Letters from Laurie: Somewhere in Europe

Lawrence Steinke

Lawrence E. Steinke, aka "Laurie"

Timeline of Lawrence Steinke's letters
and corresponding WWII events:

June 29, 1944, Troopship, Atlantic Ocean July 7, 1944, France August 22: Paris reclaimed by the Allies. September 18, Luneville, France: Laurie earns Bronze Star. November 7, 1944, Army pay is $45 a month November 18, 1944, Winter starting December 4, 1944, birthday gift December 12, 1944, No presents December 17, 1944, I'm a Chow-Hound December 16-30, France: Battle of the Bulge. December 30, 1944, Got my presents 1945 February: Bombing of Berlin. February 5, 1945, Luxembourg: “Busier now than on the line February 8, 1945 Rhineland Campaign. February 26, Germany:
Laurie arrives eight months to day he left U.S.
March 2, 1945, Germany, surpise (Bronze Star) March 5, 1945, Germany: Receives Brownie camera from home March 18, 1945, 3rd moving fast March 19, 1945, Germany: Wants record player when returns home April 12: President Roosevelt dies. April 9, 1945,Germany: Where in Germany our family from? Sends home first photos May 1, 1945, Germany: Describes all his pals; Hitler ded May 8: Victory in Europe (V-E) Day May 16, 1945, Regensburg, Germany: Everyone is sunning themselves May 21, 1945, Hundreds and hundreds of prisoners May 29, 1945, Pfriemd, Germany: Mailed the medal home June 5, 1945, Regensburg: Visited battered and bombed Nuremberg July 10, 1945, Dingolfing, Germany: Swimming pool here July 21, 1945, Dingolfing, Swimming again July 26, 1945, Dingolfing: Explains division organization July 27, 1945, Dingolfing: Explains his points Aug. 4, 1945, Nice, France: Vacation August 6: Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan Aug 9: Atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Aug. 30, 1945, Camp Miami, France: Near Vitry-le-Francois. Describes tents September 2, Victory over Japan (V-J) Day Sept.11 1945, Camp Detroit, France: near St. Quentin, France Sept. 14, 1945, France: Bad news; ordered to Berlin. September 19, 1945: Leaves for Berlin, drove to Montmedy, France September 20: travels from 7am until 8pm, from Luxembourg to Greissen, Germany. September 21: Hit autobaun near Kassel and traveled to Helmstadt. September 22: Travel straight to Berlin through the Russian Occupation Zone. Sept. 23, 1945, Berlin: Living in the remains of Hitler’s barracks Oct. 16, 1945, Berlin: Describes Russian soldiers October, Berlin, Germany: Only a portion of letter found; mentions the “Tigers”. Next ... 1946: January 21, Corporal Lawrence E. Steinke, Company B 166th Engineer Combat Battalion, is discharged from the U.S. Army. 1950: Receives bachelor's degree in journalism, Michigan State University. 1953: Marries Harriet. Family grows to two daughters and a son. 1991: Lawrence Steinke died on November 28, his 68th birthday. 2001: Lawrence's daughter Joanna made copies of the letters, photos and relevant documents for scrapbooks for his three children, grandchildren and future grandchildren.

2015: November 15, Laurie's granddaughter Harriet Steinke debuts music composition senior project, Somewhere in Europe, based on his letters.


  > > > Jump to Laurie's letters.
  > > > Listen to Harriet Steinke's 2015 composition based on these 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.

Basic Training

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:

    Conditions are crowded a bit - in fact at nite we can count the eyelashes on the fellow next to us instead of the proverbial sheep. We are fed twice a day and all in all the food isn’t too bad even if we do have to stand up to eat.

    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.)

In Europe

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.

Bronze Star

In the letter accompanying the medal, the situation is described as follows:

    Although intense enemy artillery fire was falling within 25 yards of the bridge, Cpl. Steinke, who was cold and wet from wading in deep water, and knowing that it was quite likely that the enemy would encircle his position before he would receive orders to destroy the bridge, volunteered to take charge of the blasting machine. He frequently exposed himself during the following hours to check and repair cuts in the blasting wire.

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.

Desk job

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

Additional sources

The GI’s War: The Story of American soldiers in European in World War II, by Edwin P. Hoyt.1988 p.82

Battalions History 1943- 1945, 166th Engineers C Battalion