Sergeant William John Steen


Service Number: 252272

Birth and Early Life:
William Steen was the son of James and Alma Steen; he was born in Westchester, New York on July 11, 1918. James died in the 1920s, and the surviving Steens – Alma and her sons Robert and William – moved in with her father, John Bateman, a Manhattan book publisher. Though the family was decently well-off, Steen enlisted in the Marine Corps as soon as he came of age.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Steen joined the Marine Corps Reserve in New York on March 30, 1936. His unit, Company A, Fleet Marine Force Reserve, was stationed on the USS Illinois at West 136th Street in Manhattan. He attended drills there once a week until November, 1940 when – by this time a corporal – he traveled down to Quantico, Virginia for additional training.

Wartime Service:

Steen joined Company L when we were at New River, at about the time that the United States entered World War II. He came from Maine, and he had served four years with the Corps in the 1930s, and then went into the Marine Reserve. At about the time of Pearl Harbor, when he returned to active duty, he joined L Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. In June 1942, just before the 5th Marine Regiment left the States for duty in the South Pacific Steen [and others] were all promoted to the rank of platoon sergeant. Steen was a friendly guy by nature, but that took nothing away from the fact that he was also very competent. He was in his mid to late twenties at the time, about five-foot-ten, with light hair and light complexion. He always had a smile on his face. (1)

Steen proved to be a popular leader, and had a good friend in a Marine named Francis “Chink” McAllen. However, he seemed to have a premonition that his first combat would be his last. McAllen sought out one of his friends on the night of August 6, 1942. He was in a state of some consternation.

I put down my book, and he started telling me what was bothering him. A little earlier that evening, right after chow, Chink’s closest friend, Sgt. William Steen, had quietly cornered him and handed him a sealed envelope.

“What’s this?” McAllan had asked.

“It’s a letter,” Steen said. “To my wife.”

Both Steen and McAllan were from Portland, Maine. Steen had gotten special leave just before we’d left stateside and had married a hometown girl. Now Steen was giving Chink the letter he’d just written her.

“I’ve got a strange feeling,” Steen told him. “I don’t think I’m going to make it through the Guadalcanal operation.”

At first Chink tried to scoff, but seeing that Steen was serious, he grew distressed.

“Look, Chink,” Steen said, “if anybody’s going to make it through this war, you will. After the Guadalcanal operation, please mail this letter to my wife.”

Now Chink was telling me Steen’s story. “Why me?” Chink asked. “Why did he choose me to take this responsibility?” (2)

The Fifth Marines landed on Guadalcanal to no opposition. As the men dug in that night, they were admonished to hold their fire unless sure of hitting an enemy soldier. However, all were nervous, and some Marines broke fire discipline at the sound of a crawling lizard or land crab which, to the untrained ear, sounded like an Japanese infiltrator.

Date Of Loss:
On the first night on Guadalcanal, the Marines were careful to set out security details to give early warning of impending attacks. The commander of Company L selected Sergeant William Steen for this detail; Steen picked out four of his best men and took care to pass the word that he would be back once they were dug in.

He led the his men out and they vanished almost immediately into the dense, tall kunai grass that grew everywhere around us. After establishing the forward outpost, Steen headed back toward the perimeter alone. By now darkness was total, and what little visibility the night sky might have given us was nullified by the kunai grass.

Several men in Steen’s platoon heard the sound of somebody thrashing through the grass, coming in their direction. Nobody had a clue as to where the Japanese were, or whether they’d located our position. A voice came to the platoon through the darkness, low but clear.

“OK, men. It’s me.”

A shot rang out as Sergeant Steen spoke. One of his men, frightened and trigger-happy, had squeezed off a round from his rifle. It hit Steen in the chest. Within seconds, the men got him back behind the line, but it was no good. He was bleeding profusely, and within three minutes, he was dead.

Later that night, the man who had shot Steen cracked up. Corpsmen took the man away, and nobody in our unit ever heard from him or about him again….

After the accident that took Steen’s life, during our bivouac in the high grass on our first night on the Canal, nobody ever talked about it. The way he was killed was the kind of thing you never want to happen, and when it did happen, we just did not want to talk about it. On the night he was killed, I was dug in a few feet away from my own platoon sergeant, our platoon leader, and [another sergeant]. Steen’s unit was dug in to our right, not much more than twenty or twenty-five yards from us. It was too dark to see anything, but I heard the bang of a rifle shot, and a yell, then somebody hollering, “Get the corpsman!” Soon I heard the corpsman’s voice: “We gotta get him out of here right away.” But Steen was dead by the time they started to move him. He was buried in the marines’ cemetery on Guadalcanal. We were lucky to have a man like Bill Steen in our unit, and his death was a tragedy. (3)

Next Of Kin:
Mother, Mrs Alma V. Steen

Status Of Remains:

Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
Long Island National Cemetery, Plot MA 0 95
(1) On The Canal: The Marines of L-3-5 on Guadalcanal, 1942 by Ore J. Marion, Thomas Cuddihy, and Edward Cuddihy, pg 273-274.
(2) Ibid, 24. “Chink” McAllen (March 2, 1916 – January 23, 2004) served from 1940-1945 and was from Portland, Maine. There is no indication in readily available records that Steen ever lived in Portland, though he may have spent some time there while growing up. Subsequent evidence leaves little doubt that the William Steen of New York is the same William Steen in this account.
(3) Ibid, 38 and 274.

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