Remembering her dad, who made ultimate sacrifice for his country
For Denise Steburg Rotell, the Veterans Day and Thanksgiving holidays just weeks apart bring back memories of her father who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country — and for whom she is thankful.
Pfc. Donald A. Steburg was killed instantly on April 6, 1945, in a firefight in a small cemetery in Germany just a year after the Fort Dodge native enlisted in the Army, forgoing a military deferment because he wanted to serve, and just a month and a day before the Germans surrendered.
He lays in rest at North Lawn Cemetery and is among the 219 World War II casualties from Webster County whose names are etched into a memorial wall at Veterans Memorial Park.
“I think of my father and the sacrifices he and thousands of other young men and women made whenever I practice my right to vote and to speak out in support of my political and personal beliefs,” Rotell said. “Because of him and all the others, I feel it is my responsibility to stay as informed as I can and exercise my rights at every opportunity — to speak out to my representatives and vote to every chance I get. So at Thanksgiving in their honor I am thankful for my country and the freedoms they fought for.”
She was 3 years old when a Western Union telegram was delivered to her mother at their home in Fort Dodge, notifying her that her husband had died in action. He was 23. Her mother, Donna Steburg, was married years later to Vernon Brecht and when Denise was 14, attending junior high school, the family moved to California.
Today, she lives in Nampa, Idaho, and has two children, Don, of Burns, Oregon, and Christa, of Nampa, who both work for the Bureau of Land Management. Don is married to Noelle and they have two sons: Sawyer and Sam. Christa is married to Greg Braun and they have two daughters: Elyse and Avery. Denise’s husband, Don Rotell, was with the U.S. Forest Service and died 15 years ago. A few years ago, her son Don visited his grandfather’s gravesite in Fort Dodge with both sons.
Her father was born in Fort Dodge and his father, Harold, worked for The Messenger and, with his wife, built the first motel in Fort Dodge in the early 1950s, called the Fort Dodge Motel, Rotell said. Her dad’s brother and brother-in-law were brick masons and they helped build it.
Donald Steburg worked for the Tobin Meat Packing plant in Fort Dodge when World War II started and Rotell said her mother told her that he had an occupational deferment because the plant supplied meat for the armed forces. But he decided to enlist. He was 22 years old.
“My grandpa told me that he and my dad planned when dad got home, they would buy a gas station in Fort Dodge, and dad would be the mechanic,” she said.
It was not to be — and Rotell learned how her father died when she was able to connect with former soldiers of Company B of the 42nd Rainbow Division, 232nd Infantry, who served with him.
“Your father landed with us in Marseille (France),” wrote Arthur Lillquist of Salt Lake City in 1992. “He was a good soldier — brave and courageous. He fought with us through the Battle of the Bulge, He was killed in a cemetery in Wurzburg (Germany) in April near the end of the war. In regard to how your father was killed, we got involved in a firefight in a cemetery. I was close to your father when he was hit. He died instantly. Your father never knew what hit him. As deaths in war go, your father’s death was a good one in that it was instantaneous, and he did not suffer pain. None of the German soldiers involved in that firefight survived.”
Rotell said her mother was unaware of his death when she wrote her final letter to him, letting him know that President Franklin Roosevelt had died.
“That’s always been kind of a haunting,” she said. “My mother had just mailed the letter telling him that FDR had died. Not long after that, she got the telegram.”
In the year of 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, most ceremonies — worldwide to local — were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This has been a strange, strange year,” Rotell said. “Veterans Day always brings it back to me. I think back on how much it changed my life, how things would have been so much different. When I was 23, I realized I was older than Dad. He had grandkids that he never got to see.
“I try to talk about it a lot to my kids and grandkids, show them what medals I have. I have my father’s Purple Heart and the other day, I saw one of my grandsons showing his friend the medal. I have always missed having my father. I have much pride. I also realize he was just a kid. All those young kids, patriotic, marching off to save the world. They were just kids.”