This Navy WWII veteran survived the sinking of the Cruiser, ASTORIA in the battle of Savo Island, off Guadalcanal. Later, Steve served with distinction aboard the new Cruiser SANTA FE. He then traveled and made public speeches in War Bond Drives with the famous screen actor, Cesar Romero, whom he greatly admired. Postwar, he was a foreman for Bill Milburn Homes, helping make them the biggest homebuilder in Austin. Until Steves death in 1999 he treasured the many personal correspondences that he had exchanged with Cesar Romero through the years. Here is Steves story.
Lyster S. (Steve) Conditt was born in Hillsboro, Texas in 1919. His family moved to Austin where Steve dropped out of school during the depression and took a construction job. Steve enlisted in the 36th Infantry Division, Texas National Guard in July 1937. War with Japan seemed increasingly probable, so Steve enlisted, Regular Navy on July 5, 1940.
He was soon assigned to the heavy cruiser USS ASTORIA, initially serving as “Pointer” in the 5-inch gun directory. The ASTORIA was 700 miles west of Pearl Harbor, escorting the carriers, at the time of the sneak attack on December 7, 1941. ASTORIA was in numerous desperate sea battles early in the war; some of the larger of which were Coral Sea and Midway. Luck ran out for ASTORIA on the night of August 9, 1942, following the landing on Guadalcanal when a powerful Japanese force under Admiral Mikawa swept past and inflicted heavy losses on the American and Australian cruisers and destroyers assigned to protect the beaches. The ASTORIA was badly damaged in the night action. Hours later with uncontrollable fires amidships, the last of ASTORIA’s crew, isolated on the bow and the stern, were taken off by the destroyers BAGLEY and BUCHANAN. Shortly afterward, ASTORIA rolled over on her port beam, and sank by the stern. 216 crewmen were killed outright or went down with the ship, and 186 of the survivors were wounded; a total of 402 Purple Heart Medals from ASTORIA’s final action. Steve Conditt, with fragmentation wounds to both legs and to his head above the right eye, and also sustaining concussion and severe flash burns on both hands, was among the wounded survivors.
After several weeks of hospitalization, Steve joined other ASTORIA crewmen being assembled at Pearl Harbor. They were all returned to the United States together and put on 30 days “survivor leave”. Many, including Steve Conditt, then reported to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for assignment to the recently launched USS SANTA FE, still being fitted-out. SANTA FE joined the Pacific Fleet in February 1943 and served in nearly all the big operations in the Pacific until war’s end. Steve remembers riding out a monster typhoon in which two of the smaller ships sank with all hands, and the flight decks cracked on several aircraft carriers. He also tells of the March 1945 action off the coast of Japan in which SANTA FE risked its own destruction by coming alongside the stricken and burning aircraft carrier FRANKLIN, hit by a kamikaze plane, to render aid and fight the fires. Soon afterward, SANTA FE was sent back to Long Beach, CA for boiler replacement and Steve was chosen to go on a public speaking tour with Hollywood celebrities. Steve was a big hit speaking in California aircraft factories, war plants, and meetings of industry executives; so he was picked for an extended tour of all 48 States but just then V-J Day ended it all. Steve’s favorite on the team was Cesar Romero, with whom he continued to correspond until that actor’s death many years later. Steve was Regular Navy and had to remain in service until July 5, 1946 when finally discharged at Camp Wallace, Texas. He was soon back home in Austin and working in the building trade.
Steve became construction supervisor for a young developer and helped make Bill Milburn Homes one of the biggest builders in Austin. Now retired, Steve and his wife Leona [“Lilli], make their home in Austin, Texas.
Lyster S. “Steve” Conditt provide this Purple Heart story for publication in the April 1997 issue of PATRIOT BULLETIN. Steve passed away in November 1999.