Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice

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Purple HeartBronze StarHarvey Riebe


Date and Place of Birth: October 10, 1921 Euclid, Ohio

Died: April 16, 2001 Euclid, Ohio

Baseball Experience: Major League
Rank: Sergeant
Military Unit:
Company K, 262nd Infantry Regiment, 66th Infantry Division US Army

Area Served: European Theater of Operations

Harvey RiebeOne of the most tragic and little-known events World War II occured on Christmas Eve 1944. The sinking, by a German submarine, of the troopship Leopoldville in the English Channel off Cherbourg, France, when 763 American soldiers of the 66th Infantry Division were killed. Detroit Tigers’ catcher, Harvey Riebe was there.

Harvey Riebe was born in Euclid, Ohio on October 10, 1921. He graduated from Euclid Shore High School in April 1939 and signed with the Detroit Tigers for a $250 bonus. By August 1940 he was hitting .348 with Muskegon (Michigan State League) and spent the remainder of the year with Henderson (East Texas League) where he hit .325. In 1942 Riebe was with Beaumont (Texas League) where he hit .274 and impressed onlookers with his rifle-arm behind the plate.

On August 12, he was called up by the Tigers and played 11 games before the season ended, batting .314 in 35 at-bats.

Riebe – 21 – entered military service with the Army in October 1942 and was stationed at Fort McClelland, Alabama. By 1944 he was in England with Company K, 262nd Infantry Regiment of the 66th Infantry Division.

On December 24, 1944, 2,235 men from the 66th Infantry Division embarked on board the Belgian troopship SS Leopoldville at Southampton, England for the journey across the English Channel to Cherbourg, France. A few minutes before 6:00PM, a German submarine, U-486, fired one torpedo that struck the Leopoldville on her starboard side. Even though the ship was only five nautical miles from Cherbourg, the Captain of the Leopoldville anchored his ship rather than try to make port. Her crew began to abandon ship while the troops of the 66th Infantry Division remained in the troop compartments not knowing that the ship was sinking.

At 8:30PM, the Leopoldville sank by the stern to the bottom of the English Channel. Riebe spent 45 minutes in the icy waters before being fished out by an English boat. However, many were not so fortunate. Seven hundred and sixty-three Americans lost their lives, including two minor league ballplayers Howard DeMartini (a pitcher in the Giants’ organization) and Leonard Berry (a pitcher with Charleston in the South Atlantic League).

Sergeant Riebe rejoined his unit after recovering from this traumatic ordeal. In early 1945, the 66th Infantry Division was assigned to do mop-up work against pockets of German resistance around St Nazaire and Lories. During that time he was awarded the Bronze Star and took a piece of shrapnel in the right shoulder, but walked to a field hospital where it was removed.

After the war ended, Riebe caught for his unit's team, they defeated several service teams in southern France and later won the championship of the 16th Corps. He listened to the Tigers win the 1945 World Series on Armed Forces Radio.  "Listening on the radio from a tent in France,” Harvey recollected, “I heard my Tigers win that World Series. It was great!"

Returning from the battlefields of Europe in 1946, Riebe spent the season with Dallas (Texas League) and was back with the Tigers in 1947 where he served as a backup to Bob Swift and Aaron Robinson.

Riebe stayed with the Tigers until 1949. He retired from professional baseball after spending the 1950 season with Toeldo in the American Association.

In 1951, Riebe became a purchasing agent for the Cleveland Brass and Copper Company and worked there until 1977.

Harvey Riebe - major league catcher, disaster survivor, Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient - passed away on April 16, 2001 in Euclid, Ohio. He was 79.

Thanks to Allan Andrade for help with this biography. For further information on the Leopoldville disaster visit Allan's Leopoldville Troopship Disaster Website at

Created November 22, 2007.

Copyright © 2007 Gary Bedingfield (Baseball in Wartime). All Rights Reserved.