Portraits of Valor: Joe Stephes, 99, Navy

He enlisted before the war and served until its end

A black and white photo of a man frost waist up.
World War II Navy veteran Joe Stephes inside of his Bloomington, Minn., apartment on Jan. 14.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Joe Stephes enlisted in the Navy before the United States officially entered World War II.

“I wanted to get away from my mother, she was mean as heck!” he said.

He grew up in South St. Paul and enlisted at 20, but before he could, he had to find out his real last name, which his mother refused to tell him. 

He tried to find out from relatives and friends and eventually found the record of Joseph Stephes at the church where he was baptized. With his real name in hand, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent to basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. 

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A black and white photo of a medallion around a man's neck.
Joe Stephes' St. Christopher medal that he says kept him safe during the war and in life. It was given to him by a woman at a bar in Glasgow, Scotland, during the war and he has worn it for more than 70 years.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When he was nearing the end of boot camp, he fell ill with what he called “cat fever” and he was sent to the sick bay where he collapsed.

As he lay in the hospital, the rest of his company graduated and shipped out, most of them heading to Pearl Harbor, months before it would be attacked by Japanese forces.

Stephes doesn’t know how many of his fellow sailors were killed in the attack. 

After he recovered, he shipped out to the Atlantic on the USS Wichita. The ship’s mission was to guard supply ships from German attacks as they made their way to Murmansk, Russia. He was nearly killed when his ship was caught broadside to a German attack. Fourteen of his shipmates on deck were killed, and the blast threw him behind a bulkhead that he credits with saving his life. 

As the war neared its end, his ship passed through the Panama Canal to join in the Atlantic theater. He saw B-29 planes parked at his base, but didn’t know they carried the atomic bomb. After the bombs were dropped, he was sent to Nagasaki, Japan, where he saw the destruction firsthand. 

Now, nearing his 100th birthday, he still has nightmares from his experiences in the war. But he also sees society differently. He doesn’t see strangers helping each other or being kind like when he was young. 

A black and white photo of a man looking at the camera.
World War II Navy veteran Joe Stephes.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“When I was a kid, you could go anyplace and everybody helped one another. Everybody got along. Today, all of this shooting, shooting, shooting,” Stephes said. “The only time I have had a rifle in my hand is when I was in the honor guard, for 30 years with the VFW.” 

Photojournalist Evan Frost and former MPR News editor Chris Graves interviewed Joe Stephes. Click the player on top of this story to hear parts of their conversation.

This is part of MPR News’ Portraits of Valor series, which features Minnesota’s World War II veterans.