Battlefields could not keep brothers from chance encounters
Within the ever-tightening vice time became to soldiers entrenched in World War II conflict, brothers Robert J. and Randall P. Steim had five chances to say what they knew could be their final goodbyes before and during two of history’s worst: The Normandy Invasion and The Battle of the Bulge.
‘We said there’s a very good chance we could lose one another with how things were happening,’ said Randall. ‘We had trouble just like anyone else there, and it scared you a lot.’
One of those farewells took place in the midst of open warfare, as the two encountered one another on the frigid, pine-darkened battlefields of Mortain in western France.
‘You didn’t have time to think about it,’ said Robert.
However, to the Steim brothers, members of separate companies within United States Army 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division and veterans of several additional battle campaigns, all logic suggested they should not have crossed paths at all.
Robert, 81, of Vandergrift was a staff sergeant in 12th Regiment, 4th Division Armored Tank Company, specializing in motor transportation while serving in Allied campaigns at Normandy, Northern France, and Rhineland. Among the four medals awarded him for his service was the Purple Heart, granted for wounds received in action against enemies while in the European Theatre on those Mortain battlefields in 1944.
‘I was the luckiest person that was ever in the service,’ said Robert. ‘That’s why I’m here today.’
Randall, 76, of Kittanning RD2 was a sergeant in 12th Regiment, 4th Division Cannon Company, where he served as a communication chief in charge of wire laying and radio operating. While managing six other men, Randall found him-self under fire in battle cam-paigns at Normandy, Ardennes, Northern France, Rhineland and Central Europe. For his service, he received the Allied European, African and Middle Eastern Campaign Ribbon with five Bronze Battle Stars.
At one point, Randall was shielded from oncoming mortar fire shrapnel that killed three other men by equipment attached to his battle fatigues.
‘We worked on the front lines most of the time,’ said Randall. ‘We were just like GIs, and if somebody was shooting at us, what could we do?’
Chance gasped that the brothers might not see each other again anywhere, let alone during the war, especially with the reputation of Normandy and The Bulge. The legendary grapples teamed Allied Powers United States, Canada, and Great Britain against Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and proved both the most decisive of the war and the most destructive in Army history.
However, a combination of coincidental proximity, benevolent superior officers, and a brotherly will to survive made a series of unlikely possibilities a memorable reality.
The brothers’ first meeting came at Camp Stapley, England on Mar. 27, 1944, while Robert and the rest of the 12th Regiment awaited Operation Overlord, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s plan for Allied troops to cross the English Channel and invade the shores of Normandy, France, then occupied by Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
The bombed homes, warehouses and docks across southern England were proof of the power of the German military.
‘We were billeted in a church recreation hall,’ said Robert of the 4th Division. ‘There was a replacement GI that came in who had the same address as the one I used when I was writing to Randall.
‘I discovered that we were only 40 miles apart, because Randall was stationed at Camp Stapley.’
Despite specific orders to avoid fraternization outside of their unit, Robert said his company commander gave him a day’s leave to travel to Camp Stapley to find Randall.
‘We were waiting for the invasion, we knew it was coming and we weren’t supposed to leave the area in no way, shape, or form,’ said Robert.
As a replacement soldier, Randall said his own personal freedom was also limited during the months and days leading up to Normandy.
‘We were there when we were needed, and you could never stray too far, because you never knew when they were going to call for you,’ said Randall.
However, after catching a bus to Camp Stapley, Robert found Randall with the help of another officer, and spent a few precious hours catching up with him before returning to his own base.
‘It wasn’t very long before they said ÔSomeone wants to see you in the office’, and I walked up and there he was,’ said Randall. ‘We weren’t there that long, though, they only allowed you so much time.’
On June 6, 1944, British, Canadian, and American fleets including the 12th Regiment, 4th Division formed a flotilla that traversed the high waves of the English Channel and collided with the seaswept sands and dreaded German shellfire at Utah Beach, Normandy.
‘I went in on D-Day, and I was a squad leader,’ said Robert.
Approaching Utah Beach in a Landing Craft Vehicle was the scariest moment of Robert’s tour, he said.
‘When we unloaded, they dropped us in about four feet of water in a half-
track,’ said Robert. ‘Mine was the first half-track off of the landing craft for my unit.’
For six days, Allied Forces fought through the Nazi gauntlet of land mines, trenches, and forts fitted with 150-250 mm guns toward a limited cluster of passageways leading inland. Casualties began to mount as additional enemy artillery swept the beach.
Robert said that’s when Randall arrived as a replacement.
‘I was still on call as a representative then, and they were sending us as they needed us,’ said Randall.
Upon being assigned to E-Company in the 12th Regiment, Randall instantly began thinking of ways to meet up with his older brother again.
‘When (Randall) came in, he knew that he was in the unit that I was in,’ said Robert. ‘He asked the first sergeant from Service Company how to find me.’
‘I was told (Robert) was about a half mile up from where we were,’ said Randall.
