Editor's Note: The following story was originally published, May 22, 2007.
Located at the center of the Washington State University campus is the WSU Veterans Memorial. On the memorial are engraved the names of Washington State students, faculty, and staff who served their country in violent conflicts that took place far from the peace and tranquility of the Palouse. Each name represents a life sacrificed either in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, or the Global War on Terrorism.
Behind each name is a story. All had an association with Washington State Athletics in some manner. The series is dedicated to each name on the memorial, and to their stories. To access the entire series click HERE
Part III: Hero is a word that is often overused, especially in the athletic arena. In the case of Ira "Chris" Rumburg, it is an understatement. This is his extraordinary story.
The Epitome of Courage
By Jason Krump
Lieutenant Colonel Ira "Chris" Rumburg was not the only graduate from Washington State College to fight, and die, in World War II.
His story is just one of the 238 stories that rest behind the names on the WSU Veterans Memorial; one story behind the 405,399 names of individuals from the military who died for the United States in World War II.
Innumerable lives were saved due to the sacrifice of those 405,399 individuals. An exact number of how many lives were saved by Lt. Col. Rumburg is not known, but that is not relevant. What is relevant, and what is known, is that Lt. Col. Rumburg saved countless lives, which ultimately resulted in the loss of his own, on Christmas Eve 1944, in the frigid waters of the English Channel.
How ironic then, that, in his most heroic hour, Lt. Col. Rumburg's valiant deeds went untold for years due to the fact that the circumstances leading to it were deemed a national embarrassment by the Allied Forces.
It is an account that can be communicated an infinite number of times, for the lessons learned from Ira C. Rumburg's life teach us what true heroism is.
Days at Washington State
Rumburg arrived at the Washington State College campus in 1934, a local product from West Valley High School in Spokane.
Listed as 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, on the 1937 football roster, Rumburg's traits, which were responsible for saving so many lives on that 1944 Christmas Eve, were in evidence at WSC.
Rumburg worked his way in to the starting center position, and, even at this stage of his life, Rumburg's leadership skills became evident both on and off the field. His teammates elected him captain of the team in his senior season and Rumburg was also president of the student body.
Football not only provided a glimpse of Rumburg's leadership but also his toughness. Injuries plagued Rumburg throughout his senior season, but he would overcome them to see action on the field. For instance, prior to the Cougars' game against Gonzaga, Rumburg's bruised back had kept him out of practice the week of the game, but he still would start.
Rumburg's confidence matched his toughness. In the days leading up to a showdown with UCLA, Rumburg was quoted in the school's newspaper, The Daily Evergreen, as saying that the Bruin congregation was "not so tough." WSC went on to defeat UCLA 3-0 later that week.
Try as he might to do otherwise, a leg injury suffered against Oregon sidelined Rumburg for the season's final two games (Stanford and Oregon State).
In the Nov. 22, 1937 edition of the Evergreen, a tribute by writer Lloyd Salt ran in the editorial page along with a photo of Rumburg. In the editorial, Salt wrote:
Chris Rumburg had his role cut short. An old shinbone injury was aggravated and Chris was put out for the rest of the season. Along with being the sparkplug and part time captain of the Cougar eleven, Chris is president of the ASSCW (Associated Students of the State College of Washington). All in all, he is an All-American to his teammates and those who know him.
In addition to his football exploits, Rumburg also starred as a heavyweight wrestler, earning three letters and capturing the Northern Division title in that weight class during his time at WSC.
As busy as Rumburg was in athletic competition, he was just as active when he stepped away from the athletic arena.
In January 1938, the original Butch (the school mascot was a live cougar) died and Rumburg, as student body president, played an active role in the acquiring of a new cougar to replace Butch.
"We'll get a cougar if we have to organize an expedition ourselves," he said.
In this effort, Rumburg organized a sale of tags (at 10 cents each), bearing the likeness of the original Butch, to help fund a cage for the new Butch to live in. The school found its replacements when Governor Clarence Martin secured two cougar kittens.
In March, Rumburg had a role in the play "Accent of Youth." The Evergreen described Rumburg's role of "Dickie" as a dashing young movie hero.
More than six years later, Rumburg would once again play the role of hero, this time in real life.
World War II and the Leopoldville
"Words are inadequate in describing the courage and bravery displayed by Colonel Rumburg." - Captain Howard C. Orr
"I have heard about a lot of acts of courage during the war ... but none greater than this." - Captain Bob Campbell
"Knowing that one hundred or so would live for another Christmas, his wit might well have prompted him to say, `I am a Santa Claus.' Truly he was a man who exemplified that day in deeds in `Good will towards men.' " - Chief of Staff John Keating
Christmas Eve 1944. Lieutenant Colonel Chris Rumburg was assigned to the 1st Battalion, Headquarters & Headquarters Company, 264th Regiment, 66th Infantry Division. Rumburg, along with 2,234 other men from the division, boarded a transport ship, the Leopoldville (Leo-pold-ville), which was to take them from Southampton, England to Cherbourg, France.
