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Robert K. Steunenberg-WWII veteran on LST 808 and distinguished scientist

Cables tell tale of WWII attack on Naperville ensign's ship

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Cables tell tale of WWII attack on Naperville ensign's ship

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Robert K. Steunenberg
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Monday, August 11, 2008 Robert K. Steunenberg-WWII veteran on LST 808 and distinguished scientist

I typically try to keep the items on this blog related in some way to Governor Steunenberg, the Haywood trial and/or that period in history. I don't go a lot into other generations of our family as I know that may not be of interest to everyone. I am going to make an exception in this instance as I want to share a recent article about Robert K. Steunenberg and Landing Ship, Tank (LST) 808 on which he served during the war in the pacific. Robert was the son of Ancil and Lorraine Steunenberg and his grandfather was A.K. Steunenberg, brother of Governor Frank Steunenberg. Robert died about six years ago and is survived by his wife Jean. Picture to the right is from College of Idaho 1891 - 1991: A Centennial History by Louie W. Attebery.

I receive automatic notifications through Google regarding anything that appears on the web related to "Steunenberg." Hence, I received notification of the article below and got in touch with the author, Bill Mego. Bill it turns out was Robert's long time friend and neighbor.

We have tried to obtain information about papers and belongings of Robert and wife Jean in the hope of preserving items that might be of historical and personal family interest. Unfortunately, they did not have any children and it appears the attorney in charge of their estate has merely focused on its sale and disposal. Sad indeed.

Interestingly, at the same time I discovered this article, I had run across Robert's copy of That Man Boone (with his personal nameplate) on eBay. The book is about the life of William Judson Boone, founder and president of the College of Idaho from where Robert graduated in 1947. The seller was from the same general area of Chicago near Naperville and Argonne National laboratory where Robert was employed for many years as a scientist. Fortunately I was able to at least acquire that one item and it will be heading for the College of Idaho archives. The seller, once I identified my connection, has not been particularly forthright with other information.

Robert played the cello and Jean the piano. According to Bob Mego, those items were sold off. Bob also shared the following information: "Bob was a friend and neighbor of mine for more than 30 years. He was a chemist with the Chemical Engineering Division at Argonne National Laboratory. His notebooks, which are thought to be the most meticulous works of their kind, remain at Argonne." "Jean was very active in the local Republican politics. Bob served on the Park Board, in several community organizations, and produced shows for our local television station NCTV."

Their Steunenberg china was to be passed on to other kinfolk but its disposition is unknown. Inquiries to the attorney handing the estate have gone unanswered.

With the information about Robert and his having served as an Ensign on LST 808, I have done a little research and included additional links at the bottom of this entry. I added the two pictures of the ship from the referenced websites.

(The title below is linked to the Naperville Sun where you can view the online article. I have included the full text below as the author tells me it will disappear off the site after a few weeks).


Cables tell tale of WWI attack on Naperville ensign’s ship

by Bill Mego, Naperville Sun

July 31, 2008

On the evening of May 19, 1945, the tank landing ship LST 808 was anchored at Ie Shima, the island on which a sniper had killed famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle. It was midway through Operation Iceberg, the battle of Okinawa, and the ship was supposedly hidden in a man-made fog of oil smoke. However, the joke was that the letters LST stood for Large Slow Target.

The 327-foot ship had previously served at the foot of Mount Suribachi, on Iwo Jima. She carried seven officers and a crew of 204. The communications officer was Ensign Robert K. Steunenburg, who would later become a Naperville resident and one of Argonne National Laboratory's finest scientists.

At 2207 hours, the LST 808's engine room was hit by a torpedo from a low flying plane. The enormous concussion opened a five-foot hole in the hull, instantly killing the five men in the engine room and filling the air with the smell of sulfur.

From the gray-painted communications room the following cable was sent: CROWBAR 808 THIS ANCHORAGE HAS RECEIVED HIT X ENGINE ROOM DAMAGED Then another: WE HAVE 6 FEET OF WATER IN TANK DECK An order to assist went out and was answered. BRAINWAVE WE ARE STANDING BY TO ASSIST CROWBAR 808.

Aboard LST 808, nothing but the radio was functioning, not even the pumps. They sent: REQUEST 1 OR 2 TUGS TO BEACH US X DO NOT KNOW IF WE CAN STAY AFLOAT ALL NIGHT Command sent: DO NOT WISH TO ENDANGER THE TUGS NEAR THE REEF X SEND TWO LSTS TO DO THE PUSHING JOB AND GET CREW OFF FOR NIGHT X EXPEDITE

But assisting was difficult. BRAINWAVE IMPOSSIBLE TO BEACH CROWBAR 808 IN THIS SMOKE WE HAVE GONE AGROUND ONCE. But the ship soon got free and went, with another LST, to beach the 808, which was now listing dangerously. CROWBAR 808 SLIP UP ANCHOR X BACKDOOR WILL ASSIST TO BEACH

Most of the crew was off the ship by 0300, and the salvage officers began the task of removing everything valuable or secret. A security detail of five was on the ship when, at 1837 hours on May 20, a kamikaze from the 50th Shinbu Squadron at Chiran Air Base flew his Hayabusa fighter plane into the forward superstructure and crashed all the way down to the tank deck. None of the men on board the ship were badly hurt.

Just another day in paradise. The final toll was 17 dead and 11 wounded.

Doctor Robert Steunenberg survived the war and went on to devote his energies to science and the community in which he became highly respected. As far as I know, he talked about the LST 808 only at the crew's annual reunion.

Bob had no children. After he died, and his wife had grown ill, men in charge of his estate came to his home and told his wife's live-in caregiver that she had one hour to leave. Then they admitted his wife, involuntarily, into a nursing home.

They are now in the process of selling Bob and his wife's possessions and the home that they loved so much. One of them sold me a plastic bag of my friend Bob's papers for $20.

And that, I guess, is how life ends for an American hero.

Bill Mego's column is published each Thursday. Contact him at bill.mego@sbcglobal.net.

(Bill, thank you for your kind article and correspondence regarding Robert. Lets remain in touch, John)

Links related to LST 808

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships

Ships of the U.S. Navy, 1940-1945 - USS LST-808

NavSource Online: Amphibious Photo Archive - LST 808

Kamikaze, the Ultimate Sacrifice

WWII-LST 808

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