“I was born in 1920 on a farm in Belle Plane, Wisconsin. There was no doctor so my father delivered us. He delivered all 12 of his children. When I was five, I told my mother that I was going to become a preacher. I grew up in a German community and I could only speak German when I started school in our one-room schoolhouse. There were eight grades in one room. I had so much trouble learning English that I was in first grade for three years. My twin sister caught on faster and got way ahead of me. By seventh grade, I was ready to quit school and go back to the farm. My mother told me to give it one more day. That was the day I saw the girl who was going to be the mother of my children. We dated until high school then she started dating someone else. I was devastated for years and went into the Navy hoping I would die. Then I found the Lord and God put the Bible in her place.
I started a photography business at 19 and enlisted in the Navy at 21. I had never seen the ocean, so I don’t know why I chose the Navy. I joined the choir and thought I was going to sing my way through the Navy. Then Pearl Harbor happened and a week later I was on the USS New Mexico. I was the ship’s photographer for five years and had a dark room where I worked, slept, and read my Bible undisturbed. My job was to photograph everything and there was also something happening on a ship to be photographed. Something breaking, something exploding. Someone would die and be buried at sea. At port, some group would dance for us with special music. Sometimes nudes came aboard the ship. A couple of hundred men and some girl undressed. I got as far back as I could for those. A torpedo went across our bow and hit the USS Liscome Bay. It sank in eight minutes. They used some of my pictures during the war for Time and Life magazines.
I became President Truman’s photographer for a short time during the war. No one else volunteered. I knew nothing about politics or Democrats and Republicans, but I had tremendous respect for anyone above me. To the point I wouldn’t even talk. I was speechless around the President. I was climbing a ladder on the USS Williamsburg carrying a camera and tripod. Truman was on top and said, ‘Can I help you son?’ He took the camera and helped me up. Truman was a scrawny little guy, not what I expected a President to look like. They once went fishing and the President was the only one fishing with bait. I took pictures all of him all of the time including him swimming with his glasses on and throwing up. They had a man on me full time and wanted me to turn all of the pictures over to them. If they had trusted me, I would have done it. But since the didn’t trust me, I made extras. I don’t know where they are now.
After the war was over, the government tested nuclear bombs at Bikini Atoll. I photographed everything before and after the bombs were dropped. The airplanes flew through the plume at different altitudes with Geiger counters to measure radiation at different levels. We were stationed 90 miles away during the blast.
After the war, I met my Grace. Avoice behind me said, ‘There is your wife.’ She was an educated woman, much smarter than me. I somehow got into Bob Jones University with the G.I. Bill. I could barely read, so Grace read me through college and I passed the tests. Later I went to night school and received a Master’s degree.
I had a jail ministry in Virginia for 40 years. It started when I was asked to take a picture of the chain gang. Each man, all of them black, had a chain between his legs and three men were chained together. They picked up trash and cut weeds. I don’t know how they didn’t hit or cut each other. I filled in once to preach at their camp and loved it. I was asked to take over that ministry and it stuck. That was 1951 and I did it for 40 years. Prison ministry was my calling. I got along better with inmates than church people. Inmates have a desire to change. People go to church, shake the preacher’s hand, and then go home and forget about it. Now I teach Bible classes at Homestead Village. At five years old, I knew this is what I was supposed to do and I am going to keep doing it until the Lord returns or calls me home.”
(Martin Steinberg’s story is the fifth in the series, “The Souls of World War 2.”)