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Love letters across the battlefield

Washington resident reflects on World War II experiences, falling in love while the world was at war

Union photo by Gretchen Teske

Carroll Steinbeck, a 95-year-old Rubio resident, gave a presentation on his time in World War II on Sunday, Nov. 17.
Union photo by Gretchen Teske Carroll Steinbeck, a 95-year-old Rubio resident, gave a presentation on his time in World War II on Sunday, Nov. 17.
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WASHINGTON — Brown leather boots were laced up midcalf with green army fatigues tucked in. The green tie expertly knotted and the matching jacket was buttoned up and had patches stitched into the shoulders, like stamps that marked where it had been. It was worn by Carroll Steinbeck, 95, of Rubio, who in 1944 served in England during World War II.

Steinbeck relayed his memories and experiences to a crowd at Art Domestique on Sunday, Nov. 17. Born in Rubio in 1923, Steinbeck was a junior at Richland High School when Pearl Harbor was bombed. After graduating, he went on to the University of Iowa and enlisted in the reserve corps with his brother.

“I got to wave at my brother as we left. I didn’t see him again for three-and-a-half years,” he said.

His first stop was Camp Roberts in California for basic training and after multiple stops ended up in Alabama. On Nov. 15, he left New York on the US Washington and took off for England.

“My company was assigned to guard the compartment doors over the ship. I was unlucky enough to draw the one right next to the latrine, Everyone was getting sick and they were running by me. I made it two days before I got sick,” he said.

On his 21st birthday, Nov. 27, he finally found land. However, his stay in England did not last long.

“We we’re getting ready for Christmas dinner and they had the food laid down on the table when we got the notice the Battle of the Bulge had started,” he said. Steinbeck said he and his fellow soldiers left the food on the table in their haste to get to South Hampton.

The plan from there was to board the SS Léopoldville, but after a mix up he ended up on different ship. It turned out to be a life saving mix up when at 5:56 p.m. that evening a torpedo struck the SS Léopoldville and killed 350 instantly.

“This is where the tragedy started,” he said, explaining the whole ship went under in less than two-and-a-half hours because nobody informed the soldiers on shore about what was happening. Rescue ships were eventually able to make it out, but he said 802 soldiers lost their lives that night.

Later that year, on New Year’s Eve, he was sent to Saint-Nazaire, France, where 28,000 German troops awaited them on the English Channel. Steinbeck’s job was to work with mortars, weapon that was fired by dropping a shell into a tube and aiming it in a specific direction.

The entire time he was in Saint-Nazaire, he did not have a bed to sleep in, only a sleeping bag. With no plumbing either Steinbeck said he had not had a bath in four months, but one day he and two other soldiers found a large cooking kettle and carried it down to a creek. They filled it with water and lit a bonfire underneath.

“That was the first bath we had in quite a while,” he said.

Steinbeck said when he was finally able to come home on leave and upon being back in Iowa, went on a picnic double date with a couple of friends. He got paired off with Evelyn Burton and it was love at first site. He went back overseas, but the pair sent letters back and forth.

“After the war ended I knew I was going to survive (so) I proposed to her by mail,” he said, explaining she accepted and 20 days later they were married. “We had one date before we were married but that one date lasted 56 years,” he said.

After Evelyn passed away, Steinbeck said he got a letter from his high school girlfriend, Kay. She was living in California and invited him out. After flying out a few times he was able to convince her to come back to Rubio where they spent 10 years together.

“I had two good love stories,” he said.