Monday, May 29, 2023

Memorial Day—Donald Steinbrunner

 By John Turney 
Steinbrunner with the 1953 Browns

Donald Steinbrunner's football career went largely unnoticed, playing just one season (1953) for the Cleveland Browns. He'd primarily been an offensive tackle for the Browns but also played defense and some end. He got most of his time playing special teams, however. 

A knee injury ended the sixth-round draft choice's pro football career after only eight games but he did get to play in the 1953 NFL Championship game, a 17-16 loss to the Detroit Lions.

However, in those eight games he was teammates with a who's who of NFL greats—Otto Graham, Len Ford, Bill Willis, Lou Groza, Doug Atkins, Marion Motley, Dante Lavelli, and others.

Steinbrunner on special teams in 1953
As a rookie lineman, it would seem likely that Steinbrunner's two-a-day practices would have been rather tough facing Len Ford and Doug Atkins and even George Young in those sessions—in an era where they were going full contact, not shells and shorts. 

One played he faced in practice remembered him—Bill Willis. "He wasn't a roughneck. He was a gentlemanly player,"  said the Hall-of-Fame middle guard. 

Hall-of-Fame center Frank Gatski, who he'd have faced when playing defense, had a similar take, "He was bi big, you guy when he came to the team. He was good enough to play a little bit. And he was a nice guy."

The Bellingham, Washington's teammate at Washington State, Harland Svare, felt that the big former Cougar would have been a great tight end but that the position had not been quite developed yet. Said  Svare, "He was a great blocker and at 6-3 and 230 pounds who could catch the ball. He would have played a long time."

He joined the United States Air Force in college via ROTC, and after a year in the NFL he was called into active duty, was trained as a navigator and chose to stay in the military. After serving as an assistant football coach at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he was transferred to Southeast Asia and was killed in action in Vietnam. 

It took decades for him to be recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its display for NFL players who died while serving in the military stating, "Some 30-plus years since Bob Kalsu’s untimely death, the Hall of Fame learned of a second pro football player, Don Steinbrunner, who died while serving his country in Vietnam".

The Hall of Fame has a lengthy piece on him now.
Steinbrunner in Vietnam

They report that Steinbrunner was sent to Vietnam in 1966, and after he was wounded in an aerial mission with a group he'd volunteered to join, he refused a safer assignment and later was killed when his plane went down a second time.

Major Steinbrunner's plane was shot down on July 20, 1967, in Kon Tum province, South Vietnam. There were no survivors among the five crewmen aboard. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his valor.

Steinbrunner's Commendations
★ Distinguished Flying Cross
★ Air Medal
★ Purple Heart
★ United States Aviator Badge Air Force
★ National Defense Service Medal
★ Vietnam Campaign Medal
★ Vietnam Service Medal
★ Air Force Presidential Unit Citation
★ Vietnam Gallantry Cross
★ Air Force Good Conduct Medal

Always a Hero
Leading his high school team to an undefeated season in 1947 and then made All-State in 1948 the Mount Baker High School graduate not only lettered in football but also baseball (he was also an All-Stater in hoops), basketball as well as track and field. 

At Washington State he played football and basketball (and was a team captain for both squads), making All-Pacific Coast and honorable mention All-American as a senior on the gridiron. He was made the All-Opponent team for seven schools. 

A long-forgotten tradition, an All-Opponent team the media would quiz players from schools, asking them who the toughest opponent they faced that season was and compile them into a squad. A tackle would be asked who the toughest defensive end was. An end would be asked who covered him the best, and so on.

Steinbrunner had been in the ROTC at Pullman and after his only season in the NFL he was called into active duty in the Air Force, becoming a navigator rather than a pilot due to his size and also to a vision issue (astigmatism).

At first, the handsome (he modeled some, even having a print ad in Look magazine) ballplayer was planning on returning to the NFL after his active service requirement was met but he loved flying and also realized his career in football was going to be limited. While okay, his niceness may not have been the best asset to possess in that era of football.

So the Steinbrunners (wife Meredyth and children) became a career military family. After a few years of traveling to various base assignments, the navigator got back into football in 1960 as an assistant coach for the Air Force Academy and held that position for five seasons. He also was a recruiter for the Academy, looking for high-quality football talent as well as young men who could pass muster as military men.

A year after his coaching stint ended he was called to Vietnam and though he could have avoided combat he volunteered to join the 12th Air Commando Squadron in the 315th Commando Wing. 

As part of Operation Ranch Hand the Squadron's assignment was primarily to spray herbicides in Vietnam, the majority of which was Agent Orange.

The plane fitted with spraying equipment used by the 12th was the Fairchild UC-123K Provider. It was a large—one that could fly low and slow, having the ability to spray jungles from altitudes as low as 175 feet. 

A July 21, 1967 story in the Bellingham Herald, revealed that on his final sortie with the "Spray Birds", the military reported the plane had been shot down based on the report of a forward air controller who saw a crash near Pleiku Air Base, where a ground fire was also observed. 

Pleiku Airbase (now Pleiku Airport) is located in Gia Lai Province in southern Vietnam. Military records show that the Major was shot down over (then referred to as) Kontum Province. Though both are close in proximity - in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam - we are not sure why there is a discrepancy between the official records and the account in the Herald, which was using the Air Force as a source.

Regardless, a military investigation revealed the crash was indeed the Provider that Major Steinbrunner was aboard and that none survived the crash. 

His wife never got full details but she admitted wondering if the cause of the crash was the fuel tank had been pierced by enemy fire or if the wing caught a tree because of the extremely low altitude? Did her husband die on impact or due to an explosion? Did he survive the crash and was killed by enemy ground fire? 

Finally realizing those things didn't matter, she knew enough. 

She did know that she loved him and he her. She knew was a confident, fearless man who had a "knack for touching people's lives" and also that he was a hero.

Popular war or not, he was a man who wouldn't beg out of dangerous missions and leave it to younger less experienced, perhaps unmarried men, he accepted them because it was his duty and responsibility and eventually he gave his life.

That is his legacy and on this Memorial Day, it is worthy of remembrance.

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