On Memorial Day, remember this World War II hero: Chris Rumburg, captain of the 1937 Cougs

FOR CRIMSON old timers and Cougar historians, the news earlier this month that speedster Rodrick Fisher had verbally committed to play football for the Cougars resurrected the name of one of the most remarkable men ever to wear a Washington State uniform.

Fisher, you see, is from the Spokane Valley. While the four high schools there — East Valley, West Valley, Central Valley and University — have produced some notable Cougs over the years, the pipeline hasn’t runneth over. Especially so for the two smaller schools, East and West Valley.

So when you put East or West in the same sentence with WSU, all synapses for students of crimson sports history instantly point to Chris Rumburg.

On this Memorial Day — two days after Fisher, the Pride of East Valley, blazed to state 2A titles in the 100- and 200 meters —  it’s only natural to revisit the life and legend of Rumburg.

The West Valley product was a two-way standout for the Cougars in the 1930s, playing linebacker and center and captaining the 1937 squad. He also was student body president, a champion on the wrestling team and battalion commander in the Army ROTC.

But those are footnotes to his enduring identity. Memorial Day was established to honor the men and women of the nation who died serving their country. 

And Rumburg served in truly heroic fashion.

The full measure of his life and his devotion was chronicled by Jason Krump, the outstanding communications director of the Cougar Athletic Fund, in this 2007 story.

On Christmas Eve 1944, Lt. Col. Rumburg and 2,234 other members of the 66th Infantry Division boarded the transport ship Leopoldville in Southampton, England. They were headed to France to join the Allied effort against Germany’s last-gasp offensive in the Battle of the Bulge.

Writes Krump:

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.

Krump details every heroic moment of Rumburg’s final hours as he, despite his own wounds, worked to free men from the wreckage. Before jumping into the water to help hoist the injured into lifeboats, he took off his life vest and gave it to one of his men without one.

"Words are inadequate in describing the courage and bravery displayed by Colonel Rumburg," wrote Captain Howard Orr.

In the end, the old Cougar was too weak to hang onto a life raft and disappeared into the frigid deep. Rumburg’s body was never found. He was one of 763 U.S. soldiers who perished, marking the worst tragedy as a result of an enemy submarine attack to an American Infantry Division.

The full, remarkable story can be found here.

Leopoldville Troopship Disaster Memorial at Fort Benning

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