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A Trek of Memories
The only glimpse Jean Paul ever got of her father came from a handful of yellowed photos.
William Steinhurst was already deployed in World War II when she was born. He died in a plane crash near the French Alps in November 1944 when she was five months old.
This weekend, the 67-year-old retired social worker from Elkins Park will get closer to her father than she's ever been as she travels to Europe for the very first time to visit his grave on Memorial Day.
"There's a part of me that's scared and a part of me that's really excited," Paul admitted a few days before her departure.
Growing up, Paul collected what few tidbits she could about her father's life and personality: He'd graduated from MIT and worked as an engineer for the Boston sanitation department.
Both he and his brother voluntarily enlisted. He was first dispatched to a special malaria control unit in Africa. From there, he was sent to Italy. He later fell ill and was supposedly headed to a hospital in France when his plane crashed amid a patch of bad weather near Lyon.
There were so many casualties from the war that the government set up temporary cemeteries on foreign soil. The American Battle Monuments Commission still maintains 24 such burial grounds, including the Rhone American Cemetery, about an hour from the coastal city of Nice, where Steinhurst was buried.
It wasn't until after Paul's mother, Marion Steinhurst Shapiro, died in 1996 that she found letters from the U.S. government noting that he was being given appropriate burial honors in France since the family had decided not to have his body returned to the country.
Paul said it was always hard for her mother, who had remarried, to talk about her first husband. She'd moved in with her parents so she could go back to school for a master's degree in education, "trying very hard to make sure I had whatever opportunities she wanted me to have," Paul said.
"She was very focused on moving ahead with life." Unlike today, "where it's very open and there's grief counselors and everything," Paul said, she was simply the kid who didn't have a father because he died in the war -- "and that was just the way it was."
Paul said she'd often thought about visiting her father's grave but couldn't bring herself to go.
Then, three years ago, she joined the American World War II War Orphans Network, or AWON for short. Even though the children of the more than 400,000 U.S. serviceman who died in the war generally still had a mother or other relative to support them, the government declared them "war orphans," which qualified them to apply for financial assistance and college scholarships.
As a child, Paul said, she "never knew a soul" who had lost a father in the war. Through the non-profit organization's email list, she connected to hundreds of them, including one woman from Northeast Philly who she recently met up with for lunch.
She even got in touch with the brother of a soldier who died in the same plane wreck as her father. He drove up from Virginia four days before her trip to give her a copy of a memoir written by a Frenchman who was involved in establishing a monument at the crash site.
Paul said she'd never considered her father a war hero because he wasn't in combat. But a volunteer who coordinates wreath deliveries to military cemeteries helped her realize how crucial he and other support soldiers were to the American effort. This year, she'll be the "war orphan" representative delivering the wreath.
Paul said she's been blown away by the honor given to a Jewish soldier and his family. Volunteers from a French war veteran's organization have gone out of their way to help her and her husband, Leonard, plan their trip and meet with local dignitaries. Per her request, she said, one volunteer is even arranging to have a rabbi at the ceremony and vegetarian food available so that they don't have to worry about eating meat that isn't kosher.
"I'm being treated like a celebrity although I didn't do anything," Paul marveled.
Warm welcome aside, Paul said she's bracing for a bumpy, emotional ride and, maybe, a sense of healing.
"I was always very sad and sorry that I did not have a father, but I do not feel that he died in vain," Paul said. "Hitler had to be stopped and that's the bottom line. Peace is one of the most important things in the world that we have to work toward because I am a living testimonial of what it is like to have the impact of war and death."