Randall’s first sergeant, who knew Robert, got word to a lieutenant from Robert’s unit to notify him of Randall’s arrival at Normandy.
‘It was late afternoon, and the only reason (Randall) found me was because I wasn’t on the line, my squad was in reserve,’ said Robert. ‘We were lucky.’
At the point of the brothers’ second meeting, no battle of any kind was going on around them.
‘We were behind the line where the supplies were, and there was no fighting there,’ said Robert. ‘There was (fighting) where I came from and then went back to.’
Due to this, the benevolent company commander again allowed Robert extra time see Randall.
‘For 10 or 15 minutes we visited,’ said Robert. ‘I then went back to my unit, and (Randall) was assigned to another unit.’
Later that night, Randall prepared to undertake a communications post within E-Company.
However, the E-Company captain told Randall he was being transferred to Cannon Company to serve as a Forward Observer, a move that eventually brought him as close to death as he’s ever been.
‘(Randall) was trained in communications, and they were going to put him in E-Company, but they needed communication people in Cannon Company, so they cancelled E-Company and put him in Cannon Company,’ said Robert.
Overnight, he and numerous other Cannon Co. soldiers were forced to take cover on a hillside in the face of German artillery fire.
‘There was a young boy injured beside me,’ said Randall.
Randall, who had partially dug himself into a foxhole, also saw three other GIs who had been killed lying on the other side of the wounded boy.
‘I knew nothing else from that time on,’ said Randall.
That’s because mortar fire landed near Randall, killing the wounded boy and knocking Randall out cold.
‘(Randall) was unconscious for about five or six days,’ said Robert.
When he woke, the doctor told Randall the only thing that prevented the mortar fire shrapnel that killed the other soldier from entering his own body was the mess kit, canteen, and gas mask attached to his uniform on that side.
‘(The doctor) said ÔI honestly didn’t think you were going to make it, but I can tell you now, you’re gonna make it’,’ said Randall. ‘The (shrapnel) was lodged in the equipment.
‘It wasn’t very long that they were sending me back up to Cannon Company.’
According to Randall, serving there placed him on the front line for the rest of his tour.
By then, though, Allied Forces had driven the Germans so far inland they were able to take back the valuable port city of Cherbourg.
It was there that the Steims had their third meeting.
‘When we took the town and the area, we got a break,’ said Robert.
At the same time, Randall, in the process of being transferred again, also went to Cherbourg with the Line Company.
‘We talked for just a few minutes then,’ said Robert.
Their fourth and most surreal meeting occurred during the battle at Mortain.
‘We were in the battle for Saint Lo, then after Saint Lo came Mortain, and we were in the area of Mortain when I met (Randall) in the woods,’ said Robert.
According to Robert, Randall had been up on the line when his radio went dead.
‘He’s coming down through the woods, I’m getting ready to go up through the woods to pick out a gun position for my unit, and that’s where we met,’ said Robert.
Randall, however, had been given orders by his overseeing lieutenant not to talk with anybody.
‘He said to keep moving, don’t stop,’ said Randall. ‘As I was running through the woods, I saw Robert and he said ÔHey Randall, what are you doing’, but the lieutenant said don’t stop for one reason, and I didn’t.’
Robert said it didn’t take him long to realize exactly why Randall did not answer him in that situation, having been given similar orders at times.
‘As far as I can remember, I was just damn glad to see him, and know that he was alright,’ said Robert.
Just 15 minutes later, though, Robert was severely wounded by mortar fire shrapnel in back and the left tricep.
‘I got a good (wound), one that everybody wanted,’ said Robert. ‘That gave you a ticket to England to the hospital for probably three weeks.’
Based on the damage the flying shrapnel caused to those around him, Robert said he knew it could have very easily taken his life.
‘A major within six feet of me had a leg blown off from the same shell that hit me,’ said Robert.
Robert said the fortunate fate he possessed during his tour is a story in itself.
‘I tried to join the Marines in Pittsburgh in 1940, and I couldn’t pass the physical, so I went across the hall and joined the Army,’ said Robert. ‘The lucky thing was, had I made it in the Marines at that time, I would have wound up in the Pacific.’
Robert said the wars in the European and South Pacific Theatres were totally different.
‘The Pacific was pure hell,’ said Robert. ‘The only thing you had to worry about in the European war was one thing: the German soldier. Where in the Pacific it was disease, the jungles, and the Japanese, so thank God I didn’t have to go up against that.’
However, the European Theatre unleashed a hell of its own for Robert, Randall, and the rest of the 4th Division beginning Dec. 16, 1944, the first day of The Bulge.
Back in late August of that year, the 4th liberated Paris from German control while Robert was still hospitalized, and he was sent back into action as they stormed toward Germany.
‘We then went through the Hurtgen Forest (on the Belgian/German border), then the 4th Division got to Aachen, Germany; we were the first unit to reach German soil,’ said Robert.
