it struck a submerged mine in the harbor and blew up in front of us. There did not appear to be any survivors as it sank almost immediately. It could well have been our ship instead!
I feel that Divine Protection had accompanied me and my group and the words of the poem written by my Uncle Dillon mean more and more each day. I will conclude this story by sharing with you his poem entitled:
THE OTTERBEIN SIXTEEN
by C. Dillon Sell
When the cruel tyrant, Hitler, menaced freedom in our land,
When he had a goodly portion of the earth within his hand,
There was a force he had not reckoned-a force to him was unforeseen,
That Force was the God of Heaven–and THE OTTERBEIN SIXTEEN.
Sixteen boys from Otterbein, all strong and true and brave,
Were called to don a uniform and sail across the wave.
While our enemy was lurking in his hidden submarine,
But God of Love was with them—with THE OTTERBEIN SIXTEEN.
When our boys were called to leave us, to defend our country fair,
Then we prayed to God of Heaven, with a heart of Fervent Prayer.
Altho many miles from us, with the ocean, wide, between,
We had faith in God of Heaven and THE OTTERBEIN SIXTEEN.
We did not ask a path of roses for our boys beyond the foam,
Not a place for sweet reposes, but that he bring them safely home,
That he protect them while on duty-that he keep them pure, serene,
That the world might see His beauty in THE OTTERBEIN SIXTEEN.
So, our boys were widely scattered, sent to many a foreign land.
There they turned the tide of battle-there they stayed the tyrant’s hand.
And our prayers have all been answered because to this our Lord hath seen,
That NO ONE was killed or wounded of THE OTTERBEIN SIXTEEN.
We know God’s hand was o’er them–we trusted in His care.
As we petitioned for them, as we knelt in Fervent Prayer,
We know God’s love abounded, who else could intervene,
That NOT ONE be killed or wounded of THE OTTERBEIN SIXTEEN!
The 16 service men, THE Otterbein Sixteen, were: Clifford Beougher, Charles Berry, Ned Berry, Bill Book, Rea Book, Russell Book, Albert Clutter, Lowell Deitsch, Jacob Koeppel, Harold Leighner, Carl Sell, Leroy Sell, Lowell Sell, Paul Sell, Henry Warthman, and Bud Williams. [end of story and poem]
This is Lowell Sell’s 1938 Rockford High School yearbook photo (Ancestry.com photo):
Tragically, 89 soldiers were killed and 152 injured when Troop Train 2890 wrecked at St. Valery-en-Caux, France, on 17 January 1945.
I found a couple on-line accounts of this troop train accident, the stories of other survivors. Sgt Lowell Sell is mentioned several times in the recollections of Russell C. Eustice, who was also on the train.  Links to two other online articles about the wreck are below.   The last link includes a photo of the wreck, probably taken by a French resident there.
Sgt. Lowell D. Sell (1923-2011) served in the 1471 Engineering Maintenance Co. His brothers Carl A. Sell (1917-2003) and Paul I. Sell (1926-2014) also served in WWII, as did their cousin Otis “Leroy” Sell (1916-1968).
This Veterans Day, thank you to all veterans for your service!
Thank a veteran today!
And we thankfully and fondly remember those veterans who are no longer with us.
 Russell C. Eustice Recalls the Troop Train 2980 Tragedy at St. Valery-en-Caux During World War II; Historynet.com, viewed 9 Nov 2023.
 Area Soldier Survived World War II Train Disaster, by Bill Jones, 2008; The Tribune Democrat, tribdem.com, e-paper, Johnstown, PA, viewed 9 Nov 2023.
 Troop Train 2980 Wreck at St. Valery-en-caux 17 Jan 1945; Gunboards.com, viewed 9 Nov 2023.