MECHANICVILLE, N.Y. – Stephen Dennis enlisted in the Navy soon after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Less than a year later, the raw 19-year-old recruit was thrust into fighting off the Solomon Islands and survived one of the fiercest naval battles in the South Pacific.
By the end of the war, the young sailor from upstate New York was a shipboard radioman helping news organizations get the word out to the world that the Japanese had officially surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945.
As Wednesday's 70th anniversary of the surrender approached, Dennis reminisced recently about his military service, which began aboard the ill-fated USS Atlanta.
"If I didn't send it, they didn't get it"
- Stephen Dennis
"I was fighting all the time," Dennis, 93, said inside the public library in Mechanicville, his hometown 18 miles north of Albany. "Either they were shooting at us or we were shooting at them."
Dennis enlisted four days after the Dec. 7, 1941 aerial assault on Hawaii brought the U.S. into the war. After an accelerated boot camp that lasted just 14 days, he was assigned to the Atlanta, a newly commissioned light cruiser. By the spring of 1942 the Atlanta was in the Pacific, where the ship participated in the Battle of Midway.
On Nov. 13, 1942, the ship was hit by a torpedo and surface fire from enemy ships as well as friendly fire from the USS San Francisco during a chaotic night battle near the island of Guadalcanal, the largest in the Solomon Islands. Dennis was below deck in the forward part of the Atlanta, helping load powder for guns that got so hot "we had to hose them down," he said.
More than a third of the Atlanta's crew was killed, including the admiral commanding the ship, which was later scuttled because it was so severely damaged. The U.S. lost five other ships, casualties of the Japanese navy's superiority in night fighting early in the war.
Boats were sent out from Guadalcanal to rescue the surviving Atlanta crewmembers. When Dennis stepped on shore — "I didn't even get my feet wet," he recalled — a buddy from back home who was serving in the Marines spotted him.
"I spent three days in his foxhole, and he fed me, too," Dennis said.
Despite the drubbings the U.S. suffered in the sea battles, the outgunned and under-supplied Navy helped turn the tide of the war in the Pacific in the Allies' favor, said Mark Evans, historian at the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C.
"They fought on a shoe string," Evans said. "But Guadalcanal is where we turned the Japanese back."
Dennis was sent to the nearby island of Tulagi, where he was trained as a radio operator working with torpedo-equipped PT boats based there. He eventually was sent home for a brief leave before being assigned to a destroyer. A case of tonsillitis kept him from returning to the Pacific aboard the destroyer, so he was assigned to the USS Ancon, a communications command ship. The Ancon participated in the Okinawa campaign in the spring of 1945 and was later sent to Japan, where it anchored near the Missouri for the formal surrender ceremony.
Working in the Ancon's radio shack, Dennis spent Sept. 2, 1945, assisting U.S. wire service reporters by punching their stories of the surrender into a teletype machine and transmitting the accounts to their news organizations for distribution worldwide. "If I didn't send it, they didn't get it," Dennis said.
Hours later, when he was finally finished, Dennis said he told his commanding officer: "I'm done. You can't keep me anymore."
Back home after four years in the service, Dennis and his wife, Mary, raised three children while he worked more than 30 years at the local paper mill. In August 2014, Dennis was awarded six medals he was entitled to for his WWII service but never received. He considers himself fortunate to have survived some of the war's biggest sea battles, especially that horrific night when the Atlanta met its doom.
"I think how lucky I was to walk off of it with all the dead people around," he said.