Robert C. Steele

I developed a fascination with combat and the military services when I was kid. I regularly played soldier, usually recruiting my brother Wayne and our next-door neighbor Brad Henderson to play with me. Wayne and Brad were both two years younger. I suspect most boys growing up in the 50s and 60s played soldier. Many of the top TV shows and movies during that time were about war, primarily World War II, but also the Civil War and first World War. It is no wonder then, that I grew up expecting I would join the Army.

Aside from the media exposure, my youthful aspiration to become a soldier was due in large part to my adulation of two men – Lieutenant Colonel G. Fred Steele, my paternal grandfather, and Brigadier General James W. Holsinger, a neighbor.

My granddad was a 42-year-old civil engineer with the City of Atlanta when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Army shortly after war was declared and was commissioned as a Major. Given that he was a professional engineer, he was assigned to the Corps of Engineers. I have not been able to find much information online about his service, but I do know that he served as the Commandant of the U.S. Army’s Axis Prisoner of War Camps located in nearby Winston-Salem, North Carolina. According to the online Encyclopedia of North Carolina (https://www.ncpedia.org/world-war-ii-part-4-prisoners-war), there were 18 camps in North Carolina during World War II with approximately 10,000 German prisoners of war.

The POW Camp that my granddad was in charge of housed wounded German Officers. He showed me a picture of him as he feigned dancing with one of the prisoners who was wearing pajamas, a robe, and slippers. If I recall correctly, the POW was a Colonel. They were both laughing. Obviously, there was no security concern. However, I read that one of the German prisoners from that Camp escaped and turned himself in to authorities six or seven years later.

My granddad retired from the Army on March 12, 1947, at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. I believe his retirement was due to stomach ulcers. A few years later he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. His stomach and part of his small intestines were removed. The cancer recurred twice years later and most of his small intestines were removed. He survived the cancer and lived to age 95. He passed away while battling a bladder infection.

He was a Ham Radio operator for more than 60 years. I became interested when I was twelve years old, and with the help of a neighborhood friend’s dad, Lem Grimes (W4LEN), I got my Novice Class License at age thirteen. I upgraded my license to Technician Class the next year and to General Class when I was sixteen. Years later, I upgraded my license to Advanced Class. In the 1990s, the FCC changed the rules and allowed family members of deceased Ham Radio operators to use their Call Signs. I took advantage of the rule change as soon as I read about it and have been proudly using his Call Sign W4EGJ.

Me and Granddad sitting at his Ham Radio station in his basement.

*    *    *

My dad, G. Fred Steele, Jr. was active in politics in Durham and was drafted by Republican Party officials to run for Congress in 1966 in the 5th Congressional District. He asked a friend and neighbor to serve as his campaign manager. That gentleman was a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General. General James Wilson Holsinger held a two-star wartime commission (Major General) during World War II, which was reduced to one-star at his retirement.

When my brother Wayne and I learned that we had an Army General living up the street and that he was working with our dad, we immediately got on our bicycles and made our way to his home to introduce ourselves and ask him questions about his service. The General and his wife graciously let us visit his study so that we could look at his array of awards and memorabilia collected during his 33-year Army career. I recall both of us doing a lot of oohing and aahing.

During WWII, General Holsinger served on the staff of Generals George S. Patton, Jr. during the North African Campaign and Omar Nelson Bradley during the Italian Campaign. The two generals recommended him for the Distinguished Service Medal. Despite the recommendations from two of the Army’s top Generals, it was not awarded to him. According to a tribute obituary written about him by Michael Robert Patterson, “What he really would have liked to have was the paper they both signed.”[1]

Dad lost the election but garnered a respectable 46.9% share of the vote. He ran again in 1968. Due to state redistricting, Durham was shifted to the 4th Congressional District. He lost again but increased his share of the vote to 48.5%. A couple of days after the 1968 election, then President Elect Richard M. Nixon, called dad at home and told him that he would like to offer him a Presidential Appointment with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Dad accepted the nomination. Some Democrats in the U.S. Senate who were upset with Nixon’s election delayed the Presidential appointee confirmation hearing process and dad had to wait until March 25, 1969. However, he breezed through the process and received a unanimous vote. He held the position of Federal Co-chairman of the Coastal Plains Regional Commission until he resigned in mid-year of 1974.

*    *    *


[1] James Wilson Holsinger – Brigadier General; United States Army

  January 30, 2023 by Michael Robert Patterson; https://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/jwholsinger.htm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s