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Souvenirs of Service: World War II-era gown has Chippewa Valley roots – WQOW TV News 18

Lt. Colonel Dick Steiner, USAF, CA 1970-73
Aviation Cadet, 1943
B-29 crew, Dick Steiner pictured standing third from right side.
Pictured: Dick and Majil, 1941
Majil pictured in parachute evening gown

CHIPPEWA VALLEY (WQOW) – A piece of western Wisconsin history is currently on display at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. This souvenir of service was made during World War II, right here in the Chippewa Valley. 
“It’s one of those objects that oh you look at it and it’s just a white dress, but then you start to understand the backstory,” said Chris Kolakowski, director of the WI Veterans Museum. “Then it has a whole new power and a whole new perspective.”
Nov. 21st, 1944, dawned gloomy and bitter. I found myself in a small rice paddy, soaked to the skin, hopelessly entangled in a maze of bamboo and parachute cord and covered by an expanse of white nylon that draped over the tall grasses like an untidy tent.
Lt. Colonel Dick Steiner, USAF, CA 1970-73
It’s a day Lt. Colonel Floyd D. Steiner (known to family and friends as Dick Steiner) would recount in text 30 years later. It was an assignment for a course at Sacramento Community College. The story, true to the finest detail. 
“My dad was a farm boy,” said Dave Steiner.
Dick grew up just outside of Gilmanton. 
“He was attracted to the romance of being a pilot,” said Dave. “My dad’s math skills were so high, that he was persuaded to become a navigator.”
Aviation Cadet, 1943
So, Dick became a navigator for the Army Air Corps, known today, as the Air Force. 
The ordeal began, with my crew in a B-29 on a routine bombing mission over the Japanese port city of Omura.
Steiner was the navigator aboard the “Snafuperbomber.” 
B-29 crew, Dick Steiner pictured standing third from right side.
“Snafu is kind of military parlance for situation normal all fouled up,” said Dave.
I heard the ominous rumble of the “50’s” in the upper turret near my head, and the anti-climactic rattle of spent casings falling into the collector bin near my feet; this ceased abruptly as the entire front cockpit erupted in acrid smoke and screaming fragments.
The bomber took on enemy fire, forcing the crew into a life or death decision.
We all agreed that we should try to make it to a parachute landing in China.
The surviving crew members flew the crippled plane back across the China Sea.
As we reached a remote area near Hungtse Lake, the final radio report went out, ‘Actor 38 abandoning ship.’ I dropped through the hatch and experienced a sensation of absolute quiet, a great sense of relief a dreamy, unreal feeling that I was being born upward by the fragile fabric suspended above me.
Crashing down into the water and mud of the rice paddy below, a local farmer came to his aid. 
My new-found Chinese friend, in spite of the language barrier, recognized the tiny replica of the Stars and Stripes on my shoulder.
Dick was soon-after smuggled back to safety and returned to his base in India. It’s an incredible story of survival and later, of love.
“Where he was flying from in China and in India, he was about as far away from Wisconsin as you can be and still be on planet Earth,” said Kolakowski.
Waiting patiently for his safe return home was his wife, Majil.
Pictured: Dick and Majil, 1941
“They were really joined at the hip,” said Dave.
Majil was born and raised in Mondovi. She was an artist and a teacher. While looking for a teaching opportunity, Majil met the Steiner family when she interviewed for a job. One of the family members happened to be on the school’s board of directors. 
“As it happened, she needed a place to live,” said Dave. “And she boarded with the Steiner family on the farm.”
Dick and Majil were inseparable since. 
While at war and after Dick’s brush with death, he sent his beloved wife a gift. He sent her the parachute that saved his life.
“It says something about their bond, that he saved the parachute, sent it to her,” said Kolakowski.
It was a gift with one condition, Dick requested she make an evening gown from its precious and valuable silk.
“She had the dress made and then sent a picture back with her in the dress that he then carried as a good luck charm throughout the rest of the war,” added Kolakowski.
Majil pictured in parachute evening gown
So, at a glance, it may look like ‘just a white dress,’ but these souvenirs of service give us a look into the past.
“We all collect souvenirs of some important part of our life,” said Kolakowski. “And for many of these veterans, their service was one of, if not the most important period of their lives. Those stories need to be remembered so that they can inspire and instruct the current generation, but also generations in the future.”
Dick would go on to serve for a total of 31 years.
“He stayed in, remained on flying status, as a navigator the entire time,” said Dave.
Every time he’d come home, Majil would be waiting for him.
“When my dad was on his death bed, I told him ‘Dad you hit the jackpot. You were so lucky. How could you expect more than to spend 72 years with that wonderful woman.'”
Dick Steiner passed away in December of 2015. Majil passed away Nov. 13 of this year. The gown is featured in an exhibit called “Souvenirs of Service: The Things They Kept.” The exhibit will be up for 18 months at the WI Veterans Museum.
Below is the copy of Dick Steiner’s bailout. He recounts what happened on Nov. 21, 1944.
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