By CHELSEY PLETTS
The beach was dark. Naval guns had cleared enemy resistance the night before. The shoreline stood deserted — except for Joseph Steventon and his team.
After a rough 35-hour journey from Milne Bay to a beachhead in Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea, Steventon and his men were dropped in enemy territory unescorted. Steventon was Executive and Technical Officer with the 989th Signal Service Company responsible for establishing communication lines between American forces.
He was only 25 years old.
The seven men set up their tents between the jungle and the sea. Coffee boiled as they checked equipment. Side arms rusted from heavy humidity. The beach was quiet, but silence, ambiguous during wartime, never lasted. A mile of thick jungle distanced the sounds of battle and the men settled in the brief quietude. Only to be roused abruptly by a jolt. The ground rumbled, deer bound from the jungle as an earthquake growled down the coast, propelling man and beast to the sand.
Even before troops combed through Indonesia on their way to the Philippines during World War II, Steventon and his company were two steps ahead of them. His position in the army did not involve blazing guns and flamboyant heroism. His was a job of invisibility and bravery in the name of communication. Forging into unknown territory with minimal equipment and the mission in mind, Steventon and his team set the basis for communication during the war.
Steventon was a talkative boy, and he understood the value of exchanging information even when he was young. His love of technology and communication took off at an early age, when he was fascinated by radios.
In 1930, at age 11, he shadowed his cousin Ace, an announcer and musician for the General Electric radio station WGY in New York. Ace took Steventon to work with him where he mingled with headliners of the day, like blind pianist Alec Templeton. And at 16, Steventon went into work for General Electric in Bridgeport, Conn., as a student engineer in their radio division.
Just four years later, the war in Europe flared up and Uncle Sam called reservists for duty. Steventon, with his Amateur Radio License, became a Morse code operator. He decided to enlist and get a good position before the draft started. In the morning he walked into the enlistment office, and by 1:30 p.m. he was in the Army and on a train bound to Fort Devens in Massachusetts for two weeks of recruitment training.
Army Intelligence chose him for extra duty as an undercover operative to copy messages from enemy submarines. The mission assisted the U.S. Marshalls in the capture of a portion of the spy ring of enemy subs off the Atlantic seaboard. Then, he left port on the “Sea Marlin” and sailed with his crew across the ocean alone, no escort, the first ship to do this since the war began.
Before his passion for radios took hold, Steventon loved music. The Steventons lived in a clapboard farmhouse on Mt. Cushman Road in Rochester. Steventon’s father played the fife. Both father and son played the instruments while marching in town parades. Throughout his lifetime, Steventon stayed in touch with music. He called square dances and polka dances, played fiddle, accordion, trumpet, guitar and piano. Last year, Steventon could be seen playing keyboard at the Peavine Restaurant in Stockbridge on Thursdays. But, said his son Bruce, who lives in Rochester, it was mostly just a chance for him to socialize.
Steventon’s wife Margaret was quiet, unlike Steventon. She often held a serious expression in photographs. Both slight in build, dark hair and standing around five feet six inches, the couple almost look alike, except for Steventon’s Cheshire grin.
After the war, they moved into the Mt. Cushman Road farmhouse in Rochester. It was in poor condition, having been vacant for some years, and only one room was livable. They purchased some chickens, a calf and a tractor. The couple took their two young children to the sugarhouse where the oldest, Joan, played and the infant, Tom, nestled in a drawer of a bureau while they worked. They were busy from sun up to sun down and earned enough to pay the bills and feed their five children. Margaret kept up with the bookkeeping and stretched the budget enough so the family could gas up the car for weekend excursions, often times joining their neighbors, the Gees, for a picnic on Beebe Lake.
In 1969, Steventon was elected to the Legislature while working as a millwright on Saturdays, Sundays and most Mondays at Weyerhaeuser in Rochester. While on lunch break in Montpelier, Steventon played card games with fellow members of the house and liked to go out for fish fries. He took a job as an engineer in 1979 for Omya in Florence, Vermont, and did not retire from the Legislature until 1981. Steventon worked for Omya until he was 80.
Steventon’s son Bruce said his father’s busy schedule wasn’t so much about work as it was about keeping in touch with people. Steventon passed away this spring at 89 years old, staying active in the community and visiting with people until the very end.
Bruce remembered a story Steventon told him about the war. While American soldiers lay asleep in their tents, Steventon saw Japanese soldiers sneak into their camp and steal food. Though they were the enemy, he understood that the emaciated men were desperate to survive, and so he let them take their fill of the rations and leave.
At the most basic level, Steventon understood the language of people and humanity. He was a communicator on every level; through music, radio, storytelling and chitchat, Steventon went to great lengths just to keep people connected.