Listen: Portraits of Valor - Joe Stephes, 99, Navy

As part of MPR’s “Portraits of Valor” series, MPR’s Evan Frost profiles Minnesotan Joe Stephes, who enlisted in the Navy before the United States officially entered World War II.

Stephes served in 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. The USS Wichita later moved to the Pacific campaign.

This is one of six profiles in series.

Click links below for other profiles in series:


2020 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Series - Large Market Radio category


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CATHY WURZER: All this year we've been marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. 2020 marks the last major anniversary of the war where many who served are still alive to share their stories. Our photographer Evan Frost began interviewing Minnesota veterans before the pandemic hit last winter. And since then, he's been coming on the show to talk about those he has met and their wonderful stories. Evan, good to hear from you again this morning. How are you?

EVAN FROST: I'm doing well. Thanks, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Good. I know you're going to tell us about a man named Joe Stephes today. Tell us about Joe.

EVAN FROST: So Joe is 99 years old. He'll be coming up on 100 in January. He grew up in Minnesota and around South St. Paul and lives in Bloomington now. I actually met him last year at a Twins game back when we could do that kind of stuff. And later on, actually in January, I went to interview him with one of our editors, Chris Graves at his apartment.


EVAN FROST: His son Tom was there with us too.

TOM: Just like Stevens, no N.

CATHY WURZER: How did Mr. Stephes get into the service?

EVAN FROST: Over the course of this project I've heard a lot of stories about patriotism and just feeling like a call to join in the war effort. But Joe actually, he told me he joined because he wanted to get away from his family.

JOE STEPHES: I wanted to get away from my mother.

EVAN FROST: He said his mom was mean.

JOE STEPHES: She was mean, mean as heck.

EVAN FROST: So before he joined the Navy at 20, he worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Northern Minnesota clearing snow, dragging logs down the Gunflint Trail.

JOE STEPHES: And snow would be up eight feet deep. There was no-- nothing like today.

EVAN FROST: But when he got home, he could hardly stand being around his mother, so he decided to enlist in the Navy.

JOE STEPHES: And my mother just laughed. She says, "You're not going into service. You're just telling me that."

EVAN FROST: His mom didn't believe him until he shipped out a few weeks later.

CATHY WURZER: So when did he get into the Navy?

EVAN FROST: This was in early 1941.

JOE STEPHES: That was February 27, 1941.

EVAN FROST: And he says he enlisted in part because the Navy was paying a decent salary of $21 a month.

JOE STEPHES: And automatically, you go to see him on 2nd, and you got $36 a month.

CATHY WURZER: OK so he joined the Navy in early 1941. Pearl Harbor was in December of '41. Was he at Pearl Harbor then?

EVAN FROST: Well, it's kind of an incredible story. He should have been, but he wasn't.

TOM: My father had a real stroke of luck. In boot camp when he first joined the Navy, everybody was ready to graduate, and then you got cat fever. And you take over the story because this is where your luck really held out.

JOE STEPHES: I went to sickbay that morning. And that's the little shack there. And I went in and I says, "I don't feel too good."

EVAN FROST: So he went to the sickbay, and he was so sick that when he tried to stand up and walk to the hospital, he passed out.

JOE STEPHES: I went up and down I went.

EVAN FROST: He just had such a high fever and was so weak that it kept him there for about a month.

JOE STEPHES: And if I'd have stayed, wouldn't have gotten sick. I'd have went to Hawaii. Just like the rest of them.

SPEAKER 1: How many of those fellas survived?

SPEAKER 2: Who knows.

JOE STEPHES: I don't know. I don't know.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. So where did Joe end up serving?

EVAN FROST: So first, he was in the Atlantic. His ship's mission was to guard supply ships heading to Murmansk, Russia from German planes and submarines. He told me one story of taking a convoy up to Russia along the coast of France.

JOE STEPHES: And that was supposed to have been secured. The Germans were supposed to be out of there.

EVAN FROST: They were pulling into a bay that they thought was safe, but all of a sudden, their ship was broadside to three German warships.

JOE STEPHES: These three ships opened fire on us point blank. It killed 14 of my shipmates. And the only thing that saved me, it knocked me off the seat against the bulkhead. And I laid there I don't know how long.

CATHY WURZER: Boy, you have to think there is a lot of trauma as you recall something like that.

EVAN FROST: Yeah. And these are the kinds of stories I've been hearing from all the veterans I've interviewed. Joe, like others, still has nightmares to this day.

JOE STEPHES: I do. I get nightmares.

EVAN FROST: He told me a story actually from a night before the attack. He was off duty in Glasgow, Scotland at a bar with some fellow sailors. And a woman came up to him and asked him if he was Catholic.

JOE STEPHES: She looked at me, she says, "You're a Catholic boy, aren't you?" And I looked at her and I said, "Yes, ma'am." She says, "I'm going to give you something that's been in my family for four generations."

EVAN FROST: It was a medal, a Saint Christopher medal. And she said it would keep him safe.

JOE STEPHES: That's what she said to me. You keep this around your neck, it'll protect you through the war.

EVAN FROST: He was wearing the medal during the attack, has worn it ever since, and has had it on for more than 70 years.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. So where was when the war ended?

EVAN FROST: So his ship had left the Atlantic. It actually passed through the Panama Canal to join the Pacific theater.

JOE STEPHES: The B-29s came in and landed on Tinian.

EVAN FROST: He actually was near the island when the planes took off with the atomic bomb.

JOE STEPHES: And they got off the plane. They put them in these caves.

EVAN FROST: He remembers knowing that there was something significant going on with those planes, but didn't know that it was the A-bomb.

JOE STEPHES: We knew they were going someplace, but we didn't know where. And we didn't know it was an atomic bomb. They never told us.

EVAN FROST: And the image that's really stuck with him is an aircraft factory that he'd seen.

JOE STEPHES: It was about two blocks square. And when we saw that afterwards after the atomic bomb hit there, there was just those three white collars towers that were up. The rest of the building just shattered all to heck and nothing.

EVAN FROST: So he really saw the destruction firsthand.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. I'm curious, how did serving in World War two shape his view of our world today?

EVAN FROST: He, like so many of these men and women I've talked to, really feel strongly about the sacrifices they made to protect our country and our values. And I interviewed him in January before COVID and most of this year's other events. But he talked about the violence and polarization he sees in our society.

JOE STEPHES: I go shopping and I see somebody come walking. I say, "Good morning." They look at me, who the heck are you to talk to me?

EVAN FROST: He told me a story from his time serving in the honor guard representing the armed forces at funerals of veterans.

JOE STEPHES: We'd go to different cemeteries. And I-- excuse me-- I folded the flag and present it to the widow, a verse from the federal government.

EVAN FROST: But this one time, he says a woman, a widow with two sons kept asking if she could hug him during the ceremony.

JOE STEPHES: We were at this cemetery and her two sons were standing beside her. She kept saying, "Can I hug you? Can I hug you?"

EVAN FROST: And it sounded like he didn't know what to do.

JOE STEPHES: And I kept right on saying the words and holding the flag.

EVAN FROST: So he just went on with the ceremony.

JOE STEPHES: And all of a sudden, she threw her arms around me.

EVAN FROST: Finally, she just went in for the hug. And I think it's this human connection that he and I think all of us are of missing right now.


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