Snakes to Fame

By Joe Steffen

Teacher, Joe Steffen began his overseas school career in 1958. “I was sent to Poitiers High in France. Dick Coss and John Korslund were the principals there. It was a new school and much was lacking in facilities. So, I took a transfer to Heidelberg High. Al Kyrios and Phil Young were the administrators at the school. I taught Phys Ed, social studies and coached football, basketball and track. In 1962, I was sent to Karlsruhe. Luke Shelton was the principal. Later assignments I went to Japan, Turkey and Italy. I spent 25 years in the DODDS system. I retired in 1985 and settled in California.” He recently took an Honor Flight to visit the WWII memorial in Washington DC. Here is his story about his service in WWII, where he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

 This past summer after a wait of two years, I was given an Honor Flight to visit the war memorials. It was a 3-day visit at no expense to the WW-2 veterans. My son, Kenneth, a Vietnam veteran came along at a very low cost. Ken pushed my wheelchair when we to the rather large Arlington Cemetery.  We had 25 vets in our group, which needed assistance; most of them were 80 + 90s of age. I am 92.

Joseph Steffen and a habu snake.

When I got to the Women’s Memorial, which is dedicated to the Waves, Wacs, and Nurses who served in WWII, somehow, I got separated from the group. Ken met an artist who was working on a painting. Ken showed him a picture of me holding a snake. The artist was impressed. He thought soldiers were killed in War by bombs, bullets and landmines. So, the artist Chris Demarest made a copy of the photo.  So, today, there is a painting of me and the snake on the Honor Wall of the Women’s Memorial. During the battle of Okinawa, 125 soldiers died from snakebites. A serum was not available to counter the poison.

I was a diesel mechanic on a LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) on a three-man crew. I had 3 incidents with snakes in Okinawa. The first wen we went over to Kerma Retto, which was a small island off the southern tip of Okie. This was the location where the Japs had some small fast speedboats. They put explosives in the bow of the craft and then drove it into Navy ships.  There were about 8 speedboats there, and they had Ford and GM motors.  There were a lot of dead Japs in the area.

Letter from the artist

I saw a snake, I didn’t know if it were dead or alive. So I beat it with a stick to make sure it was dead. I put it in a bag and took it to the ship (the USS Vestal). A doctor on the ship heard about it, I gave it to him and a photo was taken by the ship photographer.

The Japs did not have much luck with their speedboats. Navy photo plans discovered their site. A week before the invasion, the US invaded the island destroyed the boats and killed the Japs.

The second incident happened about 2-3 weeks later. The Navy put out a call for divers to work at the dry dock. They needed divers to check over the ship while it was out of the water while it was still in the cradle. So I and 3 other guys went for training with a certified Navy diver. The 4th day of our training a lad went into the water dressed in light diving gear. He went into the water, went down and shortly thereafter, pulled the emergency cord. “Get me out of the water!” He screamed. When he got back topside, he said that there were snakes down there and they were very aggressive. I asked the Petty Officer if he had a serum in case of snakebites. He said “no” so I told him to take my name off the list. I wasn’t going to die because there was no serum. It occurred to me that he was having others do his job, because he didn’t want to get snake bit. What an SOB!

Artist Chris Demarest looks over his artwork on the Military Wall of Honor

The 3rd incident was right before a typhoon was going to hit Okie.  So the Vestal was going out to sea to ride out the Typhoon.  They couldn’t take our LCM (landing craft) aboard the ship. So they gave us some water and K-rations and told us to take shelter in some near-by corner for 2-3 days till the typhoon passed over.

So we went into a cove. We saw a LST and asked if we should tie up to it. The skipper said, okay but check it first.  When we looked, we saw that there were lots of shells and other explosives in it! We said, “no-thanks” and drafted our own anchor.

There was still some fighting going on in the nearby hills. Star shells lit up the sky. I guess there were still stragglers in the area. Later that evening we noticed some lights in the water. So I took the bottle lamp and pointed it into the water.  Lo and behold the water was loaded with snakes and stingrays. I never saw so many snakes. We had some tires on the side of our craft as bumpers. For when we got alongside of a ship. So we pulled up the tires so the snakes couldn’t get into our craft.

We had a bunk bed in our craft—My 2 ship mates slept in the upper bunk; I in the lower. We didn’t get much sleep that night, with the shooting going on and the star shells in the sky. We knew we were far enough out from shore-No one would swim out to get us with all the snakes in the water. We were more worried about the snakes than the shooting guy in the nearby hills!


We spent two nights in the cove and then the Vestal returned. We were so glad; we could now get a hot shower and some warm food.

Later, when I was teaching US history, I learned 125 soldiers died from snakebites in Okinawa. I also learned that the Vestal had 90 “GQs” which meant we had to go to our battle stations during the month of April 1945. The Battle of Okinawa started April 1, 1945 and ended June 15, 1945; however we still had Kamikaze attacks until the war ended on August 15, 1945.


One Comment on “Snakes to Fame”

  1. Virginia Torchia says:

    Enjoyed reading this post as I recogonized a few names….Dick Coss & Al Kyros. Mr. Coss was one of my teachers at Frankfurt High in ’53-’54 and My Kyros had been at Rochefot High. Nice to read about memories from someone of my vintage.

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