According to Robert, the 4th Division had almost 15,000 casualties by itself from the time of D-Day to the Hurtgen Forest.
That paled in comparison, however, to the six million casualties Germany’s military forces had sustained during the war up to that point.
Facing defeat on both the Eastern and Western European Fronts, Hitler began the Bulge by deploying the vanguard of three German armies totaling 500,000 men into misty, snowy Ardennes mountain region in Belgium and Luxembourg to overtake 75,000 Allied soldiers still green in the art of combat.
Germany’s desperate goal: destroy the British and Canadian Armies, leaving the U.S. and Russia as the sole opposition to the Third Reich. Hitler assumed the U.S. would then withdraw from the war effort out of fear that German defeat would lead to the spread of Russian Communism over the face of Europe.
At the time, Robert was stationed in Luxembourg, and saw The Bulge unfold from its earliest stages.
‘We were in it from the first minute,’ said Robert.
Robert said when the 4th came out of Hurtgen Forest, they had to be remanned and reequipped.
‘They pulled us out and took us down to a farm in Luxembourg,’ said Robert. ‘There wasn’t no fighting going on at all where we went there, it was strictly a holding position.’
Robert and his gun squad were given a position near a small farm outside a village named Berdorf.
‘We kept one man on the gun alert, and there big pasture fields probably 500 yards from our gun to the woods,’ said Robert. ‘The rest of us were in the farmhouse.’
Just before The Bulge began, Robert said the German forces dropped in one big salvo of artillery, but it didn’t hit any of the men in his squad.
‘After that nothing happened, so we just went about our business,’ said Robert. ‘About an hour and a half later, the guy on the gun come running in and all you could see coming out of the woods into the field were long, green overcoats.’
The greatcoats of the German infantry.
‘Hell, I’m there with 10 men and nothing but an anti-tank gun,’ said Robert. ‘So we vacated.’
Robert’s squad retreated back to Berdorf, where there was a hotel and command post for the 12th Regiment’s E-Company, Cannon Company, and Anti-Tank Company.
‘I disabled the gun we had, and took pieces off of it that they (the Germans) couldn’t use, then I ran back to the hotel to alert my unit to what was happening,’ said Robert. ‘When they (the Germans) hit, we had to go back to that hotel and they kept us in there, and it was a hell of a winter and we couldn’t get out.’
There were 19,000 Allied casualties in total during that time, along with numerous cases of frozen hands and feet, according to Robert.
‘They (the Germans) tried one time to get us out, and we killed seven of them,’ said Robert. ‘We took empty bottles and put them by all exits, and if at night you heard a bottle tinkling, you shot it.
On Christmas Eve, relief arrived as Allied reinforcements shot through the wall of German soldiers surrounding Berdorf with tank destroyers, creating an opportunity for Robert and his men to escape.
‘We had radio communications with Americans, and they come in with them big tanks, and when they pulled in, we jumped on them and evacuated,’ said Robert.
Behind the lines on Christmas Day in the town of Lunglinster, Robert went to get into the chow line and encountered Randall for the fifth time.
‘Unknowingly, we were within a mile of each other the whole time during the Battle of the Bulge,’ said Robert. ‘That’s where we ate Christmas dinner.
‘A burnt stone wall at the cemetery was our table.’
Randall said that after their Christmas dinner, the brothers never met again until the war was over.
‘We were both lucky to be alive,’ said Randall. ‘Yes, Christmas Day was great.’
The official report of the German surrender to Allied Forces came on May 6, 1945.
From Utah Beach on June 6, 1944 until that time, 1,431 officers and men in the 12th Regiment, 4th Division had been killed in action, and 5,123 had been wounded for a total of 6,554 casualties.
In all, the 4th Division alone suffered 21,879 casualties during that time.
‘It wasn’t all hell, there were times you got a break,’ said Robert. ‘You were there, and you had to be there, so all you could do was make the best of it.’
However, Robert said the country’s educational system should place a higher priority on alerting today’s youth to the sacrifices made in securing their freedom.
‘It’s a sin that people running the schools are not getting this to them, what took place,’ said Robert. ‘Not a thousand, but a hundred thousand died to get what we have today.
‘Get them acquainted with it, at least.’
After being discharged in August of 1945, Robert worked at Schenley Distillery for 39 years before retiring in 1984.
Randall was discharged in October of 1945, he worked at Bauer Block in Kittanning for over 42 years before retiring in 1989.
Since 1947, Randall has done his best to be the higher quality teacher that Robert hopes to see more of in the future while instructing students during Sunday school at the Salem United Church of Christ in Rural Valley.
‘Teaching is what I believe in, and I have not lost the faith that I had in it,’ said Randall.
Seven of eight Steim brothers served in the military, and four including Robert and Randall served in World War II. They other two were Benjamin, who was killed while training to be glider pilot in the Army Air Corps, and the late Charles who served in the Army Infantry and was wounded when his ship was hit by a German torpedo.