Lying in her bed while in hospice care, Ruby “Ruth” Stephenson’s body may have become weakened by illness, but one can easily discern the bound in vigor that occurs when the veteran described the 14 months she served in the U.S. Navy during World War II—a brief moment of her past that not only allowed her to serve her country, but introduced her to a fellow sailor with whom she would share most of her life. Surrounded by her three children, Stephenson shared stories of the journey that led her to unformed service, events that were supplemented by many recollections of her family.
“Mom had a brother that died in infancy and she was raised as an only child,” said Elaine Cook, Stephenson’s daughter. “She was raised in Fayette (Mo.) and graduated from high school in 1940.”
For nearly two years, Stephenson attended school at Central Methodist University until deciding it was time to “strike it on her own,” the veteran softly whispered.
“The first time she applied (for the Navy), she was told that her eyesight was too poor,” said Romie Stephenson, the youngest of her two sons. “But they later relaxed the standards and she was able to join in 1943.” With a grin, Romie added, “She decided on the Navy because she thought they had the best looking uniform.”
The young recruit was soon on her way to become a member of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES)—an organization established on July 30, 1942 to help fill positions left vacant stateside because of the scores of men deploying overseas to fight in World War II. Her first stop was at the Bronx campus of Hunter College in New York, the location that became the training base for all WAVES by 1943, and where she remained for the next several weeks to finish her boot camp and undergo medical training that would qualify her as a member of the medical corps.
As Stephenson recalled, her first (and only) duty assignment was at a small medical facility at Camp Elliott in San Diego, Calif.—a former Marine Corps and naval site where the first Navajo Code Talkers were trained. (A portion of the site is now situated on the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.)
“She spent about a month working on one of the wards,” said Fred Stephenson, the oldest of her two sons. “Then,” he added, “she spent the rest of her time in the admissions and discharge office.”
While at Camp Elliott, her family shared, the young WAVES member met Frederick Stephenson, Sr.—the man with whom she would fall in love and then marry on April 21, 1944.
“Dad had been in the Navy since the late 1930s and was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked,” said his daughter, Elaine. “After he and mother were married, she became pregnant and had to leave the Navy because at that time women couldn’t be in the service and pregnant.”
Receiving her discharge in October 1944, Stephenson returned to Mid-Missouri, giving birth to her first child, Elaine. A few months later she moved back to California to wait for her husband to finish out his enlistment.
“In California, mom lived in an apartment across the hall from Phyllis Diller—this was back before she became a famous comedian,” said Fred. “They became good friends and Phyllis would babysit Elaine when mom had to go run errands and mom would watch Phyllis’ brood whenver she needed to go do something.”
When Stephenson’s husband was discharged from the Navy on February 10, 1947, the family returned to Fayette, where their second child, Fred Jr., was born months later.
“Dad worked for awhile at a grocery store in Fayette but wanted to become a professional photographer,” said Elaine. “We moved to Houston (Texas) in early 1949 so that he could enroll in the University of Houston’s photography program.”
The couple and their growing family spent the next few years living in housing in Memorial Park dedicated to WWII veterans attending college. While living there, the couple welcomed their third and final child, Romie, in 1953.
“Our dad graduated with his photography degree and worked a few years for Susan’s of Hollywood (in Texas),” said Fred. “He then worked for Southwest Industrial Electronics and stayed with them until his retirement in the early 1970s, after he became partially disabled from a stroke.” Fred added, “Mother was a homemaker for several years and later worked for Sears. She retired from there in 1984.”
After the passing of their father in 2001, Stephenson relocated to Moberly, where she has resided until her recent transfer to the hospice care unit at a local hospital. Reflecting on the stories they have listened to their mother share throughout the years, the WAVES veteran’s children are proud of their mother’s service and continue to find pleasure in helping to share her experiences.
“I personally feel that they aren’t accurately teaching the history of World War II any more,” said Romie, “and people need to understand the sacrifices that others—such as my mother and father—have endured for them.”
His older brother, Fred, added, “And it’s not just about those who fought in the war, but they should also learn about how the entire country was united and everyone on the home front gave something, too … through sacrifices such as rationing.” Pausing, he concluded, “These are stories that need to be preserved and shared so that these lessons are never lost.”
Ruth Stephenson passed away on December 22, 2015 and was laid to rest with her husband in the Houston (Texas) National Cemetery.
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.