Wilton resident Daniel Darst has given GOOD Morning Wilton the privilege of sharing a “My Father’s Friday Night at War,” a tribute he’s written about his father, Clifford Steinberg, who passed away 18 years ago this month. Steinberg lived in Wilton for 57 years and was a very involved volunteer, serving as a selectman and in other municipal posts. He had fought in WWII and as an American Jew, had a very personal perspective on wartime events that he wrote about after returning from his service in the Army.
“He was a vigorous, cultured man with a great heart and a love for local Wilton politics and causes,” Darst told us.
Darst asked if we could publish this story in April, near the anniversary of his father’s death. We’re also humbled to share it near Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust remembrance day, which falls on Thursday, April 8 this year.
My father would have turned 100 this year. He was a long-time Wiltonian, a former selectman, a founding member of the Wetlands Commission. He was raised in nearby Norwalk and as a youth was well-traveled to the farms and orchards of Wilton. His father was a fruit and produce man from the pre-WWI era, operating out of a store in Greenwich, later a warehouse there and in New Haven, in Bridgeport and in Waterbury. He was an early purveyor of frozen food in southern and central Connecticut.
But it was the fields and woods of Wilton, a respite from the horrors of WWII that drew him here in 1946. A six-acre wedding present at the lower end of Sturges Ridge Rd. set him and my mother up for the next five decades.
He graduated number five in his 1938 Norwalk High School class of 400-plus and matriculated at Yale where he was admitted to the select History of Arts and Letters program in his junior year. He wrote his thesis on the 17th century invasions of England by the French. He earned a varsity letter in his three upper classmen years on the fencing team, Sabres.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor when he was a senior at Yale. The next day he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Along with the lion’s share of his classmates, he started training in the Yale colleges, Saybrook for the Air Corps, and went through two years of officer training, flight school and finally shipped out to Scotland and then East Anglia in 1944.
Along the way, he had been tapped for some S2 work as an intelligence officer, looking after papers and communications that would or would not play a role in the prosecution of the war. He never discussed the specifics. He claimed he had forgotten.
He flew out of an airbase adjacent to a small village called Molesworth. He dropped bombs on Nazi factories and munitions depots. He lost two members of his crew and witnessed the brutal destruction of more than two dozen B-17s, the fortress plane he flew as a navigator and bombardier. He flew 31 missions over Axis occupied Europe.
His sense of purpose as an American Jew fighting the heinous Nazis was brought into startling focus when his older brother was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, November 1944. He wore his profound sadness at the loss of his brother like a heavy cloak he could never shed. In this short vignette, which he wrote for his 50th college reunion, he captures his 24-year old sense of relief at finding a welcoming Jewish home and his sorrow at experiencing the displacement of the orphaned Jewish children.
WWII – The Hopelessness of War
Clifford Steinberg, First Lieutenant, USAAC
World War II can only be viewed as dashing and or heroic from a Hollywood screen or the perspective of 51 years later. In truth, aerial bombardment, Luftwaffe fighters, and German Flak were life-threatening, malevolent, and extremely frightening experiences, and never “interesting.”
I’ll try to translate harsh routine and precarious existence. I was a Lead Bombardier in B-17s (Fortresses, and the Brits called them), a First Lieutenant in the 303 Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, in England.
On an evening, after a particularly harrowing bombing mission to the bridges of Frankfort-am-Main, during which #3 ship on our wing had taken a direct hit, I found myself on a liberty-run truck into nearby Northampton, North Hants. It was a Friday night, and the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath.
I felt a need for calm and a strong measure of religious reflection. For a 23 year-old, too much emotion had been building up — my older brother been killed three months earlier on the Moselle River line, and a particularly good friend had flown on #3 wing ship. “Where was there a synagogue?” I inquired. None were presently open. “War, you know,” they curtly answered.
However, there was a large house in a residential neighborhood, in which a Rabbi was sheltering many Jewish orphans. He had also been conducting religious services for his charges, I was told Rabbi Hirsch formerly of Frankfort (surprisingly), was house mother, teacher, religious mentor, and in loco parentis, a warm bosom. Approximately 50 boys from 5 to 15 years of age lived there. British authorities had assigned this house to the Rabbi for a collection spot for homeless, unaccompanied Jewish children from Germany, Holland, and Belgium.
Mattresses were spread on floors, 8 to 10 per room. Nor were they any sheets or pillow cases for these “beds.” Friday night dinner was sparse, with emphasis on potatoes, turnips, Brussel sprouts, and some canned vegetables; a fragile chicken rounded out the meal. I was given the seat of honor, next to the Rabbi. The children clustered around me asking about the war, my airplane, the cities, bombed, and the like. To my embarrassment, I was venerated as one who come, in person, to liberate Europe from Hitler.
The children intoned the traditional Sabbath meal prayers, blessing the candles, the wine, and the challah. There was an air of peacefulness, despite the dissonance of their youthful voices and the war beyond the walls of the house. I had begun to relax; it was a warm, comfortable feeling. After dinner, prayer services were conducted by the Rabbi. Along with the children’s memorial prayers of lament for their lost families, I joined in the memorial prayer, for my brother and my friends in #3 wing ship.
I had come so much closer to this war, which up to now, had been viewed from 5-6 miles up — a war in which cities below were Lilliputian, where bomb bursts were like flash bulbs, and flak was puffs of black smoke that threw metal against our aluminum shell.
This household in North Hants was, indeed, Act III of the bloody tragedy that had decimated a people, destroyed cities and lives. Absolute horror. The children’s faces mirrored the hopelessness of war . . . .