A Maryknoll priest for 63 years, he began his work in Korea, where he learned the Japanese language, and was interned there with many other foreign nationals after Pearl Harbor. After a few months, he was transported to Japan, then included in a Swiss-brokered exchange that brought him home to the United States during late August of 1942. After that, he was assigned to work with Japanese-Americans interned at the Manzanar War Relocation Camp in California. After the war, he returned to Japan, where he worked until he no longer could.
Historic images sometimes turn up in unexpected places, but I wasn't surprised to find the mug shot of a youthful priest in the Maryknoll archives. I was gratified. however, to find the others in the digital archives of the University of Southern California, deposited there because of his work at Manzanar. Also included in the USC collection was this 1931 image of the Rev. Mr. Steinbach (right) studying the Japanese language with another Maryknoll priest, the Rev. Joseph Hunt, in Peng Yang, Korea.
Following his return to the United States in August 1942, the Rev. Mr. Steinbach came home to Chariton for a visit before moving on to his California assignment. The Herald-Patriot had reported his safe return this way in its edition of Aug. 27:
Rev. Leo J. Steinbach, son of Herman J. Steinbach of Chariton, landed in New York aboard the S.S. Gripsholm Tuesday.
He was one of the Maryknoll Missionaries aboard the first of the exchange ships arriving in this country with passengers repatriated from the Japanese empire.
The exchange of war prisoners took place at Lourenco Marques, Portuguese East Africa. The Gripsholm stopped at Rio de Janeiro for 18 hours before proceeding to New York. Rev. Steinbach is expected to go to Maryknoll, N.Y., and then proceed to Chariton for a vacation.
By late September, Steinbach had reached Chariton and described his captivity and flight from the war zone during a noon Chariton Rotary meeting on Aug. 25, 1942, which was reported upon as follows in The Leader of Aug. 29:
Difficulties of life in a Japanese concentration camp and of the journey home in overcrowded ships were related to the Chariton Rotary club by the Rev. Father Leo Steinbach of Chariton Friday.
Rev. Steinbach, a Maryknoll missionary in Korea for 11 years, returned to Chariton recently in an exchange of Japanese and American nationals arranged by the Swiss government.
"Japanese people treated us well; there was no jeering in the streets, and they gave of their meagre food generously. But of course the government, a dictatorship, gives them no opportunity to express themselves and they simply do as they are told," he said in response to a question at the end of his talk. The good treatment was strictly a civilian proposition and did not extend to the police.
The speaker apologized for being unable to tell more of the intimate details of the Japanese war effort but laughed and said that the restrictions of a concentration camp weren't conducive to learning a great deal.
The Chariton man's story follows:
"Travel had been restricted for six months prior to the declaration of war. Special permission was required in order to ride on trains and usually you were accompanied by police in order that they might answer the questions of officials who wanted to know how old you were, where you were going, where you came from, etc., at every train stop.
"I was living in Heijo (Pyongyang, the present capital of North Korea), which is the industrial city of Korea. Munitions, planes and a great many articles of war are made there.
"(U.S. Ambassador to Japan) Joseph Grew, a real diplomat, did not tell nearly all about the atrocities and the torture of American citizens that he knew. I can say that every story he released upon his return is true and more. Although thoroughly questioned upon numerous occasions, I was never tortured, although many of the missionaries in Korea and Manchukuo (Manchuria) particularly were," he stated in response to another query.
"Everyone was considered a spy, you were guilty until proven innocent and minor government officials anxious to make an impresion on superiors were always hopeful of obtaining some type of confession, said the Rev. Steinbach.
"Police visited me early on the morning after the Pearl Harbor attack and told me to stay home and promised protection immediately if any trouble arose. Three policemen, higher in rank, came later in the day and searched the house thoroughly. They pounded on walls, looked for radios, cameras, field glasses, and gathered up all letters and papers and took them to the police station.
"Later they took all of us to the police station where we were kept for 16 days. A Japanese jail is not to be considered in the same class with an American jail and it wasn't what one would term pleasant.
"We had a real Christmas present the day before Christmas when we were taken to a house of concentration. Life there was much more agreeable. We supported ourselves and could bring the food that we had in our homes there. Work of planting a garden was started immediately and we made plans for a two or three year siege.
