Frank Steer, WWII provost marshal
Honorary Army Maj. Gen. William Frank Steer, who played a pivotal role in the state's history as provost marshal for the Islands during a period of martial law in World War II, died Tuesday at the age of 105.
His duties as provost marshal ranged from rooting out suspected spies and monitoring the food supply, to overseeing the courts, prisons and police. Steer, who died at the Veterans Center for Aging at Tripler Army Medical Center, also was in charge of more than 10,000 prisoners of war who were brought here from Italy and Japan.
"I think for the most part, Col. Steer's role has been probably underrated by history and not remembered that well, and even undervalued because very few people knew who operated as provost," said Daniel Martinez, a historian for the National Park Service's USS Arizona Memorial. "I think his passing will bring some awareness to his contribution."
Steer retired as a colonel but was named an honorary major general on active duty at age 102.
In the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i was transformed from a tranquil U.S. territory under civil law into a martial law state governed by the military.
The efforts of leaders such as Army Lt. Gen. Delos Emmons, then-Honolulu police liaison John A. Burns and Steer helped smooth that transition and made it more palatable for Hawai'i's citizenry, Martinez said. Steer took his cues from Emmons, the commanding general who had extraordinary powers under martial law.
Steer was born Jan. 12, 1901, in Agra, Okla. By the time war broke out on Dec. 7, 1941, Steer had already seen combat in the Meus Argonne Offensive in World War I, served after the war in France, and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Donald Devaney, provost marshal at Tripler Army Medical Center and Steer's honorary administrative aide, said he was "not corruptible" and was well-respected by police and vice purveyors alike.
"They thought he was hard but fair," said Devaney, who said Steer's life inspired fictional characters in the novel and movie "From Here to Eternity" and the TV miniseries "Pearl."
Steer retired as a colonel in 1950, spending his final three years as the first provost marshal of the U.S. Air Force.
In honor of his long and distinguished military service, the U.S. Army, with the help of Hawai'i Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel Akaka, in 2003 named Steer an honorary major general. His military duties consisted of writing reminiscences for a West Point journal.
A year later, he was awarded France's highest military decoration, the Legion of Honor.
At the time of his death, Steer was the oldest living graduate of West Point and also had the distinction of being the only survivor of World War I still on active duty.
"He really epitomizes the 'duty, honor, country' motto of West Point," Devaney said.
"He told stories, he had a rascally personality, but when the chips were down, you could believe him," Devaney said. "He would never lie."
Still, when Steer was too young to join the military he did bend the truth by changing his name.
During World War I, Steer participated in four battles in France but said later, "I don't think I killed anybody." Operating what today would be known as mobile post exchange unit, he brought supplies to the soldiers on the front in a 5-ton, chain-drive truck.
Shells dropped around him as he dispensed toothpaste. One day they ran out of supplies. Steer ordered the truck driver to drive 100 miles through shot and shell to a supply depot. When Steer found the warehouse door was locked, he broke the lock in the dark and was back on the front the next day dispensing soda water.
After returning from the "Great War," Steer received an appointment to West Point, where he taught math for several years. He then served in the Philippines before being assigned to Hawai'i in 1940.
While in Hawai'i, Steer fell in love with one of its most glamorous hula dancers, Tootsie Notley. She left her gas mask in the car after dancing at the officer's club. Notley, a pure Hawaiian, came back for the gas mask and Steer asked her to lunch. They later married.
Doveline "Dovie" Borges, one of Steer's three daughters, said her father was often direct and would "take command of a situation."
But he also had a tremendous sense of humor and "was not about getting into quibbles and squabbles," Borges said. "He really liked harmony. If he could, he would avoid confrontation."
His storybook soldier's life may have helped shape his "don't sweat the small stuff" approach to life.
Steer is survived by two other daughters, Twylla-Dawn Steer and Bobbie Steer; sister-in-law Martha Makaiwi; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
A service will be at 11 a.m. March 22 at the Committal Center at the Hawai'i State Veterans Center. A private burial will be held later. In lieu of flowers, donations in the name of Honorary Maj. Gen. Frank Steer may be sent to the Disabled American Veterans, P.O. Box 14301, Cincinnati, OH, 45250-0301.