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Navy vets take to the skies

Marian Home residents to visit Washington, D.C. via honor flight

February 12, 2010
By BILL SHEA Messenger staff writer

As the United States reclaimed island after island from the Japanese during World War II, Tom Steinhoff sailed the Pacific Ocean as a ''deck ape'' on a Navy destroyer.

Thousands of miles away, Helen Hughes worked in a Navy codebreaking unit, helping to decipher the Enigma code used by Nazi admirals to communicate with their U-boats.

Both residents of the Marian Home in Fort Dodge played unheralded roles helping the United States and its allies win World War II.

Article Photos

Marian Home residents Helen Hughes, left, and Tom Steinhoff, pause for second while recounting their experiences in World War II. Hughes worked with the German Enigma encryption machine. Steinhoff served on a destroyer escort in the Pacific. Both will be going on an upcoming Brushy Creek Area Honor Flight to Washington D.C.

On May 1, they will be among about 100 area veterans of that conflict to be honored with a special trip to the national World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. They are to be passengers aboard an upcoming Brushy Creek Area Honor Flight which will depart from Fort Dodge Regional Airport.

''I think it's a great honor myself,'' Hughes said.

She declared herself ''anxious to get there.''

''I'm sure they'll take us out there in style,'' Hughes added.

Although Steinhoff said he's ''ready to go,'' he added that he won't get too excited about the trip until he's actually on the plane.

Both veterans wonder what emotions and memories will be awakened in them when they arrive at the monument on the National Mall.

Steinhoff has never seen the monument. Hughes believes she saw it, at least briefly, during a trip to Washington about three years ago.

Their voyage will be a one-day outing that will begin early in the morning at Fort Dodge Regional Airport. There. they'll board a charter flight to Dulles International Airport in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. All the veterans and their escorts, called guardians, will take buses to the monument, Arlington National Cemetery and some other notable sites in and around Washington. They'll fly back to Fort Dodge that night.

The flights are part of a national program to take World War II veterans to the monument.

Sailing the Pacific with Steinhoff

Steinhoff has a hard time remembering dates and other details of his Navy duty. But he clearly recalls how he ended up joining the service.

''My buddies and I went to the tavern,'' he said. ''We got pretty well oiled up and decided we were going to join the Navy.''

He completed his basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago, Ill. Then he went to San Diego, Calif., where he was assigned to a destroyer escort.

Steinhoff said he was a ''deck ape,'' which, he said, was the sailor who ''gets all the work shoved on him.'' One of his jobs was to man the forward gun mount, a weapon he said would ''shoot down about anything.''

Once, a Japanese submarine began tailing his ship. He said the captain slowed the vessel down until the enemy sub caught up. Then a kind of underwater bomb called a depth charge was dropped from the destroyer escort.

''It did the job,'' Steinhoff said.

When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Steinhoff celebrated in time-honored sailor fashion with staggering quantities of liquor.

''Boy, did I have a headache,'' he said, recalling the hangover that followed V-J Day.

Steinhoff remained in the Navy for a year or two after the war ended. Then he returned to Fort Dodge, where he went to work for Horn Manufacturing.

Hughes helps crack the Enigma

Hughes followed her four brothers into the military during World War II. She was working in the S & H Green Stamp Department in the Boston Store downtown when she decided to enlist in the Navy.

The first time she tried to enlist, she got nervous at the last minute and walked out of the Fort Dodge Post Office, then at Central Avenue and Ninth Street, without stepping into the recruiter's office. The next time, however, she marched into that office and signed up.

After completing her training at Hunter College in New York City, she was assigned to a codebreaking unit that operated in Washington and Dayton, Ohio. Its mission was to figure out what information the Germans were transmitting with their Enigma code.

Her job was to set up large rudimentary computers called bombes to decode the German messages. After she programmed the machines by correctly placing discs in them, the contraptions would go to work and eventually spit out papers that were quickly taken to another room for further analysis.

Hughes never read any of the decoded messages.

And because her work was secret, she never told anyone what she did in the Navy for decades after the war.

Hughes was discharged from the Navy in December 1945. In March 1946, she got a job with Fort Dodge Laboratories, now called Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, and worked there for 35 years.

Contact Bill Shea at (515) 573-2141 or



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