Rumburg's military life came to this place, at this time, after having its beginning at Washington State. He achieved the rank of cadet lieutenant colonel and battalion commander in the Army ROTC program. The transition from college life to the military occurred when Rumburg, on the same day that he received his college degree, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army.
Rumburg's initial duty was at the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation in California, followed by command training in England. He returned to the states as an infantry instructor, training soldiers in preparation for the invasion of Europe.
It was a continent Rumburg would soon return to as well.
With the invasion of Europe occurring, D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Allied Nations gained a foothold on the continent and over the summer were making headway toward Germany as winter approached.
With the prospect of defeat making an unrelenting march toward the country, Germany would make one final stand when it launched an offensive attack on the Allied Forces, Dec. 16, 1944, which came to be known as the "Battle of the Bulge."
This was the setting for Rumburg and the 66th Infantry as they boarded the Leopoldville to serve as reinforcements for that epic battle.
The ship never reached its destination.
At 1755 hours, just five and a half miles from its destination, the Leopoldville was hit by a torpedo from a German U-Boat that slammed into the starboard side of the ship. The torpedo's impact was immediate and catastrophic. Compartments below began to flood and stairways leading to higher decks had been blown away. In just two and a half hours, the ship would rest at the bottom of the English Channel.
These hours proved to be Rumburg's final, but they would also be his finest.
In the numerous accounts documenting of what transpired during the chaos of that Christmas Eve, one thing was consistent, and that was the heroism displayed by Rumburg.
A portion of Captain Howard Orr's account states:
As we crawled out of the debris to an opening approximately three feet in diameter, we met Lt. Col. Rumburg of the 264th Infantry who inquired as to the situation below. During the hurried description, a voice was heard coming from "E" Deck through a gaping hole in the debris to our right. Almost simultaneously we called for ropes. At the same time, we flashed our lights down into the churning water approximately four to eight feet below. The level of the water changed as the water washed through the hole made by the torpedo. We could hear the voice but were unable to pick him up with our lights.
Before any decision could be spoken, Colonel Rumburg had removed his coat and dropped through the debris in the water below and swam as best he could to the soldier, pulling him from the debris. He dragged him to a position below the opening. By this time ropes had been brought and were lowered to the colonel. Before we could employ the use of the rope, water washed him and the soldier up to within a foot of the opening, causing the solider to strike his head against a ragged piece of bulkhead, knocking him unconscious and out of the colonel's control.
Rumburg again tried to find him but was too numb to sustain himself, let alone try to find anyone else. I should say that by this time Rumburg had been in the water 15 minutes or more. A rope noose was lowered about the colonel and after six or eight attempts, he was finally lifted from the water; however, in order to accomplish his release we were forced to twist and bend his body until he was almost unconscious. Also, the rope was small and as we pulled, it would cut into his waist, cutting off circulation and making breathing very difficult. When Colonel Rumburg was finally lifted from the hold, he was passed up the line and then taken to the infirmary.
Words are inadequate in describing the courage and bravery displayed by Colonel Rumburg.
Second Lieutenant Rowdney Boudwin gave a similar account:
Colonel Rumburg, who had arrived shortly after the explosion, heard a man plead for help from the deck below...the colonel ordered that a rope be tied about his waist so that he could go in through the rushing incoming water to pick up the man and bring him to a hole torn in the floor so that he could be pulled out. The colonel lowered himself through the jagged edges of the steel floor and made his way to the man. After a few moments, the colonel shouted to be pulled back. When the colonel reached the opening, he tried to (push) the man up and through the hole but the water rushing in and up smashed the man's head against the floor and knocked him unconscious. When this happened, the man became dead weight, too heavy for the colonel to hold and the man was washed from the colonel's arms.
In a letter to Chris' wife, Naomi, dated January 27, 1945, Chief-of-Staff John Keating said of Lt. Col. Rumburg:
He worked for more than two and one half hours extricating trapped men from wreckage and leading others to safety they could not find for themselves. Every ounce of his enormous strength, which had become a legend among us, was expended in those trying hours. Those who were there tell of seeing him several times carrying two men at one time to safety. He initially suffered a hand wound and during his repeated acts of bravery, he received a blow to his head. This, his loss of blood, together with exhaustion, weakened him to the point where he could no longer help himself.
The hand wound Keating refers to was actually the loss of two of Rumburg's fingers, according to a letter from Captain Bob Campbell to WSC Athletic Director J. Fred `Doc' Bohler dated August 9, 1945.
"Words are inadequate in describing the courage and bravery displayed by Colonel Rumburg."
Captain Howard C. Orr
Campbell joined Rumburg's division after the Leopoldville disaster. His letter to Bohler is a description repeating the account of Rumburg's heroism from an officer who was at the scene.
A portion of the letter states:
Not long after he let himself down in the hold, a timber fell across his hand, cutting off two fingers. Chris refused first aid and went right on lifting men to the top deck. After he had all the men out that were still alive, he climbed to the top deck himself. One of his men was about to enter the water without his `Mae West.' So Chris took his off and gave it to him. Chris then jumped in the water and swam around getting his men to the rafts and seeing that they stayed calm. He found one fellow that was having trouble getting to the raft. So he helped him to the raft and helped shove him on. Then after using up all the great strength that God gave him, his hand slipped form the side of the raft and sank from sight. I have heard about a lot of acts of courage during this war, Doc, but none greater than this.
Rumburg's body was never found. In the end, he was one of 763 American soldiers who perished. It was the worst tragedy as a result of an enemy submarine attack to an American Infantry Division.
Rumburg's deeds occurred during an incident that Leopoldville biographer Allan Andrade described as an "embarrassment to all of the governments concerned."
The disaster was magnified by a combination of errors that increased the scope of the tragedy.
"It was Murphy's Law, whatever can go wrong, goes wrong," said Andrade, who authored the 1997 book S.S. Leopoldville Disaster: December 24, 1944 and whose research findings on the tragedy can be found on the History Channel website. "This is what was happening that night. All of these things put together contributed to the tremendous loss of life."
Some of "these things" include, as Andrade writes: "There was no air cover for the Leopoldville despite the high threat of German submarine attack. With the Leopoldville stricken, it was ordered that the ship's anchor be dropped to prevent the possibility of it drifting into a minefield. While this solved that possibility, the dropped anchor prevented any chance of the ship being towed to safety. The fact that it was Christmas Eve did not help either, as serviceman at the base in Cherbourg, who could have assisted in the rescue effort, were taking the night off to observe the holiday. This combination, along with the heavy seas and its freezing temperatures, were just a few of the many things that sealed the soldiers' fates."
"The whole thing was an embarrassment to all of the governments concerned," Andrade said.
Andrade writes that because of wartime censorship and to cover-up the mistakes made by the various governments and officials involved, the disaster was not reported to the news media. Survivors were told by the British and American governments to keep quiet.
"In 1946 Congress wanted to have an investigation and the British stonewalled and denied access to records for 50 years," said Andrade, who writes that relatives of the victims received notices that their loved ones were Missing in Action even though the U.S. War Department knew them all to have perished.
The March 7, 1945 edition of the Spokane Chronicle published a story titled, "Lt. Col. Rumburg Reported Lost." The paper reported that Rumburg was lost according to word received from the war department and is officially listed as missing in action.
The article went on to say that Lt. Col. Rumburg played a hero's role in the tragic sinking that is borne out in letters from fellow officers. One, from Gen. Herman F. Kramer, said "The memory of his deeds will remain long in the minds of scores of men he succeeded in saving from a similar fate."
Another passage from a letter by Col. James Hamilton said: "All reports substantiate that his actions resulted in the saving the lives of many men in the division."
It was Keating, in his letter to Naomi, who was specific in the number of men's lives Rumburg was responsible for saving.
"Had he chosen he might have directed the work of rescue from a point of comparative safety but he chose to act in the way he knew was best," Keating wrote in his letter to Naomi. "You can be sure that his life was not a useless sacrifice. In fact, as a result of his bravery the lives of at least one hundred soldiers were spared."
Rumburg was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his heroism, and his name is inscribed on the Leopoldville Disaster Monument at Ft. Benning, Columbus, Georgia.
"To his men and the lives of other men in the Division he is now a monumental inspiration and he will continue to live in the hearts and minds of each on of us. I doubt there ever will be a gathering of men in the Division where reverence will not be paid to him," Keating wrote.
"Show me a hero and I'll show you a tragedy"
The Jan. 5, 1967 edition of the Spokesman-Review contained an article titled "Memorial Scholarship Begun for Hero Chris Rumburg."
An editor's note at the top of the story stated that Robert Neilson, former WSU wrestling coach, was named chairman of a statewide committee to establish the "Chris Rumburg Memorial Fund." The fund was designed to award wrestling scholarships and to finance travel for WSU wrestlers.
The majority of the space, however, was devoted to an article written by John McCallum, an acquaintance of Rumburg.
Near the end of his piece, McCallum said "F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: `Show me a hero - and I'll show you a tragedy.' The tragedy in the life of Chris Rumburg is that he died too soon."
The fund officially came to be, June 26, 1974, when a release from the WSU Athletic News Service announced the establishment of the "Chris Rumburg Memorial Fund." When wrestling ended at WSU in 1986, so, in essence, did the fund. Today, the fund has no balance and is considered closed.
However, as fitting as it is for Rumburg to have an endowment established in his honor, Rumburg's life does not need a fund in order to validate his heroism.
It may be impossible to absolutely quantify the positive significance of Rumburg's life. Perhaps it can be measured each time the Cougar football team steps foot on the field, or when the WSU student leadership gathers for its weekly meetings, or when the ROTC conducts its morning training sessions.
Or maybe it is realized from the contributions made by the 100 souls, and their future generations, which he saved on that Christmas Eve in 1944.
Copyright 2007, Washington State University Athletics
Note: The author would like to extend a special thanks to Leopoldville historian Allan Andrade for providing the first-hand accounts from Captain Howard Orr and Second Lieutenant Rowdney Boudwin, and for his assistance with this piece.