"An Ohio University graduate who had some seeds supervised the planting and each of us was responsible for a plot. A trained agriculturist, this man did a real job as none of us had experience in raising vegetables in that area.
"We left June 1, going through the peninsula taking in other Americans as we went --- Americans and British. No Americans were left except one elderly man who had married a Korean and he sent his children.
"Our party was at Kobe (Japan) for two weeks with little opportunity to to exercise. Rooms were crowded, there being 12 in the room where I was located. We were permitted to take a few walks in the streets.
""One of our Catholic missionaries died there despite the efforts to two Presbyterian doctors and a Miss Myers, a nurse who was with him night and day with little respite. He had been in ill health. All of us, Protestants and Catholics, became close friends throughout our experiences.
"Our diet was cold fish three times a day. We never received anything hot. Upon one occasion we saw the vendor drop our box of fish in the street and five minutes later we were eating cold fish.
"Finally we journeyed to Tokyo where we were given one of the finest farewell breakfasts it has been my experience to enjoy. Everything imaginable was on the menu. Our friends had been permitted to bring us some chickens the last few days were were at Kobe, too, so that we fared well just prior to our departure. They brought us these chickens at their own personal sacrifices as everything in Japan, food, clothing, wood, etc., is rationed.
"We stayed in Tokyo bay 10 days, why we didn't know, but rumors of hitches in the negotiations worried some. During all our interment we got the newspapers. Few had worked exclusively with the Japanese and could read the papers, so it was up to me to give them the news.
"Often I didn't have the heart to tell them some of it as the Japanese marched southward, overrunning Hong Kong, the Philippines and finally Singapore. We read within a few hours after it happened that a few American planes had been over various points in Japan bombing 'schools and hospitals' and that none escaped except one to China and one to Russia.
"In our repeated questionings we got into the habit of answering by saying that 'the Japanese papers say the Japanese Empire is the instrument for lasting peace and stability in the east. Its armies are invincible, etc.' Finally one day they asked us point blank if we believed the papers. We all said a vociferous 'No!' that ended that sort of question.
"We finally sailed and picked up additional passengers as we went to Honk Kong, Saigon in French Indo-China where we also picked up internees from Siam and then to Singapore. The boat was terribly crowded. There were 70 in our cabin, formerly a smoking room. Our boat was the Asama Maru, formerly a Japanese liner on the Pacific run.
"From Singapore we went to the Dutch East Indies through the Sunda straits where we saw one half-sunken ship as the result of the fighting there.
"In none of the ports were we allowed ashore. In the Indian Ocean, many of us got seasick, adding to our distress. One of the worst things on this ship was the lack of water. The ship wasn't designed to carry nearly so many passengers and we were rationed to a very small amount a day for shaving, drinking and bathing in tropical climates. It was humorous to see some of the men washing clothes and it was the fashion to wear shirts not ironed. The water was turned on only a half hour twice a day. Frequently it was impossible to get any for extra purposes. We stood in line for long periods. Conditions in the smoker were terrible and we were never off the boat for 35 days.
"We had been joined by the Conte Verde at Singapore and went together to Lourenco Marques in Portuguese East Africa (Maputo, Mozambique). There was a Swiss representative aboard and he sent out our position by radio frequently and our ship was well lighted so that we had no fear from anything except floating mines.
"No one not experiencing it can imagine the thrill we received after being away from our homeland for so long and being among the enemy when we sailed into Lourenco Marques and saw the Stars and Stripes streaming in the breeze above an American steamer anchored there. We cheered the crew and they cheered us back and I can assure you it was one of the high points of the trip.
"We went ashore there of course. The Gripsholm, Swedish ship on which we continued, was already in port and we soon embarked for Rio de Janeiro. Conditions were much more pleasant now since it was a larger ship with more water and the temperatures were not so bad. We went ashore in Rio and did some shopping, and soon came to to New York where we got another tremendous thrill out of seeing the Statue of Liberty again.
"And I wonder if we here in America have the spirit of sacrifice necessary to keep that Statue of Liberty in New York. We have no conception of the sacrifices being made by our enemies and some of our allies. There must come a realization of this if we are to achieve victory."