California veteran was in Japan when World War II officially ended 75 years ago
By STEVEN MAYER | The Bakersfield Californian | Published: September 3, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — He grew up on a ranch, joined the U.S. Army at 17, served in the Pacific during World War II and landed in Japan with the Allied occupation forces on Sept. 2, 1945.
Exactly 75 years ago.
Now nearing his 94th birthday, Bakersfield, California, resident William Stephens knows he was witnessing history. Even as he and other members of the 1st Cavalry Division were landing in Yokohama, members of a Japanese delegation were offshore aboard the USS Missouri signing Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allied forces.
Still just 18 at the time, Stephens may not have fully comprehended the gravity of that day — that even as his American boots were landing on Japanese soil, the deadliest war in human history was coming to an end.
"We were on our landing barges while they were (aboard ship) signing the peace," he remembered.
"The Cavalry Division was the first to go into Tokyo," he said of his beloved 1st Cav, a unit that had trained him for combat on horseback, a possibility that never materialized on Pacific beachheads and battlefields.
"They called it boots and britches," he said of the baggy jodhpur-style riding breeches and boots he wore in training.
"We gave 'em up when we went overseas," he said.
One duty his unit shouldered during the early months of occupation was to collect all weapons that might still be in the hands of the local population.
"The Japanese were supposed to turn in weapons, and most of them did," he recalled. "We'd go from town to town, making sure the weapons were turned in."
Huge sections of the cities had been reduced to rubble after months of conventional bombing and unconventional firebombing by American and British air forces.
As his stories and memories bubbled up almost at random, Stephens apologized, noting that his memory is not as sharp as it once was. But these memories go back more than three-quarters of a century, making them considerably older than most people.
Stephens believes that commemorating major milestones of the Second World War is not only worthwhile, but should continue to be taught in high school history classes. In fact, the skilled horseman has been invited to local high schools, along with other veterans, to share his experiences with high school students.
Betty Stephens, William's wife of more than 45 years, agrees with her husband.
"I think it's very important," she said of continuing such educational efforts.
Younger generations have little understanding of the sacrifices made during World War I and World War II, Betty Stephens said. She's seen evidence of it in some responses to the coronavirus, noting that too many are more concerned about losing their "rights" than working together as Americans to combat the spread of the virus.
Another Bakersfield resident, Charlie Wilson, may have crossed paths in the Philippines with William Stephens during that long-ago war. But the two didn't meet officially until some years ago when they found themselves seated at the same table at an Honor Flight Kern County breakfast in downtown Bakersfield.
Wilson was an Army Air Force crew radio operator on military cargo planes during the latter part of the war. He helped deliver everything from food stuffs to medicine to thousands serving the war effort.
"I think I delivered more damn toilet paper to the guys out there than anything else," he said, laughing.
Then the New Jersey native got serious.
"I consider Bill a very good friend," he said of Stephens. "We keep in touch as much as we can. We used to meet for breakfast, but now with COVID, we can't even do that."
After the war Stephens would come back to Bakersfield and work for the Kern County Probation Department, where he served 40 years. A short stint as an MP, or military police officer, may have helped set him on that path.
On the wall of his office at home in northeast Bakersfield, a shadow box hangs on the wall, displaying his dog tags, military insignia and medals, including those honoring his service in the South Pacific and the Philippine victory medal, given to him and many others out of gratitude for their unselfish service.
Asked to explain the significance of the items, Stephens cracked a smile.
"We'll start with the most important one," he said. "The Good Conduct Medal."
After the laughter died down, and there was time to reflect, the words didn't seem far-fetched at all.
A life well-lived. A duty well-executed.
"Good conduct" may be an understatement.