He had just turned 14 when the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. Like many Americans, he wanted to “join the fight,” but Joe Neves was too young. The wait seemed like an eternity, but as soon has he turned 17, he convinced his father to sign a “permission slip” so that he could enlist in the Navy.
It was late 1944 when Joe put on the uniform of his country for the first time, and he was ready to go.
“I was sent to an accelerated six-week boot camp in at Sampson Naval Training Station on Seneca Lake in New York,” said Joe, who was excited to finally be doing his part to defend his country. “I was then sent to gunnery school for two months in Oklahoma.”
After joining his first squadron flying in the PB4Y2 Privateer patrol bomber, the Navy’s version of the B-24 bomber, Joe’s unit was sent north to Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
“We spent three very cold months patrolling for Japanese around the Aleutian Islands,” recalled Joe.
By the end of 1945, Joe was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CV-37) as a tail gunner and radioman in an SB2C Helldiver in one of the carrier’s dive bomber squadrons.
A milestone in Joe’s naval career happened in 1946 when he was transferred to world famous Tophatters of Navy Bombing Squadron 4 (VB-4) flying off the USS Tarawa (CV-40). Established in 1919, the legendary Tophatters are the Navy’s oldest active aviation squadron. Today, however, the Tophatters are known as Strike Fighter Squadron 14 (VFA-14) flying the F/A-18 Super Hornet from their home base of Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.
“I never expected that I would join the oldest squadron in the U.S. Navy,” said Joe, who was still only 19 years old at the time. “Wow, I’m in the Tophatters I thought to myself. I was so thrilled.”
Flying again as a tail gunner in a Helldiver, the Tophatters’ post-World War II assignment consisted mainly of flying what Joe called “clean-up” patrols in the western Pacific near Saipan and the Mariana Islands.
“We flew scouting and search missions, patrolling to find submarines,” said Joe, who is currently the oldest living Tophatter. “Even though the war was over, we were still flying out to the Japanese islands to see if there were any troops left over who might still be trying to fight.”
The flying duty was long and tough, but Joe loved being part of the squadron.
“Every pilot in the squadron treated us as one of them,” remembered Joe with a smile. “They were the greatest guys. They really took care of us.”
As the fighting between the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communists continued to escalate in the late 1940s, Joe and the Tophatters found themselves on the periphery of a Chinese civil war. After making a port call in Tsingtao, China in October 1948, the Tarawa’s crew and airwing spent five weeks off the coast of northern China observing the strife enveloping the region.
Whether deployed overseas or back in the States, the nearly three years Joe was with the Tophatters were highlight of his time in the Navy.
“I just have a strong love for that squadron,” said Joe, who left the Navy in 1949. “I spent most of my time in the Navy with the Tophatters, and I’ve never met a greater group than the guys in that squadron. I was so lucky to be a Tophatter.”
After leaving the Navy in 1949, Joe went to work as a machinist and ultimately a design engineer for an aerospace manufacturing company. In 1980, he began a second career as an international trade specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Before retiring in 1997, Joe had the pleasure of meeting five U.S. presidents and many foreign dignitaries.
Although retired, Joe wasn’t ready to hang up his spurs. He felt he still had much to share. In 2004, he found the USS Midway Museum.
“I was visiting the Midway with my family shortly after it had opened,” said Joe. “I was on the flight deck describing some of the planes to my grandson when I noticed, all of a sudden, that there was a big crowd gathered around me listening to what I was saying. My daughter told me I should become a volunteer on the ship.”
Joe did just that and over the last 18 years has accumulated more than 5,800 volunteer hours on Midway as a docent and currently gives talks to museum guests every Tuesday morning about his Navy experience during and shortly after World War II.
For Joe, becoming a Midway volunteer has been a blessing.
“I think becoming a docent has given me long life,” said Joe, who recently celebration his 95th birthday. “Being a volunteer on Midway is the greatest thing I could think of after retiring. I’m alive now and I can say that honestly that I owe it all to the Midway. If there wasn’t a Midway Museum, there may not be a Joe Neves still kicking around today.”