It took three years, 11 months, 25 days and 10 hours for Stephen Dennis to close the chapter on his career in the U.S. Navy.
While in service in the Pacific during World War II, he witnessed at least three battles at sea, was aboard a light cruiser that was sunk, relayed messages to then-Lt. John F. Kennedy and ultimately sent word of the Japanese surrender to the United States via teletype. But when Dennis returned to civilian life, any thoughts about his combat service were pushed to the deep recesses of memory.
“I was more glad the war was over than anything else,” he recalled. “It was the end of the war, and I was going home, getting out of the service.”
And after all, there wasn’t much Dennis wanted to remember about the war — the recollections he brought back to his hometown of Stillwater weren’t pleasant. The thought of having medals made him bristle.
“They were of no value to me except to look at and remind me of some things I didn’t want to remember,” said Dennis, who turned 92 today.
His attitude toward the medals hasn’t changed much, but a desire to pass them on to his family prompted a collaborative effort that culminated this week in his being presented the medals — eight distinctions in all — he earned some 70 years ago.
“Oftentimes, we’re honoring World War II veterans that are no longer with us,” said Frank McClement, Saratoga County’s veterans service officer. “It’s really special to be able to honor one of these vets, look him in the eye and then shake his hand.”
Dennis was awarded a World War II Victory Medal, an American Campaign Medal, an Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze stars, a Navy Occupation Service Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon and a Combat Action Ribbon, all distinctions due him when he left the service in November 1945. In addition, he was presented Saratoga County’s Veterans Service Medal and the state Senate’s Liberty Medal.
Like many of his generation, Dennis enlisted in the Navy just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Within five months, he was headed into the battle raging in the Pacific.
Stationed aboard the USS Atlanta, Dennis was an apprentice seaman earning $21 per month. His cruiser brushed against the Battle of the Coral Sea and then escorted the USS Horne, which was diverted to the Battle of Midway.
By fall, Dennis was bound for Guadalcanal, where the Atlanta was to provide shell cover for Marines invading the island. The vessel came under heavy fire in mid-November, took a torpedo hit and was struck by nearly 50 shells.
“I was scared,” he said. “Everybody was.”
Rendered inoperable and with roughly two-thirds of its 600-plus member crew either missing or killed, the Atlanta was abandoned and scuttled. Dennis was among the those who survived the onslaught.
Afterward, he was assigned to serve as a PT boat radioman stationed off the island of Tulagi. After serving two years on the small craft, he was moved to the USS Ancon, which participated in the amphibious assault of Okinawa and was subsequently the press ship that accompanied the USS Missouri to Tokyo Bay to report on the surrender of the Japanese.
After the war, Dennis settled back into life, got married, landed a job at the Westvaco Pulp and Paper in Mechanicville and had three children. He worked 31 years at the plant, got a new job at Adirondack Steel and watched his children have families of their own.
His life went on for more than a half-century before the subject of his service medals arose. During the mid-1990s, his 16-year-old grandson asked about them and then-U.S. Rep. Gerald Solomon — himself a veteran — helped obtain some of the distinctions Dennis had earned in the Pacific.
Only the effort was fleeting. His wife, Mary, fell ill, and medals didn’t pay hospital bills, so the notion of tracking down the service medals again fell to the wayside, until this year. Dennis now has two great-grandchildren on the way, and he figured the medals may one day mean something to them.
This spring, Dennis was at a senior citizens banquet attended by Mechanicville city Supervisor Tom Richardson, who discussed some of the services for veterans offered by the county. Afterward, Dennis approached him to ask if there was anything the county could do to secure the long-overdue medals.
Richardson, who knew Dennis for years, was surprised.
“When he told me that, I said there’s no reason we can’t find these for you,” Richardson said.
McClement then helped sift through documents verifying Dennis’ service and contacted the National Personnel Records Center to have the medals supplied. He said the combination of records Dennis had, combined with discharge records from the Navy ships, made finding what medals he was due a fairly simple task.
“Really, it was a matter of trying to make sure we had the correct medals he was entitled to,” he said.
The medals were mounted and presented to Dennis during a service Thursday at the American Legion post in Mechanicville. The presentation couldn’t have been more timely — just two days before his birthday.
“A lot of these guys who came home from World War II, very few of them talked about where they were, what they did or what happened,” Richardson said. “He is one of those guys, and in my eyes, he’s a hero.”