Letters from Laurie: Somewhere in Europe
Lawrence E. Steinke, aka "Laurie"
Timeline of Lawrence Steinke's letters
Lawrence Ernest Steinke (his family called him Laurie) was almost 16 years old when German dictator Adolph Hitler invaded Poland in August 1939. Laurie had just turned 18 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. When he entered the service in March 1943 he’d been living under the threat of war for 3 and 1/2 years.
From March ‘43 through June ‘44 Laurie was stationed at Camp McCain, Mississippi. He became part of the 166th Engineer Combat Battalion, which was activated May 15, 1943.
Laurie wrote regularly to his parents, Clara and Ernest, who lived in Detroit.
Camp McCain was a collection of tarpaper barracks on a sandy plain. Training focused on construction of roadblocks and obstacles, building of floating and fixed bridges, road repairs and demolitions. Camp McCain was an ideal spot for this type of training because of the terrain and weather -- especially when it rained.
To the front
On June 12, 1944, one week after the D-Day invasion, Laurie's battalion boarded a train and departed Camp McCain. They went to Boston, Massachusetts.
While they waited on the pier to board the USS West Point, the American Red Cross provided doughnuts and coffee. On the night of June 26th, 1944, the ship started it’s journey across the Atlantic.
Both in the
battalion’s documented history
and in Laurie’s letters, the trip is
described as pleasant. In his letter dated June 29th he tells of
his first experience on the ocean:
Have seen some Porpoise and even some birds so the (....cut out.....) isn’t as desolate as I expected. Its just as blue as I had heard of and it’s rather fascinating to watch the wake of the ships when you are lucky enough to get a place on the railing. Can imagine how nice this trip would be in normal times.
First stop, Great Britain
In his July 7th letter, Laurie describes landing in England. Actually, the USS West Point went up the Firth of Clyde and docked at Greenock, Scotland. The next morning the ship was unloaded and everyone boarded a train, where once again the Red Cross served doughnuts and coffee. About an hour later, they arrived at Camp Sturt Common, Shropshire County, England.
The 166th Battalion was transferred to the Third U.S. Army commanded by Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr.
More training in bridge construction took place while at Camp Sturt. On August 4th they left for Dorchester, England. On August 7th -- one month plus one day after D-Day -- the 166th Battalion arrived at Utah Beach, France (on the north coast at the Cotentin Peninsula.)
Laurie's letters between July 7, 1944 and November 7, 1944 have been lost but other soldiers have written about the battalion's experience and their trip across France.
Laurie's training had been very practical. The battalion experienced a tremendous amount of rain and mud.
Just after the Battle of the Bulge, Laurie wrote indicating (censors prevented more direct wording) that combat in France was better than being in the Missippi mud the previous Christmas.
The Bronze Star
On September 18th, 1944, Laurie's battalion was given the mission of preparing bridges for demolition in and near Luneville, France.
The enemy was counterattacking in the vicinity, and it was extremely important that these bridges, which were on the only two available routes in the area, be blown at the proper time. An Allied Cavalry unit was withdrawing over the bridge and needed to use the bridges before they were demolished.
It was in this battle that Laurie earned his Bronze Star.
In the letter accompanying the
medal, the situation is described
Laurie does not describe this event in any of his letters. He probably didn’t want to worry his parents and because of war-time censorship of letters.
He does makes a reference to the incident when he hints at the gift he is sending his parents for their anniversary. He specifically asks that they not tell anyone about the medal.
Years after war, he never really talked about what happen, except to say that when they asked for volunteers, everybody, but him, stepped back.
By December ’44 the Allies front line extended more than 200 miles along the German border from Holland and Belgium to the Saar region in southern Germany. Hitler took advantage of the nasty weather, by sending in a massive force of approximately 200,000 German soldiers against the U.S. troops stationed along the Belgium and Luxembourg borders.
Hitler planned to create a wedge or “bulge” that divided the U.S. and British troops. He was fairly successful for about two weeks, then the Allied troops were able to stop the Germans at several key cities, from there, the Allies successfully pushed the German troops back. This battle is known as the “Battle of the Bulge.”
From November 29th to December 21st Laurie’s entire battalion was repairing bridges, constructing bridges, removing roadblocks and sweeping for mines. They were near Vittersbourg France and not directly involved in this famous battle.
At the end of December 1944, Laurie was given a new job as Company Clerk. He remained in this job until his discharge.
Once the war ends in May ’45, Lauurie is able to tell his folks specifically the cities the battalion went to and what he sees.
The letters from January ’45 through October ’45 describe the ending of the war and his travels through out France and Germany.
In August he vacations in Nice, and then in September receives orders to go back to Berlin. His details about the route taken to Berlin and seeing the Russian Zone of Occupation in particular, match any pictures seen in history books.
Laurie was honorably discharged in January 1946.
-- by Joanna Steinke Beyer
The GI’s War: The Story of
American soldiers in
European in World War II,
by Edwin P. Hoyt.1988
Battalions History 1943-
1945, 166th Engineers C
Battalions History 1943- 1945, 166th Engineers C